It was last September when Debbie Quackenbush asked a person on the staff of Boulder's wastewater treatment plant whether it was true that the city was dumping sewage not far from the dream house she and her husband were building in Somerset, a high-end development in Niwot just east of the Boulder city limits. Please, she was told, it's not sewage; the correct term is biosolids. And yes, the city has been applying biosolids to private farmland in the Gunbarrel Hill area for nearly ten years. It's great fertilizer. Quite safe. Well, we wouldn't tell you to put it on your tomato plants, health regulations being what they are.
Now spring snow is melting into the furrows along the swelling and dipping contours of Gunbarrel Hill, and the red flag raised by the city worker's answers to her questions is still flying for Debbie Quackenbush and hundreds of other residents of the Gunbarrel and Niwot area. The property owners, many of them recent arrivals from out of state, find themselves battling famously liberal Boulder in a faceoff over property rights, political correctness and, above all, tons and tons of human excrement.
The city, backed by environmental groups who say Boulder should keep its waste in its own backyard, claims it's doing the responsible thing with its sewage. But opponents like Quackenbush say the P.C. forces that dominate Boulder politics are using the city's sludge as part of a cynical ploy to punish newly arrived residents and real estate developers who they blame for the Californization of their community.
Approximately 5,000 people live within a mile of the farm fields the city wants to purchase for its "biosolids recycling" program, a project that uses waste produced by city residents to fertilize cropland. The proposed site, which covers approximately two square miles, lies outside the Boulder city limits, as do the homes of most of those living nearby. Under the new expansion plan, the city will buy a swath of farmland and contract with a farmer to grow winter wheat and corn, feeding the crops with human manure. Once in place, the sludge fields would likely serve as an impediment to residential development.
Not only does the city's biosolids program pose a possible health hazard, say those who oppose the plan, it will turn a scenic expanse of prime agricultural land into a foul-smelling nuisance and drive down property values in surrounding subdivisions. Residents worry about runoff washing the material--a brown liquid that's plowed into the ground--onto their streets and yards. They wonder about 100-mile-per-hour winds gusting live pathogens into their lungs. And they've ransacked scientific journals, meteorological records and federal, state and county statutes to back up their claims. "Threaten to throw sludge into my life, and you'll get a reaction out of me," says Debbie Quackenbush.
Quackenbush and her husband, Garret, along with a dozen other property owners, have reacted by forming the group Neighborhoods Opposing Biosolids, or NO BS. The organization has the support of twenty homeowners' associations and more than 3,000 residents who signed petitions against the project, Quackenbush says.
Many homeowners have moved to subdivisions in the area in the last few years, unaware of what the city was doing on the scenic spreads worked by their farming neighbors, says Mark Biddison, a Niwot resident and attorney for NO BS. "People had no idea what they were buying into," he says. "It was just a nice place with a view."
But the new arrivals get little sympathy in Boulder, where many people resent increased traffic and rising housing costs and tend to lay the blame at the front doors of moneyed California immigrants who have flocked to developments mushrooming on the outskirts of the city. "I looked over the hill and saw San Diego," one city council member recently said of the Gunbarrel Hill area.
Sludge opponents argue that where they're from isn't the issue. "I think there are better things to do with land than cover it with shit," says Mark Biddison. Adds Gene Copeland, a management consultant and resident of a gated high-end subdivision near 95th Street and Lookout Road called Lookout Ridge, "I'm philosophically opposed to human excrement being laid down in liquid form virtually in my backyard. I love open space, but I'd rather look across the street and see houses than a field that's been fenced off, posted with warning signs and made into a sewage dump."
Generally, people who can afford luxury homes in exclusive suburban developments have difficulty casting themselves as an oppressed minority. But the City of Boulder has been a great help on that front to Quackenbush and her deck-chair dissidents. Repeatedly, city officials underestimated the determination of people opposed to the idea of turning whole sections of land within view of their backyards into a disposal site for sewage byproducts.
