DON'T SPREAD ON ME

THE SLUDGE HAS HIT THE FAN IN POLITICALLY CORRECT BOULDER.

"I spent ten years on the road and in a tepee," adds Biddison. "I have no apology to make for wanting to raise my kids in a decent house."

Her foes in Boulder city government, complains Debbie Quackenbush, "love to stick the label of the rich California bitch on me." The truth, she says, is that she moved out of California to get away from development. Quackenbush came to Colorado a year and a half ago, after General Dynamics slated her engineer husband for a transfer to Tucson and he balked. "We gave up absolutely everything to come here," she says, including a modest real estate empire that consisted of a number of rental houses and small apartment buildings.

The road to California prosperity was no day at the beach, however: Quackenbush and her husband started their real estate business eighteen years ago with a trashed duplex in a run-down neighborhood. They did their own maintenance from the beginning, she says: "I spent eighteen years cleaning other people's toilets."

The Quackenbushes knew what they wanted to do with their hard-won capital when they happened on Somerset's mountain views. "I thought it was the pinnacle of God's country," Quackenbush says of the area, noting, "The developer's done a tremendous job. He's thought of everything--he's put in waterfalls."

Two months after closing on a parcel of that heavenly acreage, Quackenbush caught wind of what Boulder was up to across the way. It cast a pall over her dream house. "I don't have the same feeling about it anymore," she says of the new home, which she and Garret work on when they're not busy with their new business, a company that designs and markets computer software for real estate agents.

One of Quackenbush's first discoveries when she began investigating the sewage issue was an August 22, 1994, letter sent by one of the managers of the city's biosolids program to the state health department. At the same time officials were assuring irate citizens that all they wanted was 1,600 acres and the benefit of the doubt, Paul Heppler's letter to the state explained that Boulder wanted to acquire 2,560 acres--and to install a pipeline from the treatment plant to a million-gallon storage tank on Gunbarrel Hill.

City utilities director Ned Williams says the letter's vision of a massive sewage-disposal system was "just an idea" that hadn't matured beyond the discussion stage when Heppler wrote the letter. Mayor Durgin writes off the pipeline concept as "a long-term possibility down the road." It would have to be approved by the council in any case, she says, and "I absolutely guarantee this council would turn that down."

The city's short history with critics of its sludge program has been marked by other embarrassing miscalculations by staff. In an effort to win over opponents last October, the city conducted demonstrations of biosolids applications. "They were so stupid they took us to a site where their permit had expired, and they had dumped on a slope that was two and a half times steeper than allowed," says Quackenbush. Neither was she favorably impressed by the smell of the product. "It was horrendous," she says.

Phil Hegeman, who administers the state health department's biosolids regulatory program, acknowledges that Boulder was put on notice for those violations. Overall, however, he says he's found Boulder's program to be "pretty good." Hegeman terms the smell of Boulder sludge "not particularly offensive," adding that he witnessed a massive application by another city that gave off ammonia fumes as it dried. "That was the worst I've smelled," he says.

The Gunbarrel Hill controversy reminds Hegeman of a 1992 backlash in Kiowa County. Farmers there were allowing sludge from New York City to be applied to their fields until public opinion swung against them. Among other concerns, residents questioned whether crops grown using the sludge would be safe to eat. (State and federal health officials say there's no evidence of any danger). Growers in neighboring Prowers County wasted no time stepping up to take the sludge Kiowa rejected, he recalls.

At the time, Hegeman was quoted as saying that soil containing sludge was safe enough to be eaten. He stands by that statement. Although sludge can contain live disease organisms, he says, the dryness of the air and intensity of the sunlight in Colorado tends to kill such pathogens within a matter of hours when the material is sprayed on the top of soil, or within days when it is plowed into the soil, as the city of Boulder usually does immediately after application to minimize odor.

"As long as the product is applied according to state and EPA regulations and the proper time restrictions are maintained on public access to the site, EPA risk-assessment numbers show you could eat the soil and not get sick," Hegeman says. The health department official also points to a study of Ohio farm families who used sludge to fertilize their land in the 1980s. That study found no ill effects from living in close proximity to application areas, he says.

But Hegeman's reassuring words don't impress Dave Turunjian, who owns an egg farm and eighty acres of farmland near 95th Street and Mineral Road. Turunjian used to allow Boulder to apply biosolids to his fields, which he was leasing to another farmer, and says he'll never do it again. "It stinks really bad," he says. Worse than the stench, he says, was the city's failure to inform him of the product's hazards. Health regulations restrict public access to land applied with sludge for thirty days. Though an exception is written in for farmers, Turunjian feels he should have been apprised of the risks and regulations.

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