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A Bad Case of Gas

D. Collins

The good news is that a toxic plume is creeping out from underneath the former Lowry Air Force Base slowly, at only about a foot per year. The bad news is that the federal, state and city agencies in charge of cleaning it up are moving even more slowly.

Eleven plumes of toxic groundwater sit under Lowry; they're contaminated by trichloroethylene, or TCE, a common ingredient in household cleaners and glues that is also used industrially as a solvent and degreasing agent. One of the plumes, which lurks between fourteen and forty feet underground, has passed north off of the base into the ground underneath Montclair and Stapleton. The plume is about five blocks wide at its thickest, two at its narrowest.

Montclair residents aren't worried about their water -- they get their drinking water from the City of Denver. Their concern is that pockets of air in the ground can provide a pathway for chlorinated gases to seep into homes.

In May 1994, the Air Force first discovered the groundwater plume. In September 1997, the United States Air Force Base Conversion Agency, the office responsible for reclaiming Lowry for civilian use, tested indoor-air samples at the Heritage Estates apartments on 12th Avenue and found contamination levels higher than normal. Air Force officials installed underground fans to blow the gases away, and a return visit in August 1998 found that the amount of chlorinated air had diminished to virtually normal levels. At the end of this month, officials will release a report with their latest findings.

"What comes out at the end of the month is...going to define the nature and the extent of groundwater contamination," says Jeff Edson, who manages the remediation-and-restoration unit of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). But Edson warns that even that report won't be the last of the government studies. "We need a new snapshot of what the plume is doing."

Only then will efforts begin to actually clean up the plume off-base. The Air Force doesn't see that happening before the middle of next year. However, the conversion agency is set to close its operations at Lowry and move to Texas in 2000. Residents have expressed concern that the move will delay the cleanup ("Par for the Course," April 9, 1998).

The neighbors are understandably impatient, and they're being spurred on by a lawsuit that the City of Denver filed against the Air Force last fall. The city first filed a claim of property damage against the Air Force in 1996, contending that contaminated groundwater from the base had migrated to the former Stapleton International Airport -- like Lowry, a huge land area on the verge of redevelopment. In March 1998 the Air Force denied the charge, claiming there was no evidence of real damage to property and no proof that the spread of the plume was an act of negligence. Air Force officials argued that the contamination at Stapleton may have come from a source other than Lowry. Last September the city filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Air Force, estimating decreased economic value and diminished development opportunities at $5 million. The two sides had begun preliminary discovery this year when they agreed to put further litigation on hold -- the suit was, after all, a taxpayer expense for the city and for the federal government -- while they try to work out a settlement. "At this point, the settlement discussions have become pretty mature, and there's a promising likelihood we could resolve the case within the next couple months," says attorney Norm Higley, whose firm is handling the city's suit.

In the meantime, Jacqueline St. Joan, a resident of the East Montclair neighborhood, says "the community is trying to get organized." St. Joan serves on an advisory board made up of the Air Force, the Environmental Protection Agency, the state health department and the Denver Department of Environmental Health. "There's less and less confidence in the Air Force's ability to do the job."

East Montclair neighbors are talking about hiring a consultant to analyze any future studies the Air Force conducts on the plume cleanup -- and they're also talking about hiring a lawyer. In addition, an organization called the Healthy Neighborhoods Coalition, made up of churches and community and neighborhood organizations in Aurora and Northeast Denver, has formed in the last two months. The group is collecting signatures supporting the cleanup of Lowry and Stapleton.

Though residents believe that government officials are stalling, Edson says that federal procedures regulating the cleanup of contaminated sites were "never developed to be an expeditious process. I blame the delays more on the process than on any of the individual agencies."

Hilarie Portell of the Lowry Redevelopment Authority, which is transforming the old base into a mixed-use neighborhood of stores, houses and parks, says that the concentrations of TCE are significantly lower since the conversion agency began remediation efforts, but there are "some people in East Montclair who are freaked out: 'Gee, if the city is suing the Air Force and it's going under our neighborhood, I want a piece of the suit.'"

"I wouldn't expect people at LRA to say anything less," says Christine Romano, a member of the East Montclair Neighborhood Association (EMNA). But, she wonders, "if this is nothing to worry about, why is Denver suing them?"

But Romano and other neighbors are not happy with the city, either, which turned down their request to be added to the lawsuit. "The city seems to feel it's important to sue over contamination for future property owners but not for long-term citizens in East Montclair," she says. "They care more about vacant property than they do about our homes."

"The citizens' group wanted the city to represent them, and the city attorney's office can't do that," says attorney Higley. He says the city encouraged neighbors to retain their own counsel, and one of them did. East Montclair resident Rocky Hoery filed his own suit against the Air Force in federal court last May, claiming that his property's value had been affected by the plume. The Air Force has yet to respond to the suit, says Hoery's attorney, Kevin Hannon, who asked his client not to speak with Westword.

No one, including the neighbors, is saying there's any short-term health risk.

CDPHE officials have speculated that there may be a long-term risk of cancer, but the Environmental Protection Agency has not. The difference, says Edson, is that the EPA no longer uses a years-old standard for factoring long-term risk. John Student of the Denver Department of Environmental Health won't hazard a guess about the groundwater's health risk to residents. But he says he errs on the side of caution. "Right now the CDPHE has the more conservative numbers. The bottom line is, we'll need to review the remedial investigation report. Until we have that, we won't have the information we need."

While "long-term" is considered to be thirty years from now when it comes to potential health risks, completely cleaning up the groundwater could be a much lengthier process. "It could take anywhere from ten years to 100 years, depending on the technology we use," says Edson.

The conversion agency has installed several wells at the northern boundary of the base that draw water to the surface and treat it; the water is then re-injected south of the wells. Officials say 100 pounds of contaminants have been removed so far.

Community activist Anne Callison says that is an outmoded technology that "would take twenty years to do nothing."

But the development agencies aren't concerned. According to the LRA, none of the plumes at Lowry are underneath any property that the authority is developing. And Dick Anderson of the Stapleton Development Corporation, the organization overseeing the redevelopment of the old airport, says he thinks "the Air Force has taken all the action they need to take. We don't believe the Lowry plume will have any impact on Stapleton."

Air Force officials don't apologize for their slow approach. "Until we collect additional information, we can't say whether or not a pathway doesn't exist," says Tim Caretti, Lowry's environment coordinator. "We don't feel like we're putting anybody at risk." He adds that he hasn't seen any outcry at recent public meetings because he hasn't seen any people. He says that 1,500 invitations were sent to nearby residents to attend a meeting last May and that four showed up.

Irene Gomez, president of the EMNA, says that although she got a notice, she doesn't believe that 1,500 notices were sent out; she's still waiting for the Air Force to send her a list of who was contacted. But she does say that many neighbors are complacent and waiting for others to lead the fight against the plume. "Nobody's died that I know of from this contamination," Gomez says, "but I look forward to living to be eighty, not sixty."


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