Maverick Elbert County commissioner's concern over thousands of tons of waste from Denver's sewer system being used as fertilizer has spawned an unprecedented $1.4 million agreement to monitor soil and water on an eastern Colorado farm.
Since taking office in 1996, John Dunn has butted heads with oil companies, developers and gun enthusiasts. He's spent much of the past year learning about biosolids and the complex and often emotional issues involved in disposing of sewage. "I've learned more about shit than I needed to know in a lifetime," laughs Dunn.
The Metro Wastewater Reclamation District extracts eighty tons of solid waste daily from the millions of gallons of sewage that flow through its Commerce City plant and trucks the waste--known as biosolids--to a district-owned, 51,000-acre farm that straddles the Arapahoe and Elbert county line south of Deer Trail. Last year neighboring farmers began complaining bitterly about the practice, claiming that clouds of sewage dust from the district's property were landing in their fields and contaminating streams. In response to their criticisms, Dunn encouraged the other Elbert County commissioners to issue a cease-and-desist order against the district, precipitating a discussion between wastewater-district officials and commissioners in both Elbert and Arapahoe counties.
Now the three entities are about to sign an intergovernmental agreement that calls for independent monitoring of soil and water on the farm to make sure levels of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead don't exceed government safety standards. The wastewater district will foot the bill for U.S. Geological Survey scientists to collect and analyze samples of soil and water from the farm over the next six years.
"This is the most comprehensive monitoring plan for biosolids in the United States," says Dunn. "If I had to single out the most important thing I've done for the county, this would be it."
Today many sewage-treatment districts are disposing of solid wastes by converting them into fertilizer and trucking it to farms. The practice has alarmed some environmentalists, who fear that concentrations of industrial chemicals found in sewage will somehow make their way into the food chain. "There are so many questions that remain unanswered as we've gone along this route," says Joan Seeman of the Sierra Club's Rocky Mountain chapter.
Dunn hopes that Elbert County has gotten some of those questions answered. "We've said that we're not going to allow another Summitville mine out here," he says, referring to the notorious cyanide leach mine that contaminated streams in southern Colorado earlier this decade. Although he shares Seeman's concerns, Dunn says he realizes that solid wastes have to go somewhere, and he's willing to accept them in Elbert County as long as they follow federal safety standards and don't contaminate the soil or watershed.
"Something has to be done with the waste out of Denver," adds Dunn. "You can't just say 'not in my backyard.'"
Many of the problems coming from the district's farm in Elbert County's backyard stemmed from poor farming practices. According to Dunn, poor topsoil conditions led to dust storms that blew the biosolids onto adjacent property. Since scientists from Colorado State University began working with the wastewater district to improve its farming techniques, however, the impact on neighboring farms has been lessened. And the proposed monitoring agreement between the district and the counties will make sure that impact remains small.
Under the agreement, the USGS will track levels of heavy metals (including cadmium, copper, lead, zinc and mercury), nitrates and radioactivity in the soil and groundwater on the farm. The agency will also look specifically for plutonium. That's because next year, heavily polluted water from the Lowry landfill Superfund site east of Denver will be processed and then put into the metro sewage system.
The Lowry site is one of the most polluted in Colorado. For decades, local companies and the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant dumped their wastes--a toxic mix of acid and alkaline sludge, solvents and pesticides, as well as low-level radioactive waste--at the facility. While no one disputes the presence of these substances at the landfill, a handful of environmental activists claim that Rocky Flats also dumped plutonium--the most lethal substance known to man.
"The Environmental Protection Agency has cut a sweetheart deal with Rocky Flats to deny there is plutonium at the landfill," says Adrienne Anderson, a former Metro Wastewater boardmember. "Now they're redispensing it into rural Colorado and the nation's food chain." Anderson, a City of Denver appointee to the board, angered fellow boardmembers with her claim that plutonium would be entering the sewage system from Lowry; Mayor Wellington Webb chose not to reappoint her when her term expired earlier this year.
State and federal officials involved in the cleanup have insisted there is no evidence of plutonium at the site. But that hasn't prevented many citizens from becoming alarmed. Since the groundwater from the landfill will soon be part of the sewage stream moving through Metro Wastewater plants, some of those wastes will end up in the biosolids being spread on the district's farmland. To reassure anxious rural residents, the district has agreed to regularly test the biosolids for plutonium; the wastewater board is expected to approve the agreement with Elbert and Arapahoe counties in January.
But even with stringent monitoring, the district's decision to accept treated wastes from Lowry remains controversial. The Sierra Club's Seeman is particularly concerned about Aurora's plan to begin recycling wastewater for use in irrigating parks and golf courses, since some of that water will have been pumped out of the landfill.
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Last week the Sierra Club asked the district's board to hold public hearings on the decision to accept Lowry wastes. "We'd like a dialogue," says Seeman. "I think we need to involve more people in this. We hope they'd give a presentation and allow the public to participate."
Metro Wastewater spokesman Steve Pearlman says the district board has not yet decided on whether to hold such a hearing. The district had already solicited written comments from the public, he points out, and the agreement to accept the Lowry wastes won't be reversed. "The decision to do this was made by the board a long time ago," he says, adding that by agreeing to the monitoring program, the district hopes to finally silence critics such as Anderson.
"We want to answer the question: Is there plutonium in the biosolids?" says Pearlman. "We know what's going into the soil, but why should people believe us? It's a put-up-or-shut-up kind of thing."
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