City officials admit they were caught off-guard last fall by an avalanche of opposition that rolled down from Somerset to more modest neighborhoods in Gunbarrel, Niwot and Heatherwood. Boulder staffers found themselves buckshot with angry inquiries from people whose homes would be mistaken for garages in Somerset--and even from a few farmers who in the past had permitted biosolids application to their land. According to residents, staff people didn't seem to take them seriously enough to thoroughly prepare for public meetings, where city workers often gave answers that suggested that only ignorant or hysterical people would think up such questions.
The city staff had reason to believe Boulder's sludge program was a popular cause. The concept has been praised by the Sierra Club's 5,000-member Boulder chapter as sound and responsible, and the city won statewide awards for its sludge-management program as recently as two years ago. Boulder's wastewater utility division has been applying treated sludge to farm fields on the upswell of Gunbarrel Hill since 1986. There has been only one complaint in that time, and that was about the odor, an aroma that, like some redolent locker rooms, inspires reactions ranging from breath-gulping revulsion to indifference.
But an October public meeting with city staff members at a church near the proposed site drew a crowd of 600 people. The questions were angry and accusatory, and the city contingent seemed intimidated, says one man who attended, adding, "I don't blame them." After a two-hour grilling, the staffers announced that the agreed-upon time period for the meeting had expired and that they were leaving, even though there were still people waiting to address them.
Soon after that October meeting, the city suspended sludge-spreading on Gunbarrel Hill to re-evaluate its proposal and mull several alternatives. But on February 7, after hearing from staff that Gunbarrel Hill's large, close site and modest slopes remained the most favorable option, the council voted to end the moratorium and proceed with plans to acquire land there for an application site, though on a lesser scale. Targeted acreage was reduced from 2,560 to a maximum of 1,400. The council excluded land lying within a half mile of Somerset, the luxury-home development where the most vocal opponents of the program own property. Also, a buffer of 500 feet was approved for land across Lookout Road from the Lookout Ridge development.
But the city's actions only refueled the anger of Debbie Quackenbush, who says it disregarded cheaper and equally viable alternatives such as trucking the waste to private farms. "They slam-dunked us like they did six months ago," she says. "They just held our hand while they did it."
Quackenbush says her group won't back off until the city kills its land-purchase plan altogether. Two law firms have been retained, financed by donations from NO BS members. "Initially, I wanted to support the city and quiet things down out here, because I didn't want to see property values affected," says Quackenbush. "It was only when the city wouldn't answer my questions that I became suspicious. And many, many inconsistencies between what they told us and what they're really doing have led us to have no faith and no trust in anything they say."
Putting treated sewage on open land is considered a state-of-the-art approach in the growing field of sludge disposal. Wastewater professionals say it's an environmentally correct method of recycling material that in the past was trucked to landfills or simply incinerated. And while most biosolids are applied at private farms, which often pay for the privilege, more cities and towns in Colorado are buying their own sites, where disposal can proceed free from encroaching development or the uncertain plans of individual farmers.
There is an environmental downside to the practice: a buildup of heavy metals in the soil. Municipal sludge invariably contains lead, copper and arsenic as a result of leaching from plumbing fixtures, as well as effluent from industrial sources. But with careful monitoring of metal accumulation, a site can be safely used for 75 to 100 years, say some researchers.
Brian Andreja, a Gunbarrel resident who chairs the toxics committee of the Sierra Club's Boulder chapter, says his group is convinced that the treated farmland on Gunbarrel Hill will be no more hazardous over the course of a century than the dirt along Colorado roadways, which he says accumulate lead and other metals from exposure to automotive exhaust. Use of local farmland is the best option for the city, says Andreja, especially in light of potential hazards posed by other means of disposal such as incineration. It also appeals to him as responsible politics. "It's better to deal with the sewage we produce close to home than send it off to some other less affluent, sparsely populated community to deal with," says Andreja.
