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Is Archuleta County Courthouse safe to occupy?

Environmental testing reveals no problem; anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise
Archuleta County has performed several environmental air-quality tests at the Archuleta County Courthouse, but so far, test results are negative for anything dangerous to humans. But officials with the 6th Judicial District and the Sheriff’s Office, both of which work in the courthouse, aren’t so sure of the building’s safety.

A showdown looms in Archuleta County, where judicial and law enforcement employees vacated the courthouse last month for health concerns, but county commissioners say there is no evidence of a health threat.

Commissioners plan to vote today on whether the building is fit for occupation.

“The resolution that I’d be interested in seeing is one that declares the building safe and habitable so we can get back to business for the taxpayers,” Commissioner Michael Whiting said Wednesday.

While commissioners seem intent on passing a resolution declaring the courthouse safe for occupation, judicial staff and Sheriff’s Office employees have expressed reservations about moving back into the building.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Jeffrey Wilson sent a four-page letter Sept. 26 to county commissioners detailing the potential health threat, suggesting hydrogen sulfide seeping from the ground may be to blame for a spate of illnesses, which has included headaches, dizziness, passing out, loss of smell and three deputies admitted to the intensive-care unit.

He asked commissioners to identify a temporary location to house judicial operations, including a clerk’s office, probation office and at least one courtroom. He asked commissioners to respond to his letter by 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6, but as of Tuesday this week, the county had not responded, according to a second letter Wilson sent late Tuesday to county commissioners.

“Because we have not received a response, or any notice that the BOCC (board of county commissioners) wishes for more time to respond, the Judicial Department will begin looking for suitable space immediately,” Wilson wrote. “If Archuleta County would like to participate in the selection of temporary court facilities, please contact Eric Hogue (6th judicial district administrator).”

The judge then informs county commissioners in detail of funds available to offset expenses they may incur for temporary or more permanent facilities.

Wilson did not return a phone call Wednesday seeking comment.

Whiting said all the data from environmental testing suggests the building is safe for occupation. The county drafted a resolution Wednesday outlining those test results. The resolution asks the three commissioners to vote on whether the building is fit for occupancy.

“There is no reason that all portions of the facility cannot be fully occupied with the exception of the already permanently vacated jail/detention facility,” the resolution reads.

If the resolution passes, it would be up to the judicial department and the Sheriff’s Office to decide whether to move back into the courthouse or find alternative facilities. If they chose alternative locations, it would be up to those agencies to pay the cost, Whiting said.

“Those costs would not be born by the local taxpayers,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office is currently housed at an emergency operations center in Archuleta County, which is not costing the county anything extra. Likewise, if the sheriff chose to stay there, it wouldn’t cost the county or Sheriff’s Office anything extra. But if the sheriff chose to lease additional space outside the courthouse, his office would be responsible for those expenses, Whiting said.

Sheriff Rich Valdez did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

“This is an emotionally charged issue, but our job is to stay frosty and determine whether or not the building is safe and get people back to work,” Whiting said. “If we found a problem in the building, we would fix that problem and move forward. When the science says there are no problems with the building, it would be weird to mitigate for problems that don’t exist.”

Judge Wilson ordered court and probation offices closed Sept. 7 in Archuleta County based on “credible, but not yet scientifically confirmed evidence of noxious substances” within the courthouse. All courthouse proceedings were moved 60 miles west to the La Plata County Courthouse in Durango, where they remained this week.

Since abandoning the Archuleta County Courthouse, the county and the judicial department have both contracted for air-quality testing in the building. Neither found measurable levels of hydrogen sulfide, but one of the contractors was able to smell sulfur in the court’s hearing room and in the Sheriff’s Office, Wilson wrote in his Sept. 26 letter.

Noxious gases such as hydrogen sulfide are not expelled from beneath the ground at a steady rate. Instead, the earth “burps” the gases at random intervals at varying concentrations. For that reason, a single day or two days of testing is not conclusive, Wilson wrote.

He went on to provide a detailed history of health-related incidents at the courthouse and an assessment that hydrogen sulfide might be the culprit. Hydrogen sulfide is a potentially poisonous gas that can cause passing out, kidney damage, and, at a high enough concentration, fatalities.

Wilson provided compelling evidence – some anecdotal, some scientific – detailing the problem, including:

During the last few years, deputies, jurors and judicial employees have complained of headaches, eye irritation, sinus issues, coughing and fatigue after working in the courthouse.The Pagosa Fire Protection District detected hydrogen sulfide in the jail and control room on Oct. 29, 2016, but it was unable to locate the source of the gas. The fire department recommended removal of all prisoners and jail deputies.The fire department performed tests again Oct. 31, 2016, and again detected hydrogen sulfide. The fire department recommended Archuleta County shut down a geothermal well and equip the building with hydrogen sulfide monitors, which was never done.This year, two Archuleta County Sheriff’s deputies passed out inside the building, and three deputies were admitted to intensive-care units at hospitals.During testing last month, a contractor and accompanying judicial personnel suffered from light headaches and dizziness while at the jail.Sheriff Valdez and Undersheriff Tonya Hamilton had their blood tested Sept. 25 for carbon-monoxide levels. Both had above-normal levels, but after two trips into the building for a total time of about one hour, the carbon monoxide levels in their blood doubled.Whiting acknowledges people have suffered illnesses, but he said four scientific analysis have all come back clean.

“Cause and effect is a pretty important principle here,” he said.


Judge Wilson's letter (PDF)

Judge Wilson's second letter (PDF)

Archuleta County resolution (PDF)

What’s next

Archuleta County commissioners are scheduled to meet at 8:30 a.m. today to consider a resolution deeming the courthouse safe for occupation.

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