A few blocks west of I-25, along 46th Avenue in an industrial area of northwest Denver, four boys from the nearby Quigg Newton housing project finish stoning a discarded TV and scurry up a stack of pallets to point out the scene of some of their recent exploits.
"We play hide-and-seek in there," says eleven-year-old Junior Rudy Sertuche, indicating a yard glutted with double-stacked pallets of 55-gallon drums. An eight-foot chainlink fence topped with three strands of barbed wire encircles the one-acre lot, which belongs to RAMP Industries, a hazardous-waste disposal company. "It's easy," adds Daniel Juarez, also eleven, who scrambles up the fence and perches among the barbs. Junior Rudy points to a double tier of barrels near the back of the property. Ten or eleven neighborhood kids got into the yard a few weeks ago, he recounts. Nine of them made it onto the top stack of drums in back. A first-grader chickened out and stayed on the ground. "Then a guy who looked like a wino came out," he recalls, "and yelled, `Hey, you kids, don't hang around here!'"
That was good advice. The one-acre lot, posted by federal officials as an EPA Superfund site, contains perhaps 6,000 barrels of hazardous waste, an unknown number of which are radioactive. "There are a couple sources on the site that have fairly high levels of radioactivity," says Tim Rehder, the Environmental Protection Agency's on-scene coordinator. "You wouldn't want to be hanging out within ten feet of those barrels."
Since the end of August, when the last RAMP employee left the site, a small bungalow that served as the office of the rad-waste disposal operation has been occupied by a watchman hired by the EPA. A dozen or so workers employed by cleanup contractors hired by the EPA are currently figuring out what the drums contain.
A few dozen yards from the stacked pallets that Junior Rudy and his friends call their clubhouse rest the doors and hood of a red flatbed truck. Much of the rest of the vehicle, including its steering wheel and seats, have been found to be radioactive. "They must have spilled some waste on it," says Rehder. The EPA crew used cutting torches to dismantle the flatbed.
That's just one of the things RAMP president Daniel Caulk is angry about. "They said there was minor contamination on the truck and they'd clean it," Caulk says of the EPA. "Next thing I know, it's torched apart. I had it sold to a company in Denver for $1,500."
Caulk believes he was driven out of businesss by overzealous government regulators and a crusading Denver city councilwoman. "Debbie Ortega came out and started holding meetings in the community, trying to get them roused up against us," says Caulk. "They weren't roused because we were providing jobs for them. She spread leaflets around with mushroom clouds and skull and crossbones on them."
Ortega says she became aware of RAMP Industries in 1990, when Caulk applied for an expanded hazardous-waste permit. That application got the attention of the councilwoman's aide, Judy Montero, who lives a few blocks from RAMP's lot in the 1100 block of West 46th Avenue. "After I found out about his violations, I wasn't real sure he was very concerned about being a good neighbor to the community," Ortega says.
Caulk's facility has been cited by the state department of health for exceeding the permitted number of drums of radioactive waste, lacking proper liability insurance and other violations of hazardous-waste laws. The facility's problems with compliance continued until its shutdown last August.
"I'm just a little guy who tried to do something positive," Caulk maintains. "We were providing a service needed by Colorado hospitals, universities and research centers. We were employing eighteen people and putting $400,000 into the local economy every year. I don't understand why they wanted to put a local Colorado company out of business." RAMP struggled to meet state and federal requirements, says Caulk, but had to throw in the towel when the health department insisted on a $750,000 cash bond for it to continue operating.
While Ortega found RAMP's business incompatible with its proximity to a residential area--Quigg Newton's sprawl of hundreds of housing units is a stone's throw away--the health department saw no problem in that area. "They were basically dealing with containerized materials," says Bob Quillin, director of the department's radiation control division. Such an operation posed no grave danger to residents, he adds.
Caulk agrees with Quillin's assessment. "Are hospitals in bad locations?" he asks. "The kinds of wastes we were handling came from hospitals and places like that. The radioactive isotopes were things like cobalt, cesium and radium, which are used for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes."
The EPA's Tim Rehder isn't so sanguine about the waste. "We had to sandbag one shed," says Rehder. "There's one barrel in there that's putting out a lot of gamma radiation." The shed backs up to the pavement on 46th Avenue, where residents walk on their way to Sunnyside Drug Store, the general store of the community. (A perimeter fence erected by the EPA put twenty feet or so of buffer space between the shed and the street, forcing pedestrians to cross the street when they pass by.)
Raymond Katz, the 81-year-old proprietor of Sunnyside Drug, says he's never felt threatened by RAMP and its radioactive drums. "I've been here 48 years and we've never had a problem with it," he says of the business, which has abutted the back wall of his store since the mid-Eighties. A sign above the fountain and grill along one side of the crammed-full store reads, "If you know what's good for you, you'll eat at Sunnyside Drug." At least the EPA cleanup has been good for business, Katz's daughter Phyllis notes. "All those guys eat in here."
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EPA officials are determined not to eat the cost of safely disposing of the thousands of barrels of toxic waste. Besides Caulk's, any business that sent waste to the facility could be held liable for the cleanup, according to EPA enforcement specialist Carol Pokorny. The agency's list of "potentially responsible parties" could number in the hundreds, she says, including hospitals.
"I never made a dime on the business," claims Caulk. "Everything went back into the business. Now I've probably lost a million dollars on this."
What the Sunnyside neighborhood lost won't be known for some time. Caulk admits to "some minor spills" on the unpaved site. But until the EPA contractors get Caulk's thousands of drums moved, they won't be able to determine whether soil or underground water has been contaminated. Tim Rehder hopes to remove the barrels by the end of this year but notes that the main obstacle is where to send the waste. About 3,800 drums can be sent to facilities in Florida and Texas, he says, but the rest of it--about 2,000 barrels of the site's more dangerous materials--has no destination yet. "It's very difficult to find a home for radioactive waste," he says.
RAMP president Caulk wishes his enterprise hadn't come to such a wasteful end. "This was a nice business," he says. "I was proud of what I was doing.