But Mark Biddison, the NO BS attorney, calls Andreja's reasoning "a spurious argument. If you send sludge to a remote enough area," he notes, "it won't end up in anybody's backyard."
At first glance, Biddison would seem to fit the stereotype of a Boulder liberal. An anti-Vietnam War activist as a California college student, Biddison describes himself in his younger days as "a pretty radical guy" who sported a ZZ Top beard and tried to emulate the "Jack Kerouac, On the Road literary thing." It was local Kerouac festivals that introduced Biddison to Boulder in the 1970s while he was working as a truck driver. He gave up that life to get a law degree--not to make a killing as a hired gun, he insists, but to "position myself to do some social good."
Biddison came to specialize in helping computer firms with contract difficulties; he moved his family to the Boulder area from Sacramento five years ago. Describing himself as a "traditional conservative with an environmental conscience," he now is an active member of The Vineyard Christian Fellowship, a 2,000-member congregation at 79th Street and Lookout Road that includes former CU football coach Bill McCartney and his PromiseKeepers colleague Randy Phillips.
Looking more like a theme restaurant than a church, the rambling Vineyard complex overlooks a rolling expanse of agricultural land furrowed into Gunbarrel Hill. Biddison stands at a wall of windows that frame the Rocky Mountains in the church's auditorium-sized sanctuary. A large fabric wall-hanging in the entryway is emblazoned with the words, "A fruitful vineyard on a fertile hill." Biddison points to a wire fence thirty yards from the windows. The city used to spread sludge up to that fence, he says--a charge the city flatly denies.
"The City of Boulder is buying up land up and down the Front Range to control land use," Biddison adds. "There's arrogance in that. They're saying, `You people aren't smart enough to run your own communities.'" Biddison sees parallels between the city's conduct and the United States government's role in Southeast Asia during the 1960s. "They have both been guilty of playing Big Brother, trying to control things beyond their borders and lying to people," he says. "I feel the same way about the City of Boulder as I did about Dick Nixon."
Managers at the Metropolitan Wastewater District, which is responsible for handling the sewage produced by 1.25 million Denver-area residents, can only dream of a sludge application site as close as Boulder's, says district spokesman Steve Frank. Unable to find suitable land near the metro area, the district, which includes all major cities in the metro area except Golden, Littleton and Englewood, last year purchased a 10,000-acre site about sixty miles east of the city. Frank says that site serves mainly as a backup; the district applies 90 percent of the metro area's biosolids to private farmland at a charge of $3 per acre to farmers. Some of those farms are located up to 150 miles from Denver. "If we had areas that were closer, we'd use them," he says. "We can't find plots big enough."
The Gunbarrel Hill land lies only three miles from Boulder's wastewater treatment plant. The proximity and size of the site make it an attractive and cost-effective option, says Bob Harberg, the city's project coordinator.
But a financial analysis done by one resident shows just the opposite. Gene Copeland, the management consultant who lives just across the road from the proposed site, put his pencil to the Gunbarrel Hill option and three alternatives. All of the three alternatives were far more cost-effective, he concluded. According to Copeland's analysis, the city's current plan would cost four times more than the next-priciest choice: contracting with a private 320-acre farm about eight miles from the treatment plant.
Copeland handed the Boulder City Council his analysis on February 7. Councilmembers subsequently instructed city staff to meet with Copeland and review his figures. That has yet to happen. Ned Williams, director of the city's utilities division, is vague on the reason for the delay but adds that "costs alone aren't the final factor; there are other priorities as well."
Debbie Quackenbush suspects that those priorities include what she calls the city's secret "second agenda." The city council "hates development and hates what they call `prairie palaces,'" says Quackenbush, who will join the ranks of homeowners tagged with that Boulderism when her Somerset home is finished this summer. She, Copeland and Mark Biddison all believe the city's intent is to curtail residential growth in their area by putting as much land as possible out of the reach of developers.
