Going to Ground

A private investigator tracks a toxic trail through Arvada.

And there was additional reason for worry, because the tainted sample had been taken out of a private drinking well.

The EPA acted quickly. Because the level of chlorine chemicals was so high, the agency started an "emergency response action." Smith determined that two households and one business, a neighborhood tavern, drew drinking water from the well, and she ordered that all three be placed on bottled drinking water immediately. (None of the users had previously reported any health problems.) The search for the upstream polluter, meanwhile, was just beginning.

Smith turned the case over to a six-year veteran of the agency, an on-scene coordinator named Joyce Ackerman. A mechanical engineer by training, Ackerman began playing a geological game of Battleship, trying through a combination of guesswork and science to determine the source of the well's pollution. Using a tool called a geoprobe, a hydraulic drill mounted on the back of a Chevy Suburban, and a pump to draw water out of the hole (Arvada's water table is so shallow that each hole had to be only ten or twenty feet deep), Ackerman began siphoning water at around 66th Avenue and Sheridan. The dozens of tests she has conducted since then have drawn her continually up gradient, and by early July 1995 she was drawing water out of locations around 58th Avenue and Lamar Street, about a mile away.

As she has gone about her work, Ackerman has contacted dozens of property owners seeking permission to drill holes on their land. On November 14 Ackerman provided sample results to one of them, the owner of 5889 Lamar Street, a Golden businessman named William Mathews. They showed that a thick, toxic tongue of chlorine lapped under his property.

Mathews, through his lawyer, declined to be interviewed for this article. Public records show he purchased his Lamar Street property in June 1993 and opened his automobile business, Vintage Sales, there a year later.

Records also show that before buying the land, Mathews hired an environmental investigator to check for potential pollution underground (some gas tanks had been stored there previously); the consultant concluded that the soil at 58th and Lamar was relatively clean.

Mathews first learned his property was contaminated when Ackerman stopped by to deliver the results of her underground water sampling. He apparently knew enough about environmental laws to realize he could be in for an expensive legal battle.

Now sixteen years old, the laws collected under the Superfund name have become fertile ground for lawsuits, since they force almost anybody associated with a polluted property--current and former owners, next-door neighbors, etc.--to participate in an extremely expensive game of tattletale. Which is exactly how it was intended to work.

"A lot of prime real estate in this country is contaminated, so the question becomes, 'Who should pay for it--the taxpayers or the responsible parties?'" explains Fred Cheever, an environmental-law expert at the University of Denver. "If you decide it should be the responsible parties, how do you find out who they are? You have to do an investigation. Well, then who should do the investigation?"

In answer to those questions, Congress created a sort of intentional paranoia. It begins, says Cheever, "when the EPA comes to you and says, 'You got pollution under you--what are you going to do?'"

Under the Superfund laws, once he is notified of pollution on his property, it is up to the landowner to prove it wasn't his fault; otherwise, he can get socked with a cleanup bill that easily runs into the millions of dollars. Generally, the landowner does this by mounting his own environmental investigation and, if all goes well, pointing the finger at someone else, who must then defend himself and implicate another, and so on. In theory, the process ends when--a crowd of lawyers later--the whole mess is untangled in some sort of settlement while the EPA looks on.

Aware of how the blame game was played, early this year Mathews hired Gablehouse, a downtown Denver environmental lawyer. Among other clients, Gablehouse represents the current owners of the Summitville Mine, one of Colorado's biggest, best-known and most expensive toxic-waste sites (cleanup costs there run $35,000 per day).

In March, Gablehouse hired Joe Dickerson.
Joe Dickerson is a soothing mixture of down-home Texan and successful businessman. Although his rural East Texas drawl and Southernisms still hang on him, his office in chic LoDo is richly paneled with dark woods. He wears a pinky ring and passes personal memos on a pad of paper from the Beverly Hills Ritz Hotel.

Dickerson, who looks more like Burl Ives than Sam Spade, worked for a decade for the Houston Police Department tracking white-collar criminals, largely in the oil-and-gas industry, before breaking off to start a private investigation business. Since then he has specialized in financial snooping; or, as he puts it in one of his many brochures, "Can they hide it deeper than I can dig?" In 96 percent of the cases, he claims, the answer is no.

For the past five or six years much of Dickerson's business has stemmed from the booming field of environmental law that sprang up around the Superfund legislation. His financial-investigation skills have come in handy: One of the more cynical aspects of the anti-pollution laws is that a person's or company's financial health can matter at least as much as their accountability.

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