July 3-9, 2003

Questa health assessment goes back to the drawing board

By William Maxwell, The Taos News

Marsha Reddell works in the garden of her home next to Molycorp tailings pipes that carry mine sludge to the ponds west of Questa. Reddell said pipe leaks have made her fear for her health.

How do you put together a public health assessment for a town without speaking to any of the town's residents about their health problems?

That is what Questa residents and local activists asked the federal agency responsible for assessing the possible health effects of the Molycorp molybdenum mine, after the agency did just that.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) announced at a public meeting in Questa June 25 that they will throw out their preliminary public health assessment, completed Nov. 13, and start from scratch.

"We agree that we needed to work more with the community to understand better what data are available," Leslie Campbell, senior environmental health scientist with the ATSDR, told about 75 Questa residents, journalists, government officials and Molycorp employees.

The ATSDR is responsible for providing public health assessments to the Environmental Protection Agency for sites considered prime candidates for the agency's Superfund list of the country's most polluted industrial sites, of which the Molycorp mine is one.

Questa craftsman Roberto Vigil holds a cracked drinking water pipe joint he said he found at the beginning of the pipe leading to his house. He said the pipe was buried in a layer of mine tailings, as a significant part of the Questa water system is, according to Vigil.

In the draft report, the agency concluded: "Based on environmental data available to ATSDR, the site is classified as no apparent public health hazard associated with current or future exposures to mining-related contaminants."

The agency based this conclusion on information supplied by Molycorp and state and federal government agencies, but did not consult local residents. Nor did they contact local residents to give them a chance to comment on the draft report.

"When the original draft was written, we had lost part of the list (of local contacts) during an agency move," ATSDR staffer Debra Joseph explained at the public meeting. "We now have the list and are adding to the list. Our goal is to get community input."

The draft report explained that state officials found no health risks from elevated heavy metals levels in the community water supply; no evidence of mining-related contamination was found.

The report stated Molycorp is conducting its own assessment of the mine's health effects.

Questa residents took agency officials to task for not initially contacting the local population.

"It seems logical that you would contact the public not two-and-a-half years later, but when you are doing the public health assessment," Juan Montes said. "Take the public first, not the politicians first, not the corporations first."

Montes cited "Inconclusive by Design," a 1992 report by the Environmental Health Network National Toxics Campaign Fund, which criticized federal agencies' handling of environmental health research.

"One of the most heinous and pervasive defects of the health assessments program has been the lack of ATSDR contact with local residents," the authors wrote in that report.

Residents disagreed with the claim there is no evidence the mine has had an effect on the community water supply.

William Maxwell
Questa resident Juan Móntez compared bottled water with what he said was mine tailings-laden water (right) from the Red River at the hearing Wednesday (June 25).

"We showed you information where there have been breaks in lines and places backfilled with tailings," Karen Douglas said.

"I can have a cube of ice of Questa water and I lose the mucous lining in my large intestine," said Peggy Cross. "There's definitely a health problem, and it's really, really, really a problem."

Mark Purcell, who helps oversee the Molycorp case at the EPA, took issue with Cross' claim. "We have no data that there is a problem with the municipal water supply," he said.

Molycorp union local president Joseph Rael said the residents' claims could hurt Molycorp workers. "We are concerned citizens ourselves. Don't single us out," he said.

Molycorp geotechnical assistant Megan Jackson questioned whether local health problems are statistically significant and can be blamed on the mine.

"Have any comparisons of Questa with other towns with similar ethnic, economic and geological settings been done?" she asked the ATSDR staffers. They said they did not know.

In a presentation and tour earlier that day, Molycorp employees told the ATSDR representatives about steps Molycorp is taking, including revegetating tailings piles and conducting its own investigation of the mine's health and environmental effects.

ATSDR staffers, seeking to make good on their lapse, spent the evening of June 25 and part of June 26 speaking one-on-one with residents who believe their health problems are caused by the mine.

Rachel Conn with Amigos Bravos, a river advocacy organization that has worked for years on Molycorp environmental issues, said she was pleased the agency decided to withdraw the report.

ATSDR spokeswoman Elaine McEachern said it is not clear when the new draft report will be released, but local residents will be notified so they can comment.

© 2003, The Taos News. Reprinted with permission.

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