Board Games

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

But Metro officials fought hard to get their point of view across. One of the district's most effective proponents was Steve Pearlman: No matter how high tensions were running, his frank and laid-back demeanor invariably calmed the audience. "The word 'Superfund' scares people," Pearlman once explained to a reporter. "It conjures up images of toxic waste and fuming pits, but that's not what Superfund is about, necessarily."

It was Pearlman's job to examine the health and safety ramifications of accepting the Lowry effluent. He concluded that Metro could easily absorb the groundwater without endangering workers, harming the quality of the district's biosolids, or exceeding state standards established for water that would eventually be discharged directly from the plant back into the South Platte River.

"We took a look at every pollutant that was known or supposed to be at Lowry," he says. "And we built such safety standards into the permit that even if something did come through, you would still be safe."

Michael Hogue
Practice what you teach: Adrienne Anderson leads an environmental-studies class at the University of Colorado.
Anthony Camera
Practice what you teach: Adrienne Anderson leads an environmental-studies class at the University of Colorado.


Read more Westword coverage of the Lowry Landfill

The Lowry Landfill contains hundreds of radioactive and non-radioactive chemicals. Approximately 165 of the 275 chemicals that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has declared as presenting the "most significant potential threat to human health" are in the landfill. Only about a third of these substances -- fifteen radionuclides and 53 chemicals -- are regulated under the Metro permit; the remainder simply flow through the sewers.

Every morning, heavy trucks rumble out of Metro's headquarters in north Denver, laden with steaming black sludge known in the business as "beneficial biosolids." The trucks make over twenty trips a day to Deer Trail, where the district's "Metrogro Farm" is located. There, backhoes transfer the sludge into gigantic machines that trundle over the hills, scattering the material across the fields. From a distance, the sludge resembles nutrient-rich soil, dark and loamy. But up close, it's unnaturally black and has a claylike texture.

Some of the farmers who own land near Metro's 50,000-acre Deer Trail spread were disgusted to learn that the district's dank-smelling sludge, already known to contain heavy metals and chemicals, would soon contain plutonium and other radioactive substances. They were also concerned that runoff from the fields could harm their water.

During one Metro board meeting, John Kalcevic, whose family has ranched in eastern Colorado for a hundred years, said he was "astounded" that Metro had agreed to accept Lowry's wastes. "Why in the hell do you people want to take on someone else's problems?" he asked. "You're going to create for yourself a problem that you're never going to get rid of."

Another farmer, Dolores Tippett, pointed out that growing crops in sludge isn't even economical these days. "People don't want chemicalized food. Why are we going to produce it?" she asked. "Our kids and our grandkids are going to be buying this, and they're going to get sick from it, and here we just let it go on. I'm ashamed of it. I think I'd rather move to another state that's cleaner and more organic."

But not all farmers feel this way. In fact, the district has a waiting list of farmers who want the stuff spread on their land, according to Metro spokesman Frank. "It's a good solution, because you're simply returning nutrients to the land," he says.

Tony Boncucia, a former Metro truck driver who'd been fired for a time-card violation, testified that the sludge often was applied too heavily and in creek beds and valleys. He remembered seeing cows allowed to graze in fields immediately after a sludge application, their faces covered by thick, black gook. "I never worked with anything so bad," he said. "Rubbers, Kotexes, needles -- it's unreal what you would find."

But Metro officials point out that such items normally are strained out in the early stages of the treatment process. The remaining solids are sent to huge anaerobic digesters for two weeks, where microorganisms destroy many of the pathogens. "It's the 'yuck factor,'" says Frank. "When you talk about making fertilizer from human poop, people can't process that."

Tensions between Anderson and the rest of the board escalated in early 1997, after she found a letter delivered to the EPA in December 1991 by the Lowry Coalition alleging that the landfill was contaminated with dangerous amounts of plutonium and americium -- radioactive waste that could only have come from Rocky Flats, the former nuclear-weapons plant. Metro was a member of the Coalition, and Anderson was aghast that the district hadn't mentioned the letter -- "the smoking gun memo," she calls it -- during the first year she was on the board. "Here they were libeling me all over town as a 'nutcase' and a 'wacko,' and they had not even shared this information with their own employees," she later testified.

Soon after she discovered the letter, Anderson and members of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union held a press conference to announce their findings. A few days later, the EPA issued a two-page response, stating that there was "no evidence" that radioactive wastes from Rocky Flats had ever been dumped at Lowry. "We've done things in the past, but dumping plutonium at Lowry wasn't one of them," said Pat Etchart, spokesman for Rocky Flats.

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