In fact, that agenda is hardly a hidden one. A city document from September 1994 laying out Boulder's plans for Gunbarrel Hill suggested that the city join with Boulder County to secure even more open space in the area for biosolids application (the county has since distanced itself from such an arrangement). And some city council members make plain their enthusiasm for yanking real estate out from under developers who want to put up low-density, big-lot subdivisions like Somerset.
"It's California suburban sprawl," says councilman Matthew Applebaum. "From an environmental standpoint, low-density suburbs are a bad idea. They're exactly what causes" increased traffic, air pollution and a dearth of open land, he says. "I drive by Somerset and I'm not thrilled."
Neither is councilwoman Allyn Feinberg, who describes herself as a "slow- or no-growth advocate" whose principal political concern is "the degradation of the state from the increasing number of people living here." Underlying the opposition of people in Gunbarrel and Niwot to the biosolids program, she believes, is their absorption with their own property and a tendency not to "think broadly about the community as a whole."
To Boulder mayor Leslie Durgin, the Gunbarrel Hill controversy has more to do with the country-club tastes of area residents than with the health hazards of biosolids. "The problem is, it's an agricultural area that's being developed into upscale housing," says Durgin. "Some people there don't want cows around." Jokes the mayor, "They'll permit horses as long as they don't poop."
But Mark Biddison, who lives up the road from a sheep farm, says he has no problem with animals or agriculture, only with the City of Boulder. "The city wants to paint us as a bunch of yuppies worried about our property values," he says. "We're boomers who have paid our dues and decided to get a piece of the good life this country has to offer while it was still there to get. So we bought a little land and built a nice house.
"I spent ten years on the road and in a tepee," adds Biddison. "I have no apology to make for wanting to raise my kids in a decent house."
Her foes in Boulder city government, complains Debbie Quackenbush, "love to stick the label of the rich California bitch on me." The truth, she says, is that she moved out of California to get away from development. Quackenbush came to Colorado a year and a half ago, after General Dynamics slated her engineer husband for a transfer to Tucson and he balked. "We gave up absolutely everything to come here," she says, including a modest real estate empire that consisted of a number of rental houses and small apartment buildings.
The road to California prosperity was no day at the beach, however: Quackenbush and her husband started their real estate business eighteen years ago with a trashed duplex in a run-down neighborhood. They did their own maintenance from the beginning, she says: "I spent eighteen years cleaning other people's toilets."
The Quackenbushes knew what they wanted to do with their hard-won capital when they happened on Somerset's mountain views. "I thought it was the pinnacle of God's country," Quackenbush says of the area, noting, "The developer's done a tremendous job. He's thought of everything--he's put in waterfalls."
Two months after closing on a parcel of that heavenly acreage, Quackenbush caught wind of what Boulder was up to across the way. It cast a pall over her dream house. "I don't have the same feeling about it anymore," she says of the new home, which she and Garret work on when they're not busy with their new business, a company that designs and markets computer software for real estate agents.
One of Quackenbush's first discoveries when she began investigating the sewage issue was an August 22, 1994, letter sent by one of the managers of the city's biosolids program to the state health department. At the same time officials were assuring irate citizens that all they wanted was 1,600 acres and the benefit of the doubt, Paul Heppler's letter to the state explained that Boulder wanted to acquire 2,560 acres--and to install a pipeline from the treatment plant to a million-gallon storage tank on Gunbarrel Hill.
City utilities director Ned Williams says the letter's vision of a massive sewage-disposal system was "just an idea" that hadn't matured beyond the discussion stage when Heppler wrote the letter. Mayor Durgin writes off the pipeline concept as "a long-term possibility down the road." It would have to be approved by the council in any case, she says, and "I absolutely guarantee this council would turn that down."
The city's short history with critics of its sludge program has been marked by other embarrassing miscalculations by staff. In an effort to win over opponents last October, the city conducted demonstrations of biosolids applications. "They were so stupid they took us to a site where their permit had expired, and they had dumped on a slope that was two and a half times steeper than allowed," says Quackenbush. Neither was she favorably impressed by the smell of the product. "It was horrendous," she says.
