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And Not a Drop to Drink

John Yelenick was raising his family on a farm in Henderson when he had his water tested in 1985. He wasn't looking for nerve gas. But a few years later, after the nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal made the Environmental Protection Agency's first Superfund list, Yelenick and the rest of the state learned that 750 chemicals were bubbling in that toxic soup. Among them was diisopropyl methylphosphonate (DIMP), a chemical unique to the Army's manufacture of GB nerve gas, or sarin. Outside the arsenal, the worst level of DIMP contamination identified by the EPA was 148 parts per billion. Yelenick unearthed his old paperwork. "My well was 425 ppb," he says.

Today the law considers any concentration of DIMP over 8 ppb hazardous. Colorado takes it further, mandating that anyone whose well tests over 3.92 ppb be hooked up to municipal water.

Robert Bakes's Henderson farm is surrounded by a plume of DIMP contamination that the EPA estimates to be at 8 ppb. He has lived there and farmed there for 36 years--since long before anyone had any idea of the Army's deadly legacy. He didn't start worrying about his well water until 1990--the year health officials put 500 residents of unincorporated Adams County on bottled water because of DIMP. Bakes was one of them.

"Back in the early Sixties," he remembers, "I had a deep well here, and we started getting earthquakes." When his few neighbors found their wells going bad, too, they contacted the Army and asked if anything at the arsenal might be causing the trouble. But officials there denied any responsibility, and Bakes had no reason to doubt them. (Remember, this was the early Sixties.) He and his neighbors went ahead and drilled new wells. "We didn't think any more about it," he says. "It didn't even enter my mind that they were putting contaminants in underground water." Actually, the Army was putting chemicals into injection wells, causing earthquakes in the process. But ending that practice didn't clean up the problem, as Bakes learned when health officials dropped by seven years ago.

Dan Mulqueen first visited the arsenal in 1992. By then, the facility's priority cleanup--of its image--was well under way. Boy Scouts camped on the property, and families picnicked there. The year before, then-representative Pat Schroeder had introduced a bill to designate the 27-square-mile site a national wildlife refuge. The Army had spent $200,000 in 1991 alone on warm-and-fuzzy projects designed to hype the concept: calendars, pens and pencils, tours and Bald Eagle Days, which celebrated the birds that had been sighted on the arsenal back in 1986, eight years after they were added to the endangered-species list.

When his son's University Park class scheduled a field trip to this Disney-level delight, Mulqueen went along as a "parent helper." He got an eyeful. "I was just amazed," he says. "We never saw an animal. It was a clear use of the children."

But it was Mulqueen who got the education, and he soon got involved in arsenal study groups. "I punish them with my presence," he explains.

The Rocky Mountain Arsenal was considered a plum, not a punishment, in 1942 when the Army decided to put a new chemical-weapons factory near Denver. Being so close to a transportation hub, one with a ready labor supply, argued in the site's favor; so did the fact that it was so far inland that the Army had nothing to fear from enemy planes. "It's up to Hitler and Tojo now," a Denver Post reporter trumpeted in 1943, in a story announcing the arsenal's opening. "Either can choose his weapons. Uncle Sam is ready. He will not be found wanting."

During the war, the Army manufactured chemical and incendiary munitions at the arsenal, including mustard agents, nerve gas and rocket fuels. From 1953 to 1957, the arsenal was the Free World's largest producer of sarin, a nerve agent developed by Nazi scientists that was so deadly, a drop could kill a man in half a minute. Hollywood starlet Piper Laurie apparently was unaware of the threat when she was crowned Miss Flamethrower and posed at the arsenal for cheesecake shots.

The Army ended chemical-weapons production in 1969. Shell Oil, which had leased space at the facility from the start, continued manufacture there until 1982.

Then came the arsenal's most dangerous mission: cleaning up an area that included an expanse dubbed "the most contaminated square mile on earth."

The site that had seemed so ideal forty years earlier turned out to be a uniquely poor choice: fine loams, porous underground rock formations and a high water table combined to provide a pollution highway right into the groundwater. Other contaminants were spread by surface water and the wind. "The potential exposure pathways include ingestion, skin absorption and/or inhalation from contaminated soils, surface water and groundwater," notes the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's current crib sheet on the Superfund site. "Residential development, agriculture, use of on-post water as drinking water, and consumption of fish and game taken at RMA are prohibited. There is extensive contamination of subsurface soils in the central area of the RMA; lesser soil and building contamination is widespread over several square miles onsite. There is evidence that offsite contamination of soils and air may have occurred to the north and northwest. The contaminated groundwater onsite has moved north and northwest into the alluvial aquifer."

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