Going to Ground

A private investigator tracks a toxic trail through Arvada.

Despite preliminary evidence hinting that a chlorine plume was pooled under the Thoro property, over the next five years the case was passed around the state office. "It languished," Avramenko says. "It's something we should have been involved with several years ago." Several workers responsible for the file quit, he explains, and the case got lost in the shuffle. Only recently did the state agency begin to follow up on the reports of contaminated groundwater.

For Joe Dickerson's purposes, though, finding evidence in government records that Thoro may have accidentally polluted in the past was one thing. Demonstrating that the spills were a common, and intentional, practice over a long period of time was another.

About three miles to the west of Thoro Product's Arvada plant, in a narrow, single-story brick quadplex that sits perpendicular to the street, Larry Prather is finishing his breakfast. The living room is decorated with framed pictures of sunsets, and the television is playing loudly. Prather has closely cut black hair and wears black cloth shoes with white socks and khaki shorts. He moves in quick jerks and sometimes has difficulty speaking.

"I was the floor manager at Thoro for thirty years," he begins. "I started working part-time there in the summer during high school when I was fifteen. I mixed the chemicals, except for the bleach; that was another guy's job."

He stopped working there, he says, after the seizures and blackouts became too frequent. At first the doctor told him he was simply overtired from working twelve-hour days. Later, Prather says, he was told by his physician that it was the constant exposure to chlorine and ammonia at Thoro that was exacerbating the seizures, and that he needed to quit. He did so in 1990; since then he has been living off disability and Social Security payments, along with his wife's income.

He says it's no mystery where the chlorine plume under William Mathews's property started. "You better believe there were spills," he says.

"On the east side of the line," Prather continues, "we ran ammonia and glass cleaner and spot remover and paint thinner lines. If there was leftover stuff in any of them, we'd put it in a five-gallon bucket and dump it out the window onto the ground. We'd just open the window and pour it out. It would just run down this dirt gutter and soak into the ground.

"Other times, when we were cleaning out the tanks inside, we'd hose out the tanks and collect the water and chlorine into buckets and then just toss it out the door or out the window."

Prather says there were other ways the company's chemicals made it into the ground: from leaking storage tanks outside the plant, during transfers from tanks into the product lines; and when the chemicals were being pumped out of railroad cars. "The railroad tank would come in, and we'd hook the hose to the car and it would leak like a sieve, right down into the ground, maybe 25 or 30 gallons at a time," he says. "I even called the health department on them several times. I'd call and say, 'My name is Larry Prather and I work at Thoro Products, and I want to report a chemical spill.' And they'd say, 'Again?'

"They'd call up Mr. Newman and give him another warning," he continues. "I just told them the damn truth. And they would tell him to clean it up, and three weeks later it would happen again." (Both the state and the Jefferson County Health Department say they have no record of such calls.)

Prather isn't the only one who says he saw spills at Thoro. "We would have buckets of bleach or ammonia that were extra, and we'd just throw them out the window or out the door," says Charlie Gallentine, who worked at the company for eight years before quitting in 1988. "It happened almost every day. It went right in the dirt--chlorine, ammonia, leftover spot remover."

"Most of the big spills there were mechanical," adds Sheila Walker, who says she worked at Thoro on and off from 1974 through 1988, with occasional breaks to have children. "It wasn't for lack of safety or training. But things would break or overflow, or somebody would trip over a hose and chlorine would leak out. We would unload chemicals from the railroad cars or huge storage tanks with a six-inch hose. Now, you can't pump a hose dry, and so when you disconnected it, inevitably some would get spilled.

"We were supposed to wash out the big tanks, and so we'd collect the water from the cleaning and throw it out the window or door. It was pretty diluted, maybe one gallon chlorine to four gallons water at the beginning, and by the last rinse maybe one-to-ten. But I guess when you add all that up to over thirty years, it accumulates pretty bad."

Like Prather, Walker also claims her health has suffered from her time at Thoro. Most of her problems, she says, can be traced back to two industrial accidents there, the worst of which was in 1987.

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