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A Bad Case of Gas

Montclair residents want Lowry to clean up a mess before it becomes a household problem.

The good news is that a toxic plume is creeping out from underneath the former Lowry Air Force Base slowly, at only about a foot per year. The bad news is that the federal, state and city agencies in charge of cleaning it up are moving even more slowly.

Eleven plumes of toxic groundwater sit under Lowry; they're contaminated by trichloroethylene, or TCE, a common ingredient in household cleaners and glues that is also used industrially as a solvent and degreasing agent. One of the plumes, which lurks between fourteen and forty feet underground, has passed north off of the base into the ground underneath Montclair and Stapleton. The plume is about five blocks wide at its thickest, two at its narrowest.

Montclair residents aren't worried about their water -- they get their drinking water from the City of Denver. Their concern is that pockets of air in the ground can provide a pathway for chlorinated gases to seep into homes.

In May 1994, the Air Force first discovered the groundwater plume. In September 1997, the United States Air Force Base Conversion Agency, the office responsible for reclaiming Lowry for civilian use, tested indoor-air samples at the Heritage Estates apartments on 12th Avenue and found contamination levels higher than normal. Air Force officials installed underground fans to blow the gases away, and a return visit in August 1998 found that the amount of chlorinated air had diminished to virtually normal levels. At the end of this month, officials will release a report with their latest findings.

"What comes out at the end of the month is...going to define the nature and the extent of groundwater contamination," says Jeff Edson, who manages the remediation-and-restoration unit of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). But Edson warns that even that report won't be the last of the government studies. "We need a new snapshot of what the plume is doing."

Only then will efforts begin to actually clean up the plume off-base. The Air Force doesn't see that happening before the middle of next year. However, the conversion agency is set to close its operations at Lowry and move to Texas in 2000. Residents have expressed concern that the move will delay the cleanup ("Par for the Course," April 9, 1998).

The neighbors are understandably impatient, and they're being spurred on by a lawsuit that the City of Denver filed against the Air Force last fall. The city first filed a claim of property damage against the Air Force in 1996, contending that contaminated groundwater from the base had migrated to the former Stapleton International Airport -- like Lowry, a huge land area on the verge of redevelopment. In March 1998 the Air Force denied the charge, claiming there was no evidence of real damage to property and no proof that the spread of the plume was an act of negligence. Air Force officials argued that the contamination at Stapleton may have come from a source other than Lowry. Last September the city filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Air Force, estimating decreased economic value and diminished development opportunities at $5 million. The two sides had begun preliminary discovery this year when they agreed to put further litigation on hold -- the suit was, after all, a taxpayer expense for the city and for the federal government -- while they try to work out a settlement. "At this point, the settlement discussions have become pretty mature, and there's a promising likelihood we could resolve the case within the next couple months," says attorney Norm Higley, whose firm is handling the city's suit.

In the meantime, Jacqueline St. Joan, a resident of the East Montclair neighborhood, says "the community is trying to get organized." St. Joan serves on an advisory board made up of the Air Force, the Environmental Protection Agency, the state health department and the Denver Department of Environmental Health. "There's less and less confidence in the Air Force's ability to do the job."

East Montclair neighbors are talking about hiring a consultant to analyze any future studies the Air Force conducts on the plume cleanup -- and they're also talking about hiring a lawyer. In addition, an organization called the Healthy Neighborhoods Coalition, made up of churches and community and neighborhood organizations in Aurora and Northeast Denver, has formed in the last two months. The group is collecting signatures supporting the cleanup of Lowry and Stapleton.

Though residents believe that government officials are stalling, Edson says that federal procedures regulating the cleanup of contaminated sites were "never developed to be an expeditious process. I blame the delays more on the process than on any of the individual agencies."

Hilarie Portell of the Lowry Redevelopment Authority, which is transforming the old base into a mixed-use neighborhood of stores, houses and parks, says that the concentrations of TCE are significantly lower since the conversion agency began remediation efforts, but there are "some people in East Montclair who are freaked out: 'Gee, if the city is suing the Air Force and it's going under our neighborhood, I want a piece of the suit.'"

"I wouldn't expect people at LRA to say anything less," says Christine Romano, a member of the East Montclair Neighborhood Association (EMNA). But, she wonders, "if this is nothing to worry about, why is Denver suing them?"

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