Going to Ground

A private investigator tracks a toxic trail through Arvada.

Three weeks ago an unlikely group of lawyers, representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency and a private investigator met with prosecutors from the Colorado Attorney General's office. The purpose of the gathering was to decide whether it was worthwhile, or even possible, to bring criminal charges of polluting against a mid-sized Arvada chemical company.

For the past five months, Thoro Products Co., which manufactures household cleaners and other common chemical agents, has been at the center of a whirl of activity--scientific testing, legal maneuvering, pound-the-pavement sleuthing--set in motion when Thoro's neighbor learned that a toxic chemical pool lay under his property. Notified of the problem by the EPA, he hired his own team of investigators and shifted the blame to Thoro.

Up until that point, Thoro's environmental history, as chronicled by the various agencies that keep tabs on such things, was relatively unremarkable. The company had once been fined by the EPA, and several years ago the Colorado Department of Health yanked a hazardous-waste storage permit.

Now evidence is beginning to surface that the company's behavior may have been worse than its record shows. In their efforts to pinpoint the origin of a chlorine plume that appears to have spread under the Clear Creek neighborhood northwest of Denver, EPA investigators have been closing in tighter and tighter on Thoro's Arvada property. And several miles away, next to Rocky Flats Industrial Park, state health workers suspect another chlorine spill may have originated at a second Thoro facility.

At the end of the chemical trail are a number of former Thoro employees. Mostly low-wage and unskilled workers, they say they have quietly battled chronic health problems as a result of their long years working at the chemical company.

It is not uncommon for investigators to arrive at a polluter's door through such a roundabout fashion; the way current environmental laws work, the final culprit often is not the first to be accused. But the Thoro case also illustrates how seemingly random and haphazard--and ineffective--the patchwork enforcement of those laws can be. If Thoro ultimately is found to be responsible for the contamination around its two facilities, there were numerous instances when it might have been discovered earlier. Even when regulators had reason to suspect pollution or had opportunities to check, they postponed acting for years.

"It's not like Thoro was out there hiding in the weeds. People knew what they were doing," says Tim Gablehouse, an environmental attorney who has become involved in the case. What's unusual about the Thoro case, Gablehouse continues, is that a series of private parties, and not government regulators, are the engines driving the legal push against Thoro. (A spokeswoman for the EPA agrees that Gablehouse has given them some helpful evidence. "But we would've gotten there anyway," she adds.)

Much of the damaging information against Thoro was scared up by a dapper private gumshoe hired by Gablehouse to investigate the pollution. And Joe Dickerson is getting impatient. "I told the attorney general, 'Hell, if I've done your investigation for you, wrapped it up in a bow and handed it over, so be it. Let's just do something. One would wonder why something hadn't been done before about this."

For nearly two decades after World War II, residents and businesses in the neighborhood centered roughly where I-76 crosses Clear Creek at the border of Denver and Jefferson counties disposed of their waste in the Sheridan Dump. A federal report describes the 112-acre site as a former repository for "sanitary sewage sludge, commercial, municipal and industrial waste, and other unspecified hazardous wastes." Today much of the old landfill sits underneath the Berkeley Village Mobile Home Park.

The dump was first identified as a potential hazardous-waste site in 1978. Two years later it was proposed for cleanup under a new set of federal laws known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act--known collectively as Superfund. But investigators decided the Sheridan Dump didn't meet the Superfund standards, and so it was deferred to another, lower-level state hazardous-waste program--where nothing much happened for the next decade or so.

"It had been lingering for a while," says Pat Smith, a geologist and site-assessment manager for the EPA's regional office in Denver. It was during a routine review of her files, in 1990, that Smith noticed the EPA hadn't closed the Sheridan Dump case. A closer look suggested a possible error; perhaps the dump should have been cleaned up under Superfund. After Smith's discovery, though, five more years passed before the EPA began testing water under the site, in May 1995.

Within weeks it began to look as though the Sheridan Dump site was relatively clean, after all. EPA chemists uncovered nothing to indicate that the old landfill was leaking toxins into the groundwater. In fact, of all the water samples analyzed, only one sounded any alarms--and it wasn't related to the landfill.

That single sample showed extremely high levels of a family of organic compounds known as chlorinated hydrocarbons. The chemicals are commonly found in household cleaners; however, they are considered highly toxic, and the discovery of even very low quantities, as minute as four parts per billion, is enough to throw public-health officials into a panic.

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