Concerns about toxins in the SLV environment have existed for quite some time. In 1988, high levels of arsenic were found in the Alamosa city water system, and since that time, EPA has mandated that the city build water treatment facilities to address the problem. This mandate addresses the problem only for those who are on the city water system, and not the thirty percent of Valley residents who rely on private/household wells to supply their water. Arsenic is not the only concern. The Alamosa River, in Conejos County, contains arsenic, cyanide, copper, cadmium, manganese and other minerals that leach into the river from the Summitville Mine and create acid mine drainage. The mine was declared an EPA Superfund site in 1992. Historic mining and logging along both mountain ranges have affected water quality in the entire Valley. Battle Mountain Gold once operated in Costilla County; there was gold mining in the area of Bonanza in Saguache County, and silver mining above Creede in Mineral County. All of these mine sites may be potential sources of ground and surface water pollutants.
Another potential source of toxic waste that has received virtually no attention is located at or near the perlite-processing center in Antonito, CO. We have been contacted by former workers at the facility who have concerns about the chemicals they were exposed to while working at the mine. There may be chemicals buried on plant property that are leaching into the water supply, as there have been cases of pancreatic cancer in a relatively small area, and the area in question also feeds into the Rio Grande. This case needs much more study.
Additionally, the large agricultural community has been applying herbicides, fertilizers, and some pesticides since the 1950’s. Concerns about these nitrates and nitrites are mounting, especially in light of the drought that has been experienced in the southwest in the last several years. The quality of well water is now being especially compromised because the Valley aquifer has lost over one million-acre feet in a five year period. Toxins in the water are becoming more concentrated. As topsoil becomes drier, some of those toxins may become airborne in the prevailing winds.
Health professionals have expressed concerns about these environmental problems, as well as the problem of possible bacterial contamination in private well water. Some of the wells used by families in the Valley are quite old, can be very shallow, and are often uncovered, allowing debris, snakes, or other contaminants to get into the water system. Our own testing, conducted in 2009, uncovered several areas of high arsenic, cadmium, nitrates, sodium and excessive salts or dissolved solids. All of these are causes for potential health problems.
Air quality is another concern. Currently, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has two air quality monitoring stations in the SLV. At present, the only test being conducted is for particulates. Health and environmental professionals have expressed concern over air quality issues. At night during the winter months, the high mountain peaks create an air inversion, trapping cold air at the lowest elevations (roughly along the Rio Grande corridor, where the highest concentrations of people live). Because of the economic disadvantages of the Valley, many people heat their homes with wood. Data collected by retired Adams State College science professor Ted Mueller found that air quality on some cold winter nights is worse than in metropolitan Denver and could cause respiratory problems for those with asthma or other health conditions, as well as posing serious risks to children and the elderly. Additionally, some Valley residents have experienced ―farmer’s lung,‖ an allergic disease usually caused by breathing in the dust from moldy hay. A recent study shows that exposure to organochlorines and carbonate pesticides may also be risk factors for farmer's lung.
Another air quality concern is associated with the strong winds experienced in the Valley, generally from the southwest. Regional fires can cause severe visibility problems, as dust and particulates rush into the Valley and are trapped by the tall mountain peaks. The Los Alamos National Laboratory fire of 2002 in northern New Mexico was one example of this phenomenon. There is concern that other airborne particles could also affect the health and well being of Valley residents, including those from the coal-fired power plants in the Four Corners region. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has posted signs at Sanchez Reservoir warning that fish have unacceptable levels of mercury for consumption. A possible source of the contamination is from winds from the coal-fired power plants in the southwest corner of the state. The Bureau of Reclamation did a study on aquatic species in the 1980’s, and found high levels of mercury. Because this is located in a very poor area, many local residents supplement their diets with fish from the reservoir. Local chemist Evelyn Vigil has expressed concern about the connection between mercury ingestion and the high incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease in the area.
The Resource Management Specialist (Fred Bunch) at Great Sand Dunes National Park has voiced concerns about nitrogen in high mountain lakes, which are a direct reflection of nitrogen applications occurring on the Valley floor. This situation has been documented at the Rocky Mountain National Park in northern Colorado.
Indoor air quality has received little attention in the SLV, despite the fact that the entire state of Colorado is an EPA Class I (meaning highest) risk area for radon. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the world, and is a substantial problem in front-range communities. The CDPHE has very little data for the SLV, where extensive testing needs to be done to assess the risk. The CARE funding would not be used for testing, but rather for education about the potential problems. We would look for other sources of funding, both public and private, to do more testing.
Health professionals interviewed in the six-county area reported that they see higher-than-state-average incidents of allergies, thyroid conditions, diabetes, skin problems, sinus disease, pulmonary problems, arthritis, chemical sensitivities, autoimmune diseases (particularly lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia), and certain types of cancers. The Minnesota Department of Health has found that arsenic has been linked to nervous system affects, diabetes, and several circulatory diseases. Studies have also linked long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water to increased risk of cancer in the bladder, liver, lungs, and other organs (Minnesota Department of Health, www.health.state.mn.us). As yet, there have not been sufficient studies to determine whether these health issues are related to air and water quality in the San Luis Valley. Kathy James, of the Rocky Mountain Prevention Center, working in collaboration with CDPHE, is about to release the findings of a multi-year study showing a strong correlation between chronic heart disease and arsenic in drinking water.
Economically disadvantaged and underserved communities are particularly vulnerable to health problems associated with poor air- and water- quality. When problems are found in household wells, they are unable to seek solutions, such as new well drilling or water filtering systems because of economic constraints and lack of access to good information. The goal of this Project is to enable Valley residents and communities to find and identify health and environmental problems and understand their interrelationship. A long-range goal of the Project is to provide education and assistance to those individuals and businesses that wish to implement best management practices, and to identify and minimize sources of environmental pollutants. We would also work in conjunction with EPA Voluntary Programs, such as Burn Wise, Water Sense, Radon Risk Reduction and Pesticide Environmental Stewardship. This could include looking for funding for replacing old wood burning stoves, installing filters or reverse osmosis systems on private wells, or providing radon mitigation or training. We will work with public health nurses to satisfy their mandated criteria (Colorado Public Health Act of 2008) and work towards the development of their own environmental health departments, which will sustain these programs in the coming decade.