Soiled

Did a story about contaminated waste play dirty?

Channel 9 investigative reporter Deborah Sherman knows that complaints come with the territory. But even though she's spent the past sixteen years as a journalist, and nearly two as a member of the 9News I-Team, she's never experienced anything quite like a state official's reaction to her recent piece about radioactive soil at the Colorado School of Mines. Doug Benevento, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, wrote a letter to Channel 9 president and general manager Mark Cornetta in which he griped about inaccuracies and misstatements too numerous to list in a single missive, requested a meeting to discuss his concerns, and then posted the document on the department's website, www.cdphe.state.co.us, for all the world to see.

"I thought it was highly unusual," says Sherman, who stands by her findings. "And it spoke volumes about his intentions and his concerns about this story. Instead of telling the public what's going on, he spent most of the letter bashing a reporter." In her view, "This is a classic case of shooting the messenger."

Benevento, for his part, believes Sherman's offering was "slanted, irresponsible and basically deceitful to the public," and while he characterizes his October 19 get-together with Cornetta, Sherman and other Channel 9 personnel as "productive," he sees no reason to remove the letter from the department site. Indeed, he's thinking about posting more online material, some of which might juxtapose the alleged dangers of the Mines soil with CDPHE's worrisome 2004 analysis of health concerns related to a Lookout Mountain antenna farm, where Channel 9 and other stations have been fighting for years to build an enormous broadcasting tower. "If I would have handled the study we did on the TV towers the way 9News has handled this story, I think Channel 9 would have been very upset," he says.

Sherman's October 11 package focused on more than 450 bags of radioactive soil sitting in a fenced area adjacent to soccer fields on the School of Mines' Golden campus. An internal CDPHE memo sent in July to Benevento, environmental programs director Howard Roitman and associate Gary Baughman pointed out that a risk assessment performed by a Mines contractor determined that the bags "can be safely disposed at the BFI Foothills municipal solid waste landfill north of Golden." The memo's authors didn't dispute this contention, but they recommended that the soil be sent to "the CSI industrial waste landfill in Bennett," a town on the plains east of Denver, due to assorted bureaucratic and geological factors. For instance, they wrote, the CSI site "is located within an area of bedrock shale with little or no groundwater," whereas the Foothills facility "is located directly over a groundwater recharge area for groundwater used for drinking water supplies in the Metro area." Although shipping the bags to Bennett would cost $150,000, versus $35,000 at Foothills, they maintained that to do otherwise would establish "a precedent that neither we, nor the communities across Colorado, would wish to set." This argument didn't persuade Benevento, however, and he approved the transport of the bags to Foothills -- a ruling that hadn't been made public prior to Channel 9's exposé.

According to Benevento, a former staffer for Senator Wayne Allard who was appointed to his current position by Governor Bill Owens, Sherman's report was rife with errors. But when he's asked for specifics, he cites only one: the use of the word "dump" to refer to the Foothills landfill. "In federal regulations, a Œdump' is legally defined as an unlicensed, completely unregulated, basically illegal facility," he says. Sherman and company counter that "dump" is common vernacular for a landfill, but they changed the word in the website version of the story anyhow. They also tweaked a reference to Foothills' setting -- it has a Golden mailing address, but isn't technically within Golden city limits -- and added a reference to "other minerals" in a section noting that the contaminated soil was left over from seven-plus decades of experiments with radioactive ores.

It's debatable whether these alterations actually qualify as corrections. In truth, they're semantic massages intended to placate aggrieved parties, and they didn't work in regard to Benevento, since he was just as distressed by matters of tone. He feels that mentions of "cancer-causing material" and "nuclear waste" vastly overstated the soil's dangers. He's just as displeased that Sherman's salvo excluded memo passages that downplayed hazards. The statement that dropping bags at Foothills "would not pose unacceptable risks" was as important to his decision as the prospect of saving $115,000, he says, adding, "If I'm not going to buy additional environmental protection, I'm not going to spend state dollars for no reason."

Granted, Benevento passed up the opportunity to share this opinion with Channel 9; he shrugged off numerous interview requests, leaving Roitman to comment for the department. Opposing him onscreen was environmental activist Adrienne Anderson, a controversial former University of Colorado professor who believes Benevento tried to get her fired at CU. Anderson describes Benevento's public letter to Channel 9 as "yet another attempt to intimidate people into silence, and I think it warrants a serious investigation by the Colorado Legislature as to why Governor Owens appears to support this sort of bullying behavior." In response, Benevento declares that Anderson "may very well be the most objective person they could find to talk about this, and that tells you everything you need to know about the story."

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