State officials may well be doing all that is needed to ensure Red Arrow mine poses no risk to public health or that of its immediate neighbors. They may also be doing all they can. They need, however, also to be seen to be doing what is needed. Those living near to the illegal mine have legitimate concerns and deserve full, complete and timely answers. This is not an occasion where bureaucratic speed is sufficient.
For starters, they could explain exactly how things got to this point. The Red Arrow mine, about nine miles northeast of Mancos, also involves a milling operation just outside the town limits. Neither are safe, legal or acceptable.
The Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety closed the mine in June. Its operator has since been fined $335,000 for six violations, among them the charge of operating a mine without a permit. Given the hazard his operations potentially pose for Montezuma and La Plata counties, however, it is legitimate to ask why criminal charges are not involved as well.
In fact, a Hesperus resident asked just that last Monday when representatives of the division presented an update on the situation to Mancos town officials. His thought was that beyond mine-safety concerns, the Colorado Bureau of Investigations or the FBI should be brought in to look into what criminality might also be involved. After all, it is already understood that operating the mine, itself, was illegal.
Beyond that, though, the milling operation included extraordinarily dangerous chemicals. At Monday’s meeting, one official with the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety said a certified Environmental Protection Agency lab has confirmed that samples taken from the site contained mercury and arsenic. An estimated 1,300 cubic yards of solid materials and 2,500 gallons of liquid are contaminated and will have to be appropriately disposed of.
Nonetheless, a mine-safety official was clear that there is no danger. “We’re sure there are no public-safety concerns for Mancos,” he said.
He should understand, however, that simple reassurances are not enough. One person at the meeting expressed a common, and all too often valid concern in such circumstances, saying, “We’re not getting the whole picture. Don’t underestimate how dangerous this is.”
That sentiment is eminently understandable given what is known about Red Arrow. In particular, it is hard to fathom how officials can flatly say there is no threat to public health when it is acknowledged that contaminated mill tailings sit a mere 6 feet above groundwater.
Then, too, there is the answer a Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety environmental specialist gave when asked if the milling operation would have been allowed had its operator applied for a permit.
“It would not be approved,” she said. “Using mercury in the milling process is how Third World countries do it, not in this country.”
That is no doubt accurate, but hardly comforting.
Part of what is at issue is the availability of resources. Photos of the Red Arrow operation shown at the Sept. 30 presentation included shots of a rudimentary ventilation system meant to catch mercury vapor. Cobbled together out of a large metal bucket and plumbing, the apparatus inspired one viewer to refer to it as a “Mickey Mouse turned upside down vent hood” and to say: “We need funding for health assessments.”
That might be tough in the current economic and political climate. State officials should nonetheless take such requests as a gauge of public concern and demonstrate a commensurate level of commitment. Residents’ worries about mercury and arsenic need to be addressed with action, not just words.