Board Games

When a boardmember refused to go with the flow, Metro's plan to handle Lowry wastewater got down and dirty.

Although Coon didn't mention it in his letter, the arrangement would also benefit the Lowry Cleanup Trust. In one analysis prepared by the city, four proposed methods for treating the Lowry groundwater, ranging in cost from $5.8 million to $12.7 million, were examined. The cheapest option -- and the one ultimately chosen by the city -- simply called for removing the organic compounds from the groundwater at a small water-treatment facility on-site and then dumping the water into the sewer system and letting Metro handle the rest.

This option, referred to in numerous documents as the "POTW option" -- the publicly owned treatment works option -- was also a bargaining chip in ongoing discussions that the city and Waste Management were having with the EPA and its legal representative, the Department of Justice. The EPA had alleged that Denver and Waste Management owed it millions of dollars for work at Lowry. Until that bill was settled, according to David Dain of the Justice Department, the federal government would not proceed with discussions regarding the use of "Metro's POTW to treat wastewater from the site."

The closed-door negotiations were delicate; tempers were frayed. Finally, in June 1996 -- the week a trial over the issue was set to begin in federal court -- the deal was finalized. In addition to treating the Lowry effluent, Metro agreed to ante up $1.9 million in cash.

Steve Pearlman watches the waste line at the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District.
Steve Pearlman watches the waste line at the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District.
A truck spreads Metro sludge near Deer Trail.
A truck spreads Metro sludge near Deer Trail.

Details

Read more Westword coverage of the Lowry Landfill

This wasn't the first time public sewers had been used to flush away Superfund waste. In fact, Metro accepted wastes at one time or another from several Superfund sites, including ASARCO, a smelter in the Globeville area of north Denver. The various discharges include "hundreds of thousands of different chemicals at varying levels," testified Steve Pearlman, head of Metro's regulatory and connector relations.

When the Lowry groundwater mixes with the 160 million gallons of sewage that flow daily into Metro's treatment system in north Denver, it's diluted by a factor of 5,000 or more.

"Do you know if it's possible to dilute plutonium?" Susan Tyburksi, an attorney representing Anderson, asked Hackworth during a deposition.

"I have no idea," he responded. "But I know that...dilution is the solution to pollution."


Once on Metro's board, Anderson quickly alienated the key boardmembers who had crafted the Lowry deal. When she tried to bring up the issue, she was repeatedly rebuffed. Some boardmembers balled up newspaper clippings and other documents that she'd left on their chairs and threw them into the trash. One boardmember told her to sit down and shut up; others sniggered openly when she stood up to speak. They would later testify that she was "rude" and "aggressive." Richard Plastino, who chaired the monthly meetings, said he came to dread seeing Anderson's hand shooting up in the crowded boardroom: "She made meetings disruptive. I remember my stomach tightening up in a ball when she raised her hand, because I knew something disruptive was coming."

Marilyn Ferrari, a retired Metro employee, longtime union official and Anderson supporter, said the meetings grew so hostile that she became physically frightened. "I was afraid for her, and I was afraid for myself," she testified.

But Anderson, who had already survived several bruising environmental campaigns, was not someone who scared easily. And she had little positive to say about her fellow boardmembers, whom she described as a bunch of "elderly white guys" who approved the agenda in twenty minutes, then "bolted" for the desserts. She also alleged that it was a "captive board" that simply served as a rubber stamp for Metro manager Robert Hite and his cronies.

It was a clash not only of ideas and ideologies, but also of genders and generations. A longtime advocate for public-interest groups, Anderson had started out lobbying for lower utility rates for senior citizens, then became involved in union and environmental issues. For six years she was the western director of the National Toxics Campaign, a grassroots organization focusing on hazardous-waste issues. One of her most intense battles centered on the allegations that toxic chemicals from Martin Marietta's aerospace complex had contaminated the drinking water in the Friendly Hills neighborhood, causing cancers and birth defects among children who lived there.

In 1992, Anderson started teaching environmental-studies courses at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The classes, which focused on real-life case studies involving such companies as Coors, were popular with students but periodically triggered threats of funding cutoffs from university administrators.

Anderson was a superb strategist -- "If I had her in one of my undergraduate classes, I'd give her an A," says Steve Frank, Metro's public-relations officer -- and in a short time, she had an impressive coalition of students, farmers and union workers rallying behind her denunciation of the district's Lowry deal.

The Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers opposed the plan to discharge the Lowry effluent, arguing that spreading Superfund wastes would create an unnecessary risk to the public and to workers. The union also contended that the proposal made little economic sense, since discharging the effluent through the sewers rather than treating it on-site would save only $1 million over thirty years. "This is an insignificant amount of money considering the potential clean-up costs associated with leaking sewer pipes and adverse effects on the river and the farm land," wrote health physicist Richard Hillier.

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