Board Games

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

On July 23, 1996, Adrienne Anderson grabbed her briefcase and drove across town to Gaetano's restaurant, where she'd be meeting for the first time with some of the other Denverites who sat on the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District's board of directors. Denver mayor Wellington Webb had appointed Anderson to the board several months earlier, but her confirmation had been held up -- largely because of questions raised by Ted Hackworth, an outspoken city councilman and longtime member of the Metro board. Hackworth was concerned that Anderson might be an "environmental extremist" with strong union ties who'd disrupt the congenial relationship that the twenty or so Denver delegates to the 59-member board enjoyed with their suburban counterparts. But after Anderson assured Hackworth that she was no radical, her appointment became official.

As she made her way through rush-hour traffic, Anderson thought about how she'd raise the issue of the Lowry Landfill. She'd done some preliminary research and learned that Metro had quietly reached a settlement with the City of Denver and Waste Management regarding its financial liability at the landfill, which the Environmental Protection Agency had named a Superfund site in 1984. Instead of paying millions to aid in the cleanup, Metro had agreed to pump contaminated water from the landfill through its sewer system. Anderson found the plan disturbing, because she'd found evidence that the landfill contained radioactive materials. The proposal also represented a departure from the cleanup program announced by the EPA in 1994; Anderson, who was familiar with the laws governing Superfund sites, knew that such a change would require a public hearing.

At Gaetano's, Anderson joined other members of the Denver delegation, exchanged a few pleasantries and then launched in. Did you know the Lowry Landfill was radioactive? she asked.

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.
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.

As she reached for her briefcase, she sensed a growing turmoil at the table. Hackworth, she would later recall, seemed to be turning a deeper shade of red, and boardmember John Wilder, an excitable Irishman, was breathing heavily. Suddenly, Wilder threw down his fork and thundered, "Those are very serious accusations, young lady." A moment of stunned awkwardness followed. Then Wilder, Hackworth and fellow boardmember Robert Werner stood up and stormed out of the restaurant.

So began Adrienne Anderson's tenure on a little-noticed board that has the unglamorous job of overseeing one of the largest sewage-treatment facilities in the West. Over the next few years, a fierce controversy would rage over Metro's plan to pipe the Lowry groundwater through its sewer system. The firestorm soon engulfed not only Metro's upper management and union, but also lawyers and bureaucrats at the EPA and Denver's City Hall. They exchanged "white papers" and swapped e-mails that often disparaged Anderson and other critics. Anderson fired back with a whistleblower lawsuit of her own; an administrative law judge is expected to rule on her case within the next few months.

When the EPA and Metro eventually submitted their plan for public comment, not one citizen embraced it. "We want the ugly corporations to clean up their own mess -- like we learned in kindergarten," wrote one irate citizen. Yet the project moved forward. A new sewer line was dug, a small treatment plant constructed, pumps and monitoring wells put in place, and on July 25, 2000, Lowry groundwater started flowing through the public sewers.

The discharge will continue for fifty, a hundred years, maybe longer. "We made our decision. It was a final decision. And that's the way it was going to go down," Hackworth would testify years after that aborted dinner.


By July 1995, only a year after the EPA issued its Record of Decision spelling out how the Lowry Landfill was to be cleaned up, Denver officials were pressuring Metro to take the groundwater.

Metro was the last holdout in the massive litigation brought by the city and Waste Management against the companies that had dumped at Lowry, some of which had banded together in an organization called the Lowry Coalition. Together Denver and Waste Management had cajoled and browbeaten at least 166 entities into paying almost $110 million for the cleanup and "premiums" that would protect the polluters from such potential liabilities as cost overruns and lawsuits. Some of that money had subsequently been placed in privately managed trust funds known collectively as the Lowry Environmental Protection/ Cleanup Trust.

Metro had spent nearly $4.5 million defending itself. The litigation was so costly and time-consuming that the district had assigned one full-time employee and two clerical staffers to keep up with the paperwork. Metro had argued that its liability should be less than that of other polluters because the sewage sludge spread at the landfill in previous years wasn't toxic. But the district had been dealt a major blow just two months earlier, when U.S. District Judge Zita Weinshienk ruled that Metro's sewage sludge did indeed contain hazardous wastes. Soon after that ruling was issued, Denver and Waste Management stepped up the pressure. "The only reason they wanted us," Metro manager Robert Hite would later testify in Anderson's whistleblower lawsuit, "is because we were the only ones who had the capability to clean up the water."

