Up From Underground

Denver likes to bury its mistakes.
And it's made plenty.
Ninety years ago, radium was a miracle cure, the turn-of-the-century equivalent of Viagra--and Colorado was playing doctor to the world. Marie Curie herself came out West, prospecting for uranium; Denver was a major ore-processing center. So major, in fact, that the city proudly billed itself as the "Radium Capital of the World." At the high point of the industry, between 1915 and 1917, radium was selling for $120,000 an ounce in pure form. Denver factories turned out pound after pound of the chemical wonder--and piled up ton upon ton of radioactive waste.

When the market disappeared, so did the radium-processing centers. They left their mess behind.

Since Denver likes to bury its mistakes, the old factory grounds were soon covered with houses. Dirt from the contaminated dumps was mixed with asphalt to build streets across the city. The legacy of Denver's radium industry was forgotten--but it didn't disappear.

At the start of World War II, the city recruited another potentially lucrative business: an Army ordnance center. Weapons were stockpiled at what would become the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, located just northeast of the Denver city limits. And when the war was over, the weapons were stored there until they could be dismantled and destroyed. Denver didn't have to forget what had been manufactured on this land--the Army kept most of its activities a secret--but the deadly by-product would make itself known soon enough.

By the early Fifties, the feds were offering up yet another hot prospect. Denver lobbied hard to win the prize, a nuclear-weapons plant. Although the work at Rocky Flats was classified, too, that was all right with the business boosters who were doing their patriotic duty--and winning contracts. After all, the very survival of the Free World was at stake. Whether or not the people living just sixteen miles downwind of the facility would survive was immaterial.

Denver likes to bury its mistakes. It's only through the oddest accidents that our sorry history resurfaces.

Out at the arsenal, the first hint of trouble came in the late Sixties, when earthquakes rocked the area; it seemed that the Army had been disposing of toxic chemicals in deep injection wells. And the contaminants that weren't initially injected into the earth worked their way down sooner or later; the ponds where the arsenal dumped a witches' brew of chemicals, including the components for nerve gas, spread into the groundwater. By the mid-Seventies, the arsenal had its own nickname: The Most Polluted Square Mile on Earth. The land was so contaminated, in fact, that when cleanup finally began, the Environmental Protection Agency cut a deal with the Army: The land could be brought up to a level that was acceptable for open space but not for housing. (To its credit, the Colorado health department sued for the right to oversee the cleanup of its own backyard.)

Today the arsenal is billed as a national nature preserve. But below that pretty surface, chemicals continue to leak into the water table, with a toxic plume heading straight for the South Platte.

The arsenal was just beginning to clean up its act when word of Rocky Flats's health hazards began to leak out. Until the late Seventies, prospective property buyers weren't even told that a spanking new subdivision bordered a nuclear-weapons plant--and one with a spotty safety record at that. Despite years of protests and lawsuits, the major break at Rocky Flats came when the FBI raided the facility back in June 1989. Among other things, the feds found fourteen tons of plutonium at the facility; the basins where contaminated sludge was supposed to dry into "pondcrete" proved no more successful than those at the arsenal.

Rocky Flats stopped producing plutonium triggers almost a decade ago. Today the facility has a warm and fuzzy new name--Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site--and a new mission: detoxifying itself. The process could take up to ten years and cost as much as $8 billion. (There's a new business opportunity: Cleaning crews clean up!) Starting this summer, treated materials from Rocky Flats will be shipped down to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, certified just last week by the EPA.

The alternative, suggested only half-jokingly by Rocky Flats's former manager, would be to bury the entire mess on-site.

Don't laugh: That's precisely what the EPA would like to do at Overland Park in southwest Denver, where a toxic mountain is evidence of the city's long-forgotten radium industry.

It wasn't until two decades ago that Denver even remembered it had once been the Radium Capital of the World. The discovery came courtesy of an employee of the Colorado health department who was thumbing through an old book and stumbled on references to the ore-processing business. After that, the health department launched an acre-by-acre search of the state, conducted both on foot and in vans. The feds did their own bit, inspecting overhead by helicopter.

In the spring of 1979, radioactive sites were popping up faster than weeds--pushing news of nerve gas discovered at the arsenal right off the front page. Within a few months, health officials had identified forty sites in Colorado--thirty of them in Denver. Eleven ultimately reached Superfund status.

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