Going to Ground

A private investigator tracks a toxic trail through Arvada.

"It was my own fault," she says. "I was loading a 55-gallon drum of ammonia into a tank, and I bumped a drum and broke off the spigot. Pretty much all 55 gallons of the ammonia spilled. I chose to run the wrong way--instead of running upwind, I ran downwind. So my lungs got burnt."

Since she stopped working at Thoro at what she says was her doctor's advice, Walker has had difficulty finding a job. "When someone coughs until they throw up, people think you are very sick, and they don't want you around," she says.

As a result, Walker's money comes mostly from Social Security disability payments. But that is temporary: A physician recently told her the time between she quit Thoro and when she was diagnosed with chemical burns on her lungs was too great to forge a direct link between the two.

"I can't even tolerate hairspray and perfume and cleaning supplies," she concludes. "But we never wore safety masks. So in a way it was my own fault."

The state attorney general's office refuses to say at what point it is in any investigation of Thoro, or even if it is conducting one at all. Mark Gutke, an environmental investigator for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, confirms that his department is "looking at it as a criminal investigation" but adds that any charges against the company are some time off. Both the state's and the county's ability to charge Thoro with any crime may be stymied by the statute of limitations.

The EPA says it is unwilling to accuse Thoro of anything until it has evaluated the final water samples taken several weeks ago. "Until the final physical evidence is in, it's still an open question," Ackerman stresses. "I'm not ready to point the finger at anybody."

The trail of legal documents that will dog the case to its conclusion is just beginning to accumulate. Four weeks ago Mathews launched a pre-emptive strike against being tagged as the polluter of his property by filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Thoro. The lawsuit also named as a defendant Dow Chemical Co., which once used the Thoro site to store chemicals and which has the additional advantage of having cavernous pockets. Thoro has yet to respond to the lawsuit.

Mathews reportedly is also considering suing the environmental consultant who mistakenly gave his Arvada property a clean bill of health. And Larry Prather says he is considering his own legal action against his former employer for providing the working conditions that he says ate away at his health.

In the meantime, the process of tallying the cost of the Clear Creek chlorine plume has already begun. Soon after placing the families and business that had been drawing water from the contaminated well on bottled water, the EPA paid for the installation of a carbon filtering system at each location.

But even that fix is temporary. The filters have been replaced twice so far, at a cost of $2,000 each. The cost will climb considerably higher when the county provides a permanent solution to their polluted well, either by drilling into a deep-water aquifer or attaching to Arvada's municipal water system.

And that doesn't begin to consider the expense of restoring the land and water to a healthy condition. "If you wanted to clean up this groundwater to its original condition, it's going to take decades," says the EPA's Ackerman. "There's nothing cheap about this.

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