In a letter identified as "privileged and confidential settlement communication," Assistant City Attorney Steven Coon pointed out that Metro was Lowry's largest volume generator and had probably dumped as much as 51 million gallons at the landfill -- a far higher number than what the district had reported to the EPA. Coon claimed that the huge volume, coupled with the alleged under-reporting and the toxic chemicals added to the waste stream, could result in a $22 million judgment against Metro at trial. But, he wrote, in lieu of payment, the city was willing to take in-kind ser-vice: the right to discharge the Lowry effluent through the sewer system -- provided the district did not impose overly restrictive pretreatment standards. "Thus, it is of substantial economic value to Metro to assist in gaining EPA and Aurora acceptance of this plan and to assure that pretreatment requirements do not defeat the purposes contemplated," he wrote.

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.

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.

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."

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.

Anderson intensified her research, filing numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the EPA. During this process, she says, documents that had previously been available publicly were restamped as "privileged." Among the documents that appear to have been reclassified is a letter from John Haggard, then the EPA's project manager at Lowry, describing allegations of illegal dumping made by former state patrolman Bill Wilson, as well as lab analyses performed for the EPA showing plutonium contamination at the landfill.

Jessie Goldfarb, an EPA attorney who often handles FOIA matters, says she doesn't know anything about any document reclassifications. "I've never done that," she adds, "and I know of no one else who would have done such a thing."

But Westword has obtained documents through its own public-records requests filed with the EPA and the City of Denver which show that the EPA has been unwilling to turn over public information regarding Lowry. These records also show that the EPA has occasionally consulted with the city about whether documents should be made public.

For example, Anderson had filed a FOIA request for a letter from the Department of Justice's David Dain, in which he advised city officials that they were breaking off settlement negotiations. Goldfarb subsequently faxed the letter to Assistant City Attorney Shaun Sullivan, who sent a memo to Ed Demos, Dennis Bollmann and Theresa Donahue, three Denver officials intimately familiar with Lowry:

"The EPA has received a FOIA request for the attached letter from the DOJ to us. EPA does not want to give it to AA [Adrienne Anderson]. Unfortunately, there is no express exception to FOIA for this purpose so EPA must rely on the need to protect the public interest (presumably in frank, open settlement discussions). Jessie Goldfarb has asked our view on disclosure/non-disclosure. Could you call me so we can discuss this matter?"

Goldfarb says she had an obligation to consult with the city because the letter contained confidential settlement information. "We couldn't release it without the city's consent," she adds. And apparently the city opposed the letter's release, because Anderson says she never received a copy of it.

But the EPA was trying to keep a lid on Lowry long before Anderson was appointed to the Metro board. In one document dated March 12, 1990, EPA officials discussed how to handle inquiries from Bryan Abas, then a reporter for Westword. "I expect there will be a Westword piece in the near future, and we will need to react with the 'facts,'" Haggard wrote in a letter to his supervisor, Barry Levene. "Lowry has been the only major project (Superfund) in the Front Range that has been relatively quiet, and you may want to consider activities to coalesce all the interested parties at Lowry so that it remains fairly quiet."

EPA and Metro officials routinely contacted networks and newspapers to complain about Lowry coverage; these letters were then circulated by e-mail or regular mail to their counterparts in Denver and at Waste Management. No news agency was too large -- or too small.

Jillian Lloyd, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, spent nearly a year investigating Lowry before writing her exhaustive 1998 piece, "A Trooper, A Dump, and A Tale of Doubt." After its publication, Metro manager Hite wrote a lengthy letter to Lloyd's supervisor, claiming the article was "totally biased and unsubstantiated."

"The arguments parrot those of a dissident Metro Wastewater Reclamation District Board member who is routinely ignored by Denver's two dailies, The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, and by her fellow Board members," Hite continued, referring to Anderson. "Yet you quote her as though she is a respected authority."

William Yellowtail, director of the EPA's Region VIII, which includes Colorado, wrote a lengthy letter to an Erie resident in 1997, rebutting three stories published by the Boulder Weekly. "These articles contain much misinformation about the EPA's cleanup proposal for groundwater at the Lowry Landfill Superfund Site," he began. And Jack McGraw, another high-ranking EPA official, sent a similar letter to a citizen in Milwaukee in response to another critical article that appeared in In These Times.

In spring 1997, Metro officials threatened to censure Anderson for speaking out at a Lowry hearing; in response, she filed a whistleblower suit that May. After several hearings and appeals, a federal judge is expected to rule on the case sometime in June.

Anderson was often the subject of e-mails and memos that flew back and forth between the public agencies. One of the most frequent writers was Metro's Frank, who had formerly worked as a public-relations officer for aerospace giants Lockheed and Martin Marietta, which have since merged to become Lockheed-Martin.