Phil Hegeman, who administers the state health department's biosolids regulatory program, acknowledges that Boulder was put on notice for those violations. Overall, however, he says he's found Boulder's program to be "pretty good." Hegeman terms the smell of Boulder sludge "not particularly offensive," adding that he witnessed a massive application by another city that gave off ammonia fumes as it dried. "That was the worst I've smelled," he says.
The Gunbarrel Hill controversy reminds Hegeman of a 1992 backlash in Kiowa County. Farmers there were allowing sludge from New York City to be applied to their fields until public opinion swung against them. Among other concerns, residents questioned whether crops grown using the sludge would be safe to eat. (State and federal health officials say there's no evidence of any danger). Growers in neighboring Prowers County wasted no time stepping up to take the sludge Kiowa rejected, he recalls.
At the time, Hegeman was quoted as saying that soil containing sludge was safe enough to be eaten. He stands by that statement. Although sludge can contain live disease organisms, he says, the dryness of the air and intensity of the sunlight in Colorado tends to kill such pathogens within a matter of hours when the material is sprayed on the top of soil, or within days when it is plowed into the soil, as the city of Boulder usually does immediately after application to minimize odor.
"As long as the product is applied according to state and EPA regulations and the proper time restrictions are maintained on public access to the site, EPA risk-assessment numbers show you could eat the soil and not get sick," Hegeman says. The health department official also points to a study of Ohio farm families who used sludge to fertilize their land in the 1980s. That study found no ill effects from living in close proximity to application areas, he says.
But Hegeman's reassuring words don't impress Dave Turunjian, who owns an egg farm and eighty acres of farmland near 95th Street and Mineral Road. Turunjian used to allow Boulder to apply biosolids to his fields, which he was leasing to another farmer, and says he'll never do it again. "It stinks really bad," he says. Worse than the stench, he says, was the city's failure to inform him of the product's hazards. Health regulations restrict public access to land applied with sludge for thirty days. Though an exception is written in for farmers, Turunjian feels he should have been apprised of the risks and regulations.
"The city says it's a benign biological product," Turunjian says. "But why do you have a thirty-day period where you have to wait and special health regulations if it's safe? You can call it biosolids, but it's human waste mixed with industrial waste. It's sludge."
Project coordinator Bob Harberg says the city did thoroughly inform the farmer who was leasing Turunjian's land, Dan Cito. "We shared the regulations with him, and he had full knowledge of the nature of biosolids," says Harberg. "Whether or not he fully understood them, we can't say."
Cito appeared at a hearing of the city's Utilities Advisory Board last September. Like Turunjian, he was angry with the city, accusing staff of not informing him of the thirty-day access restriction. Harberg acknowledges that Cito no longer allows biosolids to be spread on the fields he farms. Cito did not return calls from Westword.
The golf cart city staffers use to get around Boulder's 22-acre sewage-treatment plant carries a simple moniker: "Sludgeland." Floyd Bebler, the director of the facility, is quick to note that the sign is intended as a joke. In Bebler's field, there's a vast difference between sewage sludge and biosolids. As he explains, forty days of treatment go into converting fresh sludge to biosolids. "It's not raw sewage."
The Boulder plant employs a succession of treatment processes to reduce the level of bacteria in sewage and turn out a product that can be readily assimilated into soil, Bebler says. "It's all a biological process using microorganisms to digest material," he notes.
Buildings and equipment at the facility bristle with mufflers, odor scrubbers and other technical bows to neighborliness. Bebler rarely receives complaints about the smell--none in the past three years, he says. He throws open the doors of a cylindrical storage tank that holds half a million gallons of treated biosolids. A moldlike crust resembling curdled tar glistens in a patch of sunlight. A musty, faintly metallic odor floats up on humid, warm air. It smells more like a bog than a sewer.
