Mr. Clean

Superfund ombudsman Robert Martin is either a white knight -- or an EPA whitewash.

The heart of the 27-square-mile Rocky Mountain Arsenal has been called "the most polluted square-mile on earth." But it's also an exceptional site because both government and industry are responsible for its pollution. "At most Superfund sites, private companies are the responsible parties," says Martin. "Rare is the site where you've got the Army and Shell Oil working together in such a close fashion." (The EPA is responsible for making sure both parties carry out their promise to clean up the site enough to make it a federal wildlife refuge.) The arsenal is also colossal in size, bordered by booming residential districts, and "so complex," adds Martin. "You have dieldrin, various pesticides, concerns about dioxin, sarin--everything that was used to produce chemical and biological weapons. You don't find that mixture very often on a site."

For years, Denver-area activists have felt they were being stonewalled by regional EPA officials under the sway of cost-conscious Shell, which is paying for a portion of the work. After attorney Sandra Jaquith, a self-appointed arsenal watchdog for over a decade, learned of the ombudsman's existence in late 1996, she and other citizens fired off a series of heated letters to an array of EPA and elected officials, asking them to urge Martin to visit the arsenal. He finally arrived in spring 1998.

"We thought if we could actually tell [Martin] our story, we would get somewhere," says Jaquith, who has developed an obvious respect for the ombudsman. "If after his investigation Bob Martin comes out and tells me there's no problem here, I'll go away."

The ombudsman may have come just in time, says Rick Warner, who's been watching the arsenal project for seven years. As part of the RMA remediation--"cleanup" isn't an accurate word, since the toxins will be buried rather than removed--workers this year plan to tear down some 85 buildings on the property and move half a million cubic yards of dirt, raising plenty of polluted dust in the process, he points out. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is inviting a record 60,000 visitors, many of them children, on-site for its Eagle Fests and nature activities.

Warner hopes that having the ombudsman on board will make some officials think twice about "greenwashing," or portraying the NPL site as a benign wildlife refuge. "Maybe we can give the EPA a way to look at things again," he says.

Before Martin took the arsenal case, regional officials "didn't want to talk to us," says Jaquith. "Now they're all wanting to talk with us."

Martin and Kaufman dropped by Commerce City's town hall the January night that Jaquith, Warner and other citizens gathered to discuss another pressing concern: The EPA's plans to "de-list" 815 acres of the arsenal property, which would essentially declare the land clean enough to be sold to local government. The activists were alarmed by Commerce City's plans to purchase the land for a city park and commercial development--which might include a daycare facility or senior center ("Toxic Wait," February 11).

The residents wanted proof that the EPA had taken enough soil samples to adequately "characterize" the amount of toxins in the dirt and their possible effects on children and the elderly. That night, the EPA presented a blow-by-blow explanation of its sampling methods and "risk assessment," which the citizens promptly shot full of holes. Kaufman asked a few questions of his own; Martin observed.

That meeting was "the first time we all sat down and started talking substance about characterization of the site--how many samples were taken and what kind, where were they from, what detection methods were used, how long ago were they taken, how do they plug into the risk assessment--and that was a really valuable exchange," says Martin.

Characterization is a critical issue at any cleanup site, "because if you're affected by one of these places and you're not confident with the diagnosis, you won't be comfortable with the remedy. Here, for the first time, I think everybody heard each other. I know the region definitely heard Sandy, Rick and the others," he adds. "You went from nowhere to substantive communication and a decision."

The "decision" was that the EPA would table its plan to de-list the parcel until it could conduct further soil studies. A few days later, Martin declared that he will hold formal hearings on the arsenal's remediation in April, complete with a court reporter and testimony under oath.

Now on his third cup of coffee after a long round of meetings with Army and Shell officials, Martin leans forward and quotes seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke: "Every great movement has three stages: Ridicule, opposition, implementation.

"And that's much like an ombudsman case," he says with a chuckle.
Citizens who end up with a Superfund site in their backyard--and an unresponsive federal agency in charge of it--"feel ridiculed," Martin says. "But their problems are real problems, and they feel they've been dismissed. You can move from that kind of environment--almost a non-relationship between the people who feel aggrieved and the people in charge--to maybe opposition, and then to 'All right, now it's an ombudsman case. We'll sit down at the table, we'll talk.'"

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