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Sister Sludge

Activist Adrienne Anderson stirs up the sewage board with a warning on plutonium.

A maverick member of the board that oversees the metro sewage system has managed to shake up that once-sleepy body with charges of a conspiracy to run radioactive waste through Denver-area sewers. Some say boardmember Adrienne Anderson is a paranoid nut, while others cast her as an environmental crusader. The controversy over Anderson has spawned legal fights, claims of defamation and concerns over toxic contamination as far away as Elbert County.

Anderson, a longtime environmental activist, has done a good job of stirring the pot since being appointed to the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District board by Mayor Wellington Webb last year. Her most serious claim is that a plan to pump toxic groundwater from the Lowry Landfill Superfund site in Arapahoe County and put it into Denver's sewer system will expose wastewater workers and the public to plutonium.

"Environmental Protection Agency records and well reports show that there's plutonium in the groundwater from north to south and east to west," says Anderson. "They dumped radioactive water there from Rocky Flats."

For years the Lowry Landfill was used as an all-purpose dumping ground for industrial wastes from the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant and several local companies, including the Adolph Coors Company and Conoco. No one disputes that the groundwater contains a toxic mix of acid and alkaline sludge, solvents and pesticides, as well as some low-level radioactive waste. But EPA officials say Anderson's charges of massive plutonium contamination at the site are nonsense.

Marc Herman, EPA project manager for the site, says the agency has taken more than 1,800 samples from the landfill over the past decade and has never found evidence of plutonium dumping. "We have no evidence that indicates there is radioactive waste like plutonium," he insists.

According to Herman, Anderson's charge that Rocky Flats dumped plutonium at the Lowry Landfill is based on an incorrect reading of documents that detail Rocky Flats's waste disposal over several years. He says Anderson is assuming that all of the hazardous wastes on the list were sent to the landfill. While Rocky Flats did send more than 55,000 gallons of waste oil, solvents and paint sludge to the landfill, Herman says, all of the radioactive waste was sent to federal facilities in Nevada and Idaho.

Anderson says Herman is lying in an effort to save the government money. If significant plutonium pollution from Rocky Flats were found at the landfill, the Department of Energy would likely be responsible for the cleanup. "The EPA is allowing the polluters at the landfill to get off the hook, including the Department of Energy and several corporations," Anderson says.

But Herman says that's "just not true. There is no conspiracy. We're not covering up for the Department of Energy. The people who think the government is capable of implementing these complicated conspiracies are the same people who think the government can't deliver the mail."

The EPA believes that processing the groundwater through the sewage system is the best way to remove dangerous chemicals that have tainted the aquifer. Plans call for building a quarter-mile pipeline linking the landfill to sewer lines in Aurora later this year and sending 14,000 gallons of contaminated water per day into the wastewater system. The district treats 150 million gallons of water daily at its plant in Commerce City.

The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, which represents lab workers at the plant, says it is concerned about employees being exposed to the Lowry waste. "Right now we don't know what's in the toxic soup," says Joseph Drexler, spokesman for the union. "I'm not going to say it's a coverup, but there's a lot of unanswered questions here."

The OCAW has gone for four years without a contract with the district. Drexler says Metro Wastewater employees have few places to take their safety concerns, since public employees are not covered by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

But controversy over liquid waste isn't the only thing bedeviling the wastewater district. For years, solid waste from the system has been used as fertilizer on farms in eastern Colorado. The use of this sludge to fertilize crops has become increasingly controversial, as some activists charge that growing crops with treated waste may introduce dangerous chemicals into the food chain.

While industrial waste contains elements like nitrogen and magnesium that can help plants grow, some sludge used on farms has also been found to contain dangerously high levels of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead.

According to Anderson, the plan to treat contaminated groundwater through the sewer system will make the sludge even more dangerous.

"It certainly shouldn't be going into the food chain and sold to the public as fertilizer," she says.

The concern over agricultural uses of sludge prompted a recent confrontation between the wastewater district and the Elbert County commissioners. Metro owns a farm in the northeast corner of the county and has been trucking sludge there for several years. After hearing complaints that the sludge was drying up and blowing onto neighboring farms, the Elbert commissioners issued a cease-and-desist order against the district. Three weeks ago, county commissioner John Dunn and a sheriff's deputy stopped a truck from delivering sludge to the farm.

"We needed to get their attention," says Dunn. "The driver said, 'What am I supposed to do with all this shit?'"

The commissioners finally agreed to temporarily allow the delivery of the sludge. A public meeting will be held at the county courthouse in Kiowa next month before the commissioners make a final decision.

"It's a big scam they're using to dump Denver's waste in Elbert County," Dunn says. "If you saw what they're dumping out there, it would make you sick. It looks like black asphalt. Now they're talking about putting the Lowry Landfill plutonium out there. It's just not a good thing."

However, Herman insists that not only is there no plutonium at Lowry, there is also no risk from the chemicals the Lowry groundwater will add to the sludge. "The level of inorganic chemicals Lowry would contribute to the biosolids are almost immeasurable," he says.

Meanwhile, Anderson's militant stance has made her unpopular with fellow boardmembers. Denver City Councilman Ted Hackworth, who serves on the wastewater board, calls Anderson a troublemaker. "She hurls charges without much validity," he says. "When they put the effluent in the system it will be monitored, and if it violates the standards, it won't be accepted. There's no threat to Metro or its workers or the people in eastern Colorado. She doesn't seem to understand that."

In April, board chairman Dick Plastino wrote Anderson a letter threatening her with censure if she didn't precede all of her public comments with the disclaimer that she was speaking only for herself. Anderson responded by complaining to the U.S. Department of Labor, claiming that Plastino's letter was a violation of federal laws protecting whistleblowers.

The investigator who heard the case ruled in Anderson's favor and ordered the board to publicly rescind two letters containing the threat of censure. The Metro board is appealing that decision, and legal bills are mounting. The case will go before an administrative law judge next month.

"The place is a cesspool of threats and intimidation," Anderson says of the Metro district. After going public with her claim of plutonium contamination at Lowry, Anderson says, she was immediately hassled by fellow boardmembers.

"They went berserk," she says. "Ted Hackworth started yelling that this was a thing that had already been decided." Now Anderson hopes to receive some vindication in her complaint to the labor department. If the initial ruling is upheld, Metro will have to pay her legal bills. And she believes that's only fair.

"They launched a defamation campaign to portray me as a wacko," she says.

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