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A Matter of Trust

Who paid what to clean up Lowry Landfill? That's confidential.

When former state patrolman Bill Wilson arrived for his interview with the Environmental Protection Agency in 1988, nearly thirty years had elapsed since he'd cruised the lonesome roads that traversed the Lowry Bombing Range. A weird Cold War paranoia lay across that land in the early 1960s. Scarred dirt roads angled into the brush, leading to military hangars, landing strips, munition storage depots and underground missile silos that housed enough nuclear weapons to blow the world to smithereens. Time and time again, as he patrolled the dusty roads, Wilson had spotted tanker trucks stopping alongside the ditches, creek beds, even the silos themselves. And there, among the broken glass and brittle grasses, the truckers had dumped their loads.

According to state and federal records, Wilson tipped off the Colorado Department of Health to the clandestine dumping in 1977, but the department did little to either confirm or deny his allegations. Now, eleven years later, the EPA was in the midst of a multimillion-dollar investigation of the Lowry Landfill, a Superfund site located at the edge of the old bombing range, and the agency wanted to hear what Wilson had to say.

Wilson told the EPA that he was most concerned about the milk-truck-style vehicles that had been used to dump liquid wastes. "During a conversation with one truck driver who was dumping a milky-colored waste material adjacent to Highway 30, he made inquiry as to the type of waste being dumped. The truck driver told him the material was harmless wastewater and that they steamcleaned the trucks after unloading," one EPA official wrote of Wilson's interview. "The truck driver also said they had been hired by Dow to haul the liquids from Rocky Flats. It seemed strange to him that harmless wastewater would be hauled all the way to Aurora from Rocky Flats, however, he had no real authority in this area so all he was able to do was to issue a PUC warning."

A prolific letter writer, Wilson relayed his concerns to presidents and congressmen alike. Sometimes he would talk to the media, sometimes he wouldn't. In a recent note to Westword, he instructed the newspaper not to use his name at all. But Wilson's letters are strewn through numerous court documents and administrative files, and what he had to say is a matter of public record.

Alternately describing himself as a "federal-military retired American citizen," a "notary public agent" or simply an "agent," Wilson seemed eccentric and often alluded to larger conspiracies. But he never altered the basic facts of his story. And truth was, scientists working for both the EPA and the private companies that had dumped at Lowry were encountering high levels of radiation at the site. Wilson's recollection suggested one way the radiation might have gotten there.

"Since we have found elevated radiation levels at Lowry, I am concerned that he may be right," the EPA's John Haggard confided in a memo to his supervisor, Vera Moritz. "The connection to Dow is also disturbing, since they operated the Flats from the fifties and sixties."

Haggard, who now works for General Electric in upstate New York, thought the EPA should conduct a "general investigation" of the area and appended this cryptic note to his memo: "Some Lowry citizens believe we already have info. in our possession that would implicate a federal facility and believe we are covering up something. While this is certainly not true, if we find a problem much later in the area it certainly will not look good."

Haggard's words were prophetic: The concerns raised by Bill Wilson would surface again and again in ensuing years, and they continue to this day.

In 1991, just three years after the Wilson interview, scientists working for the Lowry Coalition, an alliance of companies that had dumped at the landfill, took numerous samples from wells drilled throughout the site and shipped them off to a New Jersey lab that had done countless analyses for nuclear-weapons facilities during the Cold War. Lab workers ran the groundwater samples through their radiation detection machines and found that they contained plutonium, americium and other radioactive substances.

Although the Lowry Coalition initially was adamant that these compounds had come from Rocky Flats, six months later the coalition would disavow the test results. But a database obtained by Westword reveals that virtually none of the so-called "hot wells" were ever retested -- and some were even more radioactive than previously reported.

Confidential court documents reveal that sixteen polluters were concerned enough about potential radioactive contamination at Lowry to purchase "radioactive premiums" from the City of Denver and Waste Management, the private company that began operating the landfill in 1980. The radioactive premium was one of about six different options that were offered, protecting polluters on everything from cost overruns to potential lawsuits that might be brought some day by disgruntled neighbors. All told, the city and Waste Management collected approximately $38 million in premiums and another $72 million for cleanup and other expenses.

Only a handful of city officials were privy to these settlement deals, and they say they can't discuss them because they're bound by a confidentiality order issued eight years ago.

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