By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
The city staff had reason to believe Boulder's sludge program was a popular cause. The concept has been praised by the Sierra Club's 5,000-member Boulder chapter as sound and responsible, and the city won statewide awards for its sludge-management program as recently as two years ago. Boulder's wastewater utility division has been applying treated sludge to farm fields on the upswell of Gunbarrel Hill since 1986. There has been only one complaint in that time, and that was about the odor, an aroma that, like some redolent locker rooms, inspires reactions ranging from breath-gulping revulsion to indifference.
But an October public meeting with city staff members at a church near the proposed site drew a crowd of 600 people. The questions were angry and accusatory, and the city contingent seemed intimidated, says one man who attended, adding, "I don't blame them." After a two-hour grilling, the staffers announced that the agreed-upon time period for the meeting had expired and that they were leaving, even though there were still people waiting to address them.
Soon after that October meeting, the city suspended sludge-spreading on Gunbarrel Hill to re-evaluate its proposal and mull several alternatives. But on February 7, after hearing from staff that Gunbarrel Hill's large, close site and modest slopes remained the most favorable option, the council voted to end the moratorium and proceed with plans to acquire land there for an application site, though on a lesser scale. Targeted acreage was reduced from 2,560 to a maximum of 1,400. The council excluded land lying within a half mile of Somerset, the luxury-home development where the most vocal opponents of the program own property. Also, a buffer of 500 feet was approved for land across Lookout Road from the Lookout Ridge development.
But the city's actions only refueled the anger of Debbie Quackenbush, who says it disregarded cheaper and equally viable alternatives such as trucking the waste to private farms. "They slam-dunked us like they did six months ago," she says. "They just held our hand while they did it."
Quackenbush says her group won't back off until the city kills its land-purchase plan altogether. Two law firms have been retained, financed by donations from NO BS members. "Initially, I wanted to support the city and quiet things down out here, because I didn't want to see property values affected," says Quackenbush. "It was only when the city wouldn't answer my questions that I became suspicious. And many, many inconsistencies between what they told us and what they're really doing have led us to have no faith and no trust in anything they say."
Putting treated sewage on open land is considered a state-of-the-art approach in the growing field of sludge disposal. Wastewater professionals say it's an environmentally correct method of recycling material that in the past was trucked to landfills or simply incinerated. And while most biosolids are applied at private farms, which often pay for the privilege, more cities and towns in Colorado are buying their own sites, where disposal can proceed free from encroaching development or the uncertain plans of individual farmers.
There is an environmental downside to the practice: a buildup of heavy metals in the soil. Municipal sludge invariably contains lead, copper and arsenic as a result of leaching from plumbing fixtures, as well as effluent from industrial sources. But with careful monitoring of metal accumulation, a site can be safely used for 75 to 100 years, say some researchers.
Brian Andreja, a Gunbarrel resident who chairs the toxics committee of the Sierra Club's Boulder chapter, says his group is convinced that the treated farmland on Gunbarrel Hill will be no more hazardous over the course of a century than the dirt along Colorado roadways, which he says accumulate lead and other metals from exposure to automotive exhaust. Use of local farmland is the best option for the city, says Andreja, especially in light of potential hazards posed by other means of disposal such as incineration. It also appeals to him as responsible politics. "It's better to deal with the sewage we produce close to home than send it off to some other less affluent, sparsely populated community to deal with," says Andreja.
But Mark Biddison, the NO BS attorney, calls Andreja's reasoning "a spurious argument. If you send sludge to a remote enough area," he notes, "it won't end up in anybody's backyard."
At first glance, Biddison would seem to fit the stereotype of a Boulder liberal. An anti-Vietnam War activist as a California college student, Biddison describes himself in his younger days as "a pretty radical guy" who sported a ZZ Top beard and tried to emulate the "Jack Kerouac, On the Road literary thing." It was local Kerouac festivals that introduced Biddison to Boulder in the 1970s while he was working as a truck driver. He gave up that life to get a law degree--not to make a killing as a hired gun, he insists, but to "position myself to do some social good."
Biddison came to specialize in helping computer firms with contract difficulties; he moved his family to the Boulder area from Sacramento five years ago. Describing himself as a "traditional conservative with an environmental conscience," he now is an active member of The Vineyard Christian Fellowship, a 2,000-member congregation at 79th Street and Lookout Road that includes former CU football coach Bill McCartney and his PromiseKeepers colleague Randy Phillips.