By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
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By Melanie Asmar
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By Michael Roberts
It was last September when Debbie Quackenbush asked a person on the staff of Boulder's wastewater treatment plant whether it was true that the city was dumping sewage not far from the dream house she and her husband were building in Somerset, a high-end development in Niwot just east of the Boulder city limits. Please, she was told, it's not sewage; the correct term is biosolids. And yes, the city has been applying biosolids to private farmland in the Gunbarrel Hill area for nearly ten years. It's great fertilizer. Quite safe. Well, we wouldn't tell you to put it on your tomato plants, health regulations being what they are.
Now spring snow is melting into the furrows along the swelling and dipping contours of Gunbarrel Hill, and the red flag raised by the city worker's answers to her questions is still flying for Debbie Quackenbush and hundreds of other residents of the Gunbarrel and Niwot area. The property owners, many of them recent arrivals from out of state, find themselves battling famously liberal Boulder in a faceoff over property rights, political correctness and, above all, tons and tons of human excrement.
The city, backed by environmental groups who say Boulder should keep its waste in its own backyard, claims it's doing the responsible thing with its sewage. But opponents like Quackenbush say the P.C. forces that dominate Boulder politics are using the city's sludge as part of a cynical ploy to punish newly arrived residents and real estate developers who they blame for the Californization of their community.
Approximately 5,000 people live within a mile of the farm fields the city wants to purchase for its "biosolids recycling" program, a project that uses waste produced by city residents to fertilize cropland. The proposed site, which covers approximately two square miles, lies outside the Boulder city limits, as do the homes of most of those living nearby. Under the new expansion plan, the city will buy a swath of farmland and contract with a farmer to grow winter wheat and corn, feeding the crops with human manure. Once in place, the sludge fields would likely serve as an impediment to residential development.
Not only does the city's biosolids program pose a possible health hazard, say those who oppose the plan, it will turn a scenic expanse of prime agricultural land into a foul-smelling nuisance and drive down property values in surrounding subdivisions. Residents worry about runoff washing the material--a brown liquid that's plowed into the ground--onto their streets and yards. They wonder about 100-mile-per-hour winds gusting live pathogens into their lungs. And they've ransacked scientific journals, meteorological records and federal, state and county statutes to back up their claims. "Threaten to throw sludge into my life, and you'll get a reaction out of me," says Debbie Quackenbush.
Quackenbush and her husband, Garret, along with a dozen other property owners, have reacted by forming the group Neighborhoods Opposing Biosolids, or NO BS. The organization has the support of twenty homeowners' associations and more than 3,000 residents who signed petitions against the project, Quackenbush says.
Many homeowners have moved to subdivisions in the area in the last few years, unaware of what the city was doing on the scenic spreads worked by their farming neighbors, says Mark Biddison, a Niwot resident and attorney for NO BS. "People had no idea what they were buying into," he says. "It was just a nice place with a view."
But the new arrivals get little sympathy in Boulder, where many people resent increased traffic and rising housing costs and tend to lay the blame at the front doors of moneyed California immigrants who have flocked to developments mushrooming on the outskirts of the city. "I looked over the hill and saw San Diego," one city council member recently said of the Gunbarrel Hill area.
Sludge opponents argue that where they're from isn't the issue. "I think there are better things to do with land than cover it with shit," says Mark Biddison. Adds Gene Copeland, a management consultant and resident of a gated high-end subdivision near 95th Street and Lookout Road called Lookout Ridge, "I'm philosophically opposed to human excrement being laid down in liquid form virtually in my backyard. I love open space, but I'd rather look across the street and see houses than a field that's been fenced off, posted with warning signs and made into a sewage dump."
Generally, people who can afford luxury homes in exclusive suburban developments have difficulty casting themselves as an oppressed minority. But the City of Boulder has been a great help on that front to Quackenbush and her deck-chair dissidents. Repeatedly, city officials underestimated the determination of people opposed to the idea of turning whole sections of land within view of their backyards into a disposal site for sewage byproducts.
City officials admit they were caught off-guard last fall by an avalanche of opposition that rolled down from Somerset to more modest neighborhoods in Gunbarrel, Niwot and Heatherwood. Boulder staffers found themselves buckshot with angry inquiries from people whose homes would be mistaken for garages in Somerset--and even from a few farmers who in the past had permitted biosolids application to their land. According to residents, staff people didn't seem to take them seriously enough to thoroughly prepare for public meetings, where city workers often gave answers that suggested that only ignorant or hysterical people would think up such questions.