Martin Marietta was the company that Anderson and others alleged had dumped toxic chemicals into water that was then piped to the Friendly Hills neighborhood and other south and southwest suburban communities. Although Frank was knowledgeable about the Friendly Hills case, he testified that he wasn't directly involved in it. Referring to Anderson in one e-mail, Frank wrote: "I am greatly bothered that she is able to publish this garbage from a University of Colorado e-mail address, which I help fund via my taxes. However, c'est la vie." (Frank used a taxpayer-funded computer to send his message.)

From time to time, Assistant City Attorney Sullivan reported to his colleagues what Anderson was saying at various public forums. In an October 19, 1999, memo, he wrote: "Having been unsuccessful by alleging significant plutonium contamination at Lowry, Adrienne Anderson has broadened her alleged concerns to include all radionuclides. At least this appeared to be the thrust of her testimony at the [EPA] ombudsman's hearing on Saturday. It may be wise to hire a radiation expert separate from Parsons to ensure we have the best analysis available to answer any questions that may be raised. Ms. Anderson has made the Lowry site her pet project, and she will continue to raise new questions unless we can respond authoritatively. You may recall that she started by alleging Section 6 was the site of Army chemical weapons training or storage during World War II (she had the wrong section and probably the wrong operation), then she alleged plutonium contamination (no evidence), and now she is alleging shipment of radium and depleted uranium waste by Shattuck."


Rather than do the "best analysis available," however, Lowry officials didn't even bother to resample any of the wells that had turned up hot. A database maintained by the City of Denver shows that with the exception of one shallow well, no sampling whatsoever was done for plutonium or americium during a seven-year stretch, from roughly 1991 to 1998. "It wasn't required by the EPA," explains Dennis Bollmann, who supervises the city's activities at the landfill.

During this period, workers were quietly plugging dozens of monitoring wells, including many that had registered high readings for plutonium and americium, records show. Federal and city officials say the wells were plugged to ensure the integrity of the landfill cap and to increase the efficiency of a gas-extraction system. But the plugging also prevented any additional sampling in those disputed wells.

According to Bollmann, the plugged wells had been drilled years earlier in order to better ascertain the nature of the contaminants present in the landfill. Once the EPA's Record of Decision was issued in 1994, the goals changed, and sampling was performed to determine "whether the site was in compliance with the regulations," he says.

As for the four aquifers that lie beneath the site -- the Dawson, the Denver, the Arapahoe and the Laramie-Fox Hills -- Bollmann says they haven't been contaminated. "We have samples from the lignite bed, located on top of the Denver formation, that are clean," he says. "We have samples from the upper Denver aquifer that are clean. And with a few scattered exceptions, the samples in the unweathered Dawson are clean."

Although water samples taken from wells drilled deeper than 300 feet contain numerous chemicals, including solvents and heavy metals, those solvents are most likely the result of contamination from the labs doing the analyses, Bollmann says. The metals, he adds, are not present in levels exceeding "background concentrations."

And what, exactly, are the "background concentrations" at Lowry? At the landfill, contamination is defined as the "presence of a chemical above background concentrations." But the wells that have been designated as "background" wells are not free of pollutants, either.

Many of these "background wells" are located south of Quincy Road -- one of the areas where patrolman Bill Wilson saw tankers dumping their loads decades ago. According to the city's database, these wells also contain numerous chemicals and radionuclides -- but since they are "upgradient," or upstream of the landfill, the EPA has allowed them be used as background wells. The result? The contamination that is present in the on-site wells is downplayed.

One of the deepest wells, dubbed WW-40, descends more than a thousand feet to the Arapahoe Aquifer; it's located near the Gun Club Road entrance to the landfill. According to both Bollmann and the EPA, no contaminants were found in this well. But the database tells a different story: Arsenic, lead and mercury were among the chemicals detected when WW-40 was sampled in 1993 and again in 1994. Apparently no testing was done for radionuclides or volatile organic chemicals, which are extremely prevalent at the site. And despite the well's clean bill of health, landfill workers are drinking "commercially bottled drinking water," EPA records show.

Several other deep wells -- GW-116, GW-117 and GW-118 -- were drilled near the center of the landfill, but the database contains no sampling results for these wells. According to Bollmann, the wells were drilled not to test for contaminants, but to determine whether a fracture existed below the landfill. No such fracture was found, he says.

In 1998, landfill officials finally began testing wells again for plutonium contamination again -- but these samples were mostly taken from newly drilled wells located just outside an underground barrier wall. Even so, the database shows that these wells, which are all relatively shallow, contain plutonium and americium, albeit in low amounts.

The database reveals other puzzling trends. For example, there are 436 results in the database showing plutonium and americium levels ranging from a few hundredths of a picocurie to hundreds of picocuries. But 278 results, including nearly all of the highest readings, are dismissed as "undetected" and marked with a "U" in an adjoining column. When asked about the notation, Gwen Hooten, the EPA's current project manager at Lowry, says it represents the "detection limits" of the laboratory doing the analysis and not the actual concentration.

