Mercury spills

The contamination of a series of Durango buildings with spilled mercury was a bizarre episode. Questions still abound as to why anyone would carry around a quantity of the stuff, let alone apparently treat it so cavalierly. What its intended use might have been is equally intriguing.

What is clear is that the response was a textbook example of inter-agency cooperation, efficiency and focus. This is how government is supposed to work. And for that no one deserves more credit than Durango Fire Marshal Karola Hanks.

According to an affidavit signed by a Durango Police Department investigator, two witnesses saw Daniel Lee Plummer go into the Manna Soup Kitchen on Nov. 27 with a glass jar containing mercury in his backpack. When he dropped the backpack, the jar broke and a small amount of mercury was spilled. Two men said they told him mercury was dangerous, but he ignored them and tried to clean it up himself by putting the mercury in plastic containers.

Over the next 24 hours, Plummer reportedly visited the Durango Transit Center, the Post Office, south City Market, Town Plaza Coin Laundry, Durango Public Library and the Volunteers of America community shelter. Mercury levels at City Market tested negligible; all the other locations were closed until decontamination could be completed.

On Nov. 28, Plummer asked to be taken to Detox of La Plata County. When mercury was found there and then at the other public places, he was taken to jail.

Detox was the most contaminated site. In urban areas, airborne concentrations of mercury can be between 10 and 20 nanograms per cubic meter. (A nanogram is one billionth of a gram.) Testing at the Detox facility showed 25,000 to 30,000 nanograms per cubic meter, a level said to be extremely dangerous.

It is not illegal to possess mercury, and Plummer is said to have acquired his lawfully. Putting others at risk, however, is another matter. The DPD affidavit said there was probable cause to arrest Plummer on suspicion of reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor, and criminal mischief, a Class 3 felony. He was released on a $1,500 personal recognizance bond and is slated to appear before 6th Judicial District Judge Jeffrey Wilson on Dec. 19.

The reason this is all taken so seriously is that mercury is not only dangerous, especially to children, but insidious. Its vapors are toxic, but the damage is not immediately apparent.

As Hanks said, “It’s not something you are exposed to and then develop symptoms immediately. They are long term, with things like tremors, neuromuscular issues and some cognitive function challenges.” Mercury can also damage hearing, vision, speech, coordination, the brain, kidneys and lungs.

With that understanding, the authorities acted quickly to remedy the situation. On the local level, that included the Durango Police as well as Durango Fire & Rescue Authority. In addition, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency team from Denver and a restoration team from Salt Lake City did repeated evaluations and began the actual cleanup the very day after the contamination was discovered.

Besides the police, the legal side involved the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s office and county court. District court is Plummer’s next stop.

Hanks was central to the multi-jurisdictional investigation and acted as its spokeswoman. Throughout the entire affair she provided the public with clear, timely and accurate information. She stressed the importance of taking the spills seriously while calmly – and, as it turns out, quite correctly – reassuring the public that the situation was well in hand.

All concerned deserve credit, with a particular nod to Hanks and the DPD. Well done.

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