"When it's applied, it has a water content of over 90 percent," Bebler explains, likening the product's consistency to "thin toothpaste." (Bebler has a fondness for comparing wastewater products to things people put in their mouths. An earlier stage of the processing in which brown sewage sludge is injected with air, causing it to well up in bubbly brown heaves, reminds him of chocolate milk.)
The city's tendency to emphasize the harmless nature of its sludge is a continuing irritant to Mark Biddison. "They'll have people eating it next," says the attorney--or breathing it. The city hasn't studied the possibility of strong winds moving pathogen-contaminated matter off-site, he points out. When residents researched the question, they found wind maps showing that 100-mile-per-hour gusts can roar over Gunbarrel Hill. "But according to the city, it doesn't rain out here, and the wind doesn't blow," Biddison says.
Ned Williams acknowledges that the city hasn't studied wind conditions on Gunbarrel Hill, but he expresses confidence that windborne pathogens pose a very small risk to public health. As for rain, Williams says the staff has seen erosion from certain fields on the hill wash soil onto the road. But such trouble spots can be addressed with terracing, contour plowing and retention basins, Williams says, adding that those measures weren't taken before because the city didn't own the land.
The city will have to wait until it obtains a permit to begin applying biosolids to the 240 acres of open space that it has closed on so far, says Floyd Bebler. That process could take three to four months, Bebler says, and Boulder expects a lawsuit in the meantime.
NO BS seems poised not to disappoint the city. The group was set up as a nonprofit, explains Debbie Quackenbush, "because we see this going to court." Mark Biddison will say only that the group is currently exploring its legal options.
One option available to critics would be to appeal the permit the city expects to get from the state health department. An administrative law judge would hear the case, says Phil Hegeman. How long that might take is unclear, he adds; no sludge application permits have been challenged since the appeal process was established a year ago.
Ken Fucik seems to be one of the few people living near Gunbarrel Hill who remembers when the city first started spreading sludge in the area back in 1986. A member of the Boulder County Board of Health for nine years and a resident of the Heatherwood subdivision south of Gunbarrel Hill for seventeen, Fucik opposed the plan and attended public meetings to say so. But after listening to the city's presentation, he says, "I decided to let them try it." He's never seen a problem with the sludge, he adds: "My house is a half-mile from the crest of the hill, and I jog out there every day." He did notice some odor, he says, but attributes that to feedlot operations or spring fertilizing on nearby farms.
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"I don't always support the City of Boulder, believe me," says Fucik. "[But] this is an opportunity to maintain some agricultural land and open space out there. And this stuff is really not that much of a risk. Pathogens are carried by birds and dogs and people. Are you going to stop your dog from pooping in your yard because you're worried about pathogens? Are you going to stop putting fertilizer on your lawn?"
As directed by the city council in early February, Boulder officials are looking into other ways to dispose of the sludge that won't be sprayed as part of the Gunbarrel Hill plan, which in its scaled-down form is expected to handle up to 85 percent of the city's volume. The other 15 percent could go to private farms elsewhere or to a cement company near Lyons that would combine the treated sewage with cement kiln dust to create a soil amendment.
City officials say composting may also hold promise as a future solution to Boulder's sludge-disposal problem. That process not only reduces solid waste by breaking down lawn clippings, leaves and other yard debris, it also neutralizes pathogens, yielding a product that can be safely applied to home gardens. While Metro Wastewater composts a little more than 10 percent of the sludge from Denver-area cities, Longmont and Vail have operations that compost almost all of their treated sewage, according to Phil Hegeman of the state health department. Boulder is now discussing with other communities in the county the possibility of building a regional composting facility, says Ned Williams of the utilities division. For now, though, the viability of that option remains highly uncertain.
Though the cost of composting would be higher than the other alternatives she and other city critics have suggested, Debbie Quackenbush calls the concept "a really good long-range plan" for the city--as long as the composting facility is somewhere far away. "We're very afraid they want to put it on