Detection limits are the levels of contamination that a lab detects in samples sent for analysis. Normally, laboratories provide their clients with the actual results of their analyses, as well as such qualifying information as detection limits and counting errors. So, for example, if the detection limits for plutonium were set at 50 picocuries and a sample came in that contained less than 50 picocuries of plutonium, the lab would mark a "U" on paper and report the amount as an undetectable -- a "nondetect," in cleanup lingo.

Although a layman hearing the word "nondetect" could easily think that meant a sample was uncontaminated, that might not be the case. The actual amount of the nondetect could be anywhere from 0 to 50 picocuries -- three times the EPA's safe-drinking-water standard. "The lab's not saying the concentration is zero if a 'U' is there," concedes Bollmann. "What it's saying is that it can't say with certainty the compound is present in any concentration."

Some of the wells contain results ranging from hundreds, to thousands, to a million picocuries or more for americium, arsenic, iodine and neptunium; these results are also recorded in the EPA's Record of Decision as the "maximum detected concentration." According to Hooten, however, the numbers do not reflect the actual radionuclide concentrations that exist at the site, but rather detection limits. "It was just a first run," she says. "I can't given you a specific reason for why those detection limits were chosen."

Or why they were set so high. According to Dan Hirsch, a California expert on nuclear-policy issues, the detection limits in the Lowry database are so high that, in many cases, they effectively mask any evidence of contamination. "If the data are reported correctly, the agencies are using detection limits that grossly exceed safe drinking-water levels," he says. "If this is indeed what they have done, it would be inappropriate from a health standpoint, because their monitoring techniques would be incapable of seeing contamination at the levels that these agencies say produce unacceptable health risks."

This practice of labeling high results as U's, or nondetects, extends to numerous other radionuclides and many of the non-radioactive compounds as well.

"I don't know the reason behind it," Hooten responds, when asked why the detection limits for the database were set so high. "It could have been the Lowry Coalition, CH2M Hill or Waste Management."

But according to Lori Tagawa of Waste Management, the lab sets the detection limits. "We don't tell them what the detection limit should be because we don't have any idea," she says.

As the federal regulatory agency overseeing Lowry, the EPA could have ordered its contractors to come up with results that would have showed the actual levels of contaminants present in the landfill. In an undated paper, Milt Lammering, the EPA's own radiation expert, notes that the detection limits at Lowry had been set so "unrealistically high" that it was impossible to know with certainty what the concentrations of plutonium and americium were in some wells.


Despite public opposition, landfill officials moved ahead with the project, and on the morning of July 25, 2000, Lowry groundwater began flowing through the sewers. A few hours later, a manhole on East Hampden Avenue blew its cover and spewed 1,880 gallons of contaminated water across the ground.

After fixing the manhole and reporting the incident to the EPA, Lowry officials turned the water back on. For three months, the clear-looking liquid whooshed through darkened sewers at a rate that was roughly equal to four garden hoses running at full strength.

Before leaving Lowry, the water was pumped into a small treatment facility, where it was passed through carbon filters and a tank filled with ultraviolet light. These processes are supposed to reduce volatile organic chemicals such as solvents, but they do nothing to remove the heavy metals, radionuclides, PCBs or pesticides still present in the water.

A round of sampling done just days before the discharge began showed 0.32 picocuries of americium present in the water. While that was a very small amount, it's still twice the state standard for groundwater and much higher than what you'd except to find in a normal background sample.

Other samples showed a total of 0.15 picocuries of plutonium-238 and -239 in the treated water. Again, it was a small amount -- but still higher than what you'd expect to find under normal conditions.

Lowry officials had hoped to pump a mix of water through the sewers: 70 percent from the northern portion of the site and 30 percent from a much more contaminated area near the center of the landfill called the "North Toe." But the North Toe water proved to be so contaminated that officials soon began debating whether they should reduce that portion of the mix to 5 percent.

On October 20, the discharge was again halted when a lab discovered that the water was toxic to a small organism called Ceriodaphnia dubia. These small crustaceans do what canaries do in underground mines: They alert scientists to potential problems that could later affect larger creatures, such as fish and humans.

For three months, officials from Metro, Denver and Waste Management tried to figure out what was wrong. Eventually they concluded that it was the test itself -- and not the water -- that was causing problems. On January 12 of this year, the flow resumed.

Asked how long the discharge could go on, Metro's Pearlman responds, "You should continue it going on in perpetuity."

That's too long, says Lloyd Hesser, a trucker who hauled chemicals to the landfill years ago. "They'll never get that water clean," he adds. "There's no way you can dilute that stuff."

Read more Westword coverage of the Lowry Landfill

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