By Michael Roberts
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Jay Balano thought it was strange when a woman from the Colorado Department of Transportation walked into his Print Stop store last winter, asking for him by name. He thought it was even stranger when the woman offered to arrange a printing contract with the state worth close to $20,000, with the promise of more to come--a job so big that it would have overwhelmed his small printing operation.
Balano had never done business with CDOT before. But just days earlier, in his role as a Glendale city councilman, he'd been sharply critical of the department at a public meeting held to discuss state efforts to clean up chemical contamination of air and groundwater in Balano's neighborhood--contamination emanating from a CDOT testing lab a few blocks away. The meeting had been an acrimonious one, and Balano had left convinced that he wasn't getting the full story from CDOT or its sister agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which is overseeing the cleanup.
"Getting a straight answer out of those people is almost impossible," Balano says. "Frankly, I distrust two agencies that have every reason in the world to be in collusion with each other."
Balano couldn't figure out if the CDOT printing offer was an inept gesture of goodwill or a bid for his silence. In any case, he didn't think it was coincidental, and he turned down the job. But the peculiar timing of the visit only sharpened his suspicions about the chemical leak, a complicated affair that has fueled political controversies in tiny Glendale and raised troubling questions about the scope and seriousness of the contamination, the parties responsible and the state's ability to clean up its own mess.
"This is a real challenging project," says George Gerstle, a CDOT environmental-services manager. "Most of the hazardous-waste problems in the country aren't in a residential area. We really want to keep the community informed about what we're doing, and we've tried to be as up front as we can."
Yet after six years and $20 million in cleanup efforts, many key aspects of the project are as clear as mud. CDOT officials claim that the cleanup goals required by the health department are absurdly expensive and technically impossible to achieve, but critics say CDPHE hasn't been tough enough on their fellow state employees. CDOT has stressed the minuscule health risk from the leak and characterized community concern as minimal, too. But several area residents and landowners are now suing the state, claiming damages to their health as well as their property.
State health officials insist that the CDOT cleanup is being handled no differently from that of any private polluter. But internal agency documents obtained by Westword indicate considerable behind-the-scenes maneuvering and confusion. Hoping to persuade the state to ease the corrective actions the department must perform, CDOT has attempted to shift the blame for most of the contamination to an as-yet-unidentified source--a source the health department has been in no hurry to track down.
Privately, health officials have expressed concerns about the reliability of contamination reports provided by CDOT, which were used in devising the cleanup proposal; one confidential memorandum warns that the inaccurate data could result in "an expensive folly with potential fallout for all." The politicking has become so intense that some employees within the health department believe the cleanup supervision should be turned over to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, a move both agencies have strenuously resisted.
"If the EPA gets called in, CDOT gets dragged in deeper," says one environmental attorney familiar with the case, "and the health department doesn't look too good, either. But you have to wonder what would have happened if this was a different kind of neighborhood. Can you imagine if this had happened in Cherry Hills? There would be blood."
Bad Water, Bad Air
CDOT's Materials Testing Laboratory on East Louisiana Avenue, the site where the leak occurred, was built back in the 1950s, long before neighboring Glendale blossomed as an enclave of strip clubs, apartment complexes and singles on short leases. In the early 1970s, the department installed two underground tanks to store up to 800 gallons of waste solvents used for cleaning equipment and testing road materials. When maintenance workers removed the tanks in 1987, they discovered holes in the tanks where the solvents had leaked into the soil. But the health department wasn't notified of the leak until after a consulting firm took soil samples nearly six years later.
"The left hand apparently was not informed of what the right hand was doing," says CDPHE spokeswoman Marion Galant. "They put the dirt back in the hole, and that was that."
"We didn't follow up, which was wrong," says CDOT's Gerstle. "But it was a screwup of ignorance, not malice."
Health officials first learned of the contamination in early 1993. Over the next two years, extensive testing determined that the toxic brew oozing from the tanks--including dichloroethene, or 1,1-DCE, a suspected carcinogen associated with liver and kidney disease in lab animals--had reached groundwater and traveled off-site. The underground plume of measurable contamination stretched north into Glendale, almost to the banks of Cherry Creek, finally dropping to acceptable levels in the vicinity of an office building complex that happens to contain the headquarters for the state health department.