A lawsuit filed by a Colorado state agency against the U.S. Department of Defense to try to force removal of unexploded munitions from the former Lowry Bombing Range could send shock waves throughout the West. Officials of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment say they were forced to go to federal court by the DOD's cursory surveys of the 59,000-acre range east of Aurora.
Several states are pressuring the DOD to clean up old bombing ranges, but Colorado is the only state that has sued the government over it. "We're watching the outcome carefully," says Jim Austreng of the California Department of Toxic Substances.
The health department filed the suit in June but didn't actively pursue it until September 10, hoping to reach a settlement. State officials thought the DOD would buckle under the threat of the suit and announce a cleanup schedule and a "commitment for action." But talks fizzled.
The primary point of contention between Colorado and the DOD is the assessment of the risk posed by the unexploded bombs. Part of health officials' frustration stems from the fact that the DOD hasn't done much investigating: According to state officials, the department has searched only 533 acres, a mere 2 percent of Lowry.
"They want to scan one small piece," says Marion Galant, community-relations manager for the health department, "and apply the findings to the entire range, saying that it's uniform. It's a case of too much math and not enough looking."
State officials point out that using averages to determine risk at Lowry doesn't paint an accurate portrait of the range. Some areas probably have higher concentrations of unexploded bombs than others because of the presence of targets that gunners aimed for.
Or were supposed to, anyway.
"Bombs don't know where to go," says Bonnie Rader, citizen co-chair of the Lowry Restoration Advisory Board. "Maybe the military dumped some of their bombs early to shorten their missions. They could be anywhere."
Rader, who has lived near the range for over thirty years, says the bombs have resulted in more frustration than fear. The frustration stems not only from the sluggish pace of the cleanup but also from a 1995 letter to Lowry residents from the DOD recommending that they not dig--even for a vegetable garden--on their land because of the risk of a detonation.
That letter sparked one of the biggest public meetings the health department has held on any issue, with a standing-room-only crowd at Eaglecrest High School. "On one hand, you have people who've been living out there for years and were never told about the risk," says the health department's Jeff Edson. "And on the other, you've got people who bought forty acres for their dream house only to find out they can't build on it."
The lack of action by the DOD is also costing Colorado taxpayers money, according to Edson. He says the state Department of Corrections was forced to spend almost $300,000 to survey and clean the future site of a youth detention facility on the old bombing range because the DOD hadn't gotten around to it.
State officials argue that it's most efficient for the federal government to use its high-tech gear to scour the entire area. But so far, all of the DOD's searches at Lowry have been done using old-fashioned electromagnetic metal detectors. Not only is the method labor-intensive ("It's like searching for coins at the beach," says Galant), but state officials question its accuracy.
"What they've done," explains Edson, "is take small plots of land and go over them with the detectors, picking up any metal object--could be a bomb, a horseshoe or a pair of pliers--and then they randomly pick 20 percent of those metal anomalies to dig up. It doesn't make much sense."
Adds Galant, "The DOD tried to calculate the acceptable risk to people living around the range, but this isn't like dealing with contaminated groundwater. We're talking about the risk that someone is going to step on a bomb and get blown up. One live munition on the range is too many."
The state wants the DOD to use high-definition radar equipment and airplanes. Aerial views could provide detailed images of bombs on the ground and underneath it. But the DOD has maintained that, even though munitions are regularly found on the old range, the risk of people setting them off is slight. "The DOD might be right," says Howard Roitman, director of hazardous materials and waste management for the health department. "Large portions of the base might be clean. If they showed us using the radar, we'd agree. As it is now, using the [metal detectors], you'd have to dig up the entire range to be sure."
According to health officials, there are plenty of bombs still out at Lowry just waiting to be trod upon. Although there's been only one incident where someone accidentally triggered an explosive (a farmer ran over an incendiary bomb with his jeep), state officials are still worried.
"We're concerned about the curious who decide to take a munition and throw it in a bonfire," says Edson. "But we've also had cases of people out at Lowry who are actively hunting for bombs. There was one guy who went out there with a metal detector. It's like an Easter egg hunt."
Edson says that the fact that these "eggs" explode doesn't stop some people--like those at the Arapahoe Gun and Hunt Club, on the border of the range--from picking up the antique ordnance dropped by the military between 1930 and 1960.
"At the Hunt Club, they had four bombs sitting on their mantel," Edson says. "Three of them were live. And outside their club they had a wind chime made out of live .50-caliber bullets. Even though the bombs look old and rusty, they still have the same explosive capability as when they were originally dropped."
Health officials say they're still willing to talk things over with the DOD. The state agency sent a representative to Reno, Nevada, earlier this month to meet with DOD honchos in an unsuccessful last-ditch attempt to resolve the issue out of court. DOD officials refuse comment, curtly referring inquiries to the Justice Department, which will not return phone calls.
"Our preference has always been to settle out of court," says Roitman. "This lawsuit is a last resort."
But some locals fear that the lawsuit will slow down what little cleanup is currently going on.
"At least they're doing a little now," says Rader. "But if this goes to the courts, it could be slowed down indefinitely. I know [the state health department] is pushing this in order to protect the public, but you never can tell what will happen when the courts get hold of something like this.
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