Toxic Wait

Some residents say the Rocky Mountain Arsenal still isn't clean enough to polish Commerce City's image.

Growing impatient, Commerce City's city council decided this month to ask voters' approval of a quarter-cent sales-tax increase to fund development of the park. "We'd like to have seen [the land transfer] happen a year ago," Gagen says. "The longer it sits in federal hands, the longer we can't do anything about it."

The Army would also like to have the property off its back. And the EPA is eager to show that it's making progress on the land remediation. U.S. Fish and Wildlife, hard pressed for cash, will reap the profits of the sale.

But Rick Warner, a member of the arsenal's citizen advisory board, says the agencies are "dictating a lower level of investigation--and why? Because of money."

Warner and others are pressing the EPA to do a more thorough study of the western tier parcel. Its current study is based on fewer than a dozen soil samples analyzed in 1989--using not the topsoil, but a "composite" mixture of several inches of dirt. (Critics fear that huge amounts of contaminated soil could be moved around during construction on the parcel, which could potentially contain a large industrial park.) No efforts were made to chart toxins such as dioxin, "potentially the most hazardous substance out there," says Warner, who characterizes the data used in the EPA's risk assessment as "garbage in."

EPA project manager Williams says her staff is examining all the issues raised by citizens' groups. But at this point, she can't suggest an entirely new soil study to provide fresh data. "If you've done the work once, why do it twice?" she asks. A new study could take eighteen months to three years, explains Williams as she rattles off a list of bureaucractic hoops the project would have to jump through. More research would draw staff power and taxpayer dollars away from the remediation of the site, she says. "It's not something that we consider an easy task."

Williams adds that the EPA isn't feeling "pressure, per se" to release the property. "It's just that we've been working on this for over two years," says Williams. "It seemed like everything was in place. Certainly Commerce City's eagerness is something I consider."

However, recent history has made Commerce City residents like Elizabeth Montgomery skeptical. She points north of the arsenal to the Eagle Creek housing development, built over groundwater supplies contaminated with the nerve gas known as DIMP after Commerce City rezoned the area for residential use, though none of the groundwater can be used. Nothing can convince Montgomery that the western tier parcel wouldn't be used for the wrong purposes.

"It's so whitewashed," she says. "But this is an arsenal. They're not cleaning it up; they're shoving it into the ground and covering it with grass." Citizens' groups are so wary of the Army, Shell and the EPA's work that--in a highly significant move--they have recruited EPA ombudsman Robert Martin to do an outside assessment of the entire arsenal cleanup. They've now asked the EPA to assign Martin to a review of the western tier parcel; the powerful, independent ombudsman has reportedly ordered hearings on the matter.

The EPA is now considering extending its February 16 deadline for public comment on the western tier plan. Even if the agency approves the land transfer, Commerce City probably won't need to take out its checkbook right away; the battle will continue, perhaps in court. Gagen already believes the land is move-in ready. "We obviously don't want to inherit a liability," he says.

Montgomery and other critics feel that, in rushing to build its community park, Commerce City is trying to be something it's not. "This city started out as hog farms," says Montgomery, who's lived there on and off for thirty years. "In my opinion, Commerce City is always going to be Commerce City. It's a blue-collar worker town. For these people, the image of their city is not a city of golf courses and $300,000 homes and a park with an Olympic-sized pool."

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