Up From Underground

The EPA and the health department finished cleaning up ten of the Superfund sites years ago, shipping radioactive material out of state and replacing the contaminated soil with dirt. The eleventh site, the old Shattuck facility just off South Santa Fe Drive and Evans Avenue, hard by Overland Park, is still a mess. That's because the EPA, which as recently as 1991 promised neighbors that it would take the waste and dump it in the Utah desert, now would like to leave the huge mound of radioactive dirt and simply cover it over with a protective cap. And the state has agreed.

Only the residents of the Overland neighborhood would like to uncover the past--and this time, Denver officials support them. They're pushing an August 11 ballot measure that would demand a full cleanup of the toxic mountain.

Shattuck was among the worst of Colorado's forty radium sites, with readings a hundred times above normal background radiation. Many of the other sites netted far less dramatic scores--readings three or four times above normal. Most of those came from Capitol Hill, where contaminated dirt had been used to build streets. Back in 1979, health officials deemed that "such contamination doesn't necessarily indicate a health hazard." As long as it stayed underground, that is. The city flagged the sites and agreed with the EPA that if the streets were ever disturbed for repair work, the contaminated dirt would be removed.

That bill finally came due this year.
The remnants of the roadwork will be processed and shipped out to Denver International Airport for two months of "temporary" storage, according to an advisory sent out by the city last week. That's two months per load; officials failed to mention that by the time the last of Denver's radioactive legacy is shipped to Utah, DIA will have played host to waste for an entire decade.

Back in the early Eighties, when people were pushing for an expansion of Stapleton airport onto the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, city officials argued that the arsenal was too contaminated to use for airport facilities. What would happen if a plane were to crash?

Good question.
Instead of expanding onto all that empty land at the arsenal, where paving the site might actually have been an improvement, the city built DIA. Denver likes to bury its mistakes and would just as soon forget the past altogether.

Which is why we are condemned to repeat it.

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