September 16 - 22, 2004
By Bobby Magill
The Taos News
|The Molycorp tailings ponds form the most dominant feature above Questa as seen from Cabresto Peak. Molycorp critics say the company doesn't solicit enough public comment about its activities in the area.|
QUESTA — Contaminants released from the Molycorp mine in the 1970s through the 1990s could still be hazardous to your health, and officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are coming to Questa to prove it.
Though the Molycorp mine itself may not present a public health risk today, it has in the past and it could again if Molycorp doesn’t keep its contaminants in check, says a CDC public hea lth assessment of the Questa area released Thursday (Sept. 8).
Past exposure to contaminants in some private wells and the mine tailings dust could have caused health problems, but there is no evidence that current levels of contaminants pose health problems, according to the report compiled by The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, an arm of the CDC.
CDC officials will hold a public meeting to discuss their findings at 6 p.m. Wednesday (Sept. 22) at St. Anthony’s Parish in Questa.
Some private wells that may have been used for drinking water in the past were found to have high levels of arsenic, cadmium, iron, magnesium, manganese and other contaminants. These wells are hazardous only if people drink from them regularly, the report says.
Rachel Powell, ATSDR media officer, said the agency doesn’t keep data on which wells were tested. That responsibility falls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she said.
EPA Molycorp Remediation Project Manager Mark Purcell said Monday (Sept. 13) the ATSDR relied mostly on historical data collected over the last 30 years when determining the toxicity of private wells. The EPA did not test any wells near the tailings facility, only several private wells along State Road 38 in Red River Canyon near Cabin Springs, including the Douglas well.
But that information was not included in the report.
“Without knowing which wells they looked at, it’s difficult to evaluate their conclusion,” said Anne Wagner, Molycorp environmental and health services manager, adding that the ATSDR’s contamination findings is “conservative.”
“They erred on the side of caution, but they assumed that if they had a well sample, it could have been used for drinking water,” Wagner said.
The report says that, though people aren’t thought to be drinking from the wells today, the private wells have not been abandoned and could still be used for drinking water.
Then there’s the matter of tailings dust, which the report says is not thought to have had serious health impacts in the past, but intermittent high dust levels over the last 30 years could have caused respiratory and eye irritation.
“Recent studies indicate that adverse health effects are unlikely today,” says the report. Unlikely, but not impossible: “Dust is still occasionally reported, especially on windy days.”
Molycorp conducted those studies between February 2003 and February 2004, says the report, adding that local soils may have contributed more to air pollution than the tailings.
Roberto Vigil, an Amigos Bravos board member and Río Colorado Reclamation Committee president, criticized the findings because the federal agencies are relying on Molycorp’s data.
“We still get horrible dust storms in Questa,” he said, adding that it’s hard to believe Questeños have not been harmed by potentially contaminated groundwater and tailings dust.
But despite that, the CDC believes Molycorp presents no immediate health risk if proper precautions are taken, the ATSDR categorized the area as a future public health hazard.
“Without actions and regulations to protect the public from contaminants and physical hazards at the site, the potential for adverse health effects remains,” the report says.
It warns against Molycorp discontinuing dust control measures, resuming drinking from contaminated well water and failing to address Goat Hill North rock pile stability issues, which “could all adversely affect public health.”
“I’m glad we got some results that support what the community has been saying all along,” said Amigos Bravos Executive Director Brian Shields. “I feel vindicated.”
The ATSDR also urges the village of Questa to replace water lines that are buried in mine tailings.
The agency is taking public comment on the report, available at Questa Village Hall, until Oct. 22 by phone at 888-422-8737 or by mail at ATSR, ATTN: Chief of Program Evaluation, Records and Information Services Branch, E-60, 1600 Clifton Road, N.E., Atlanta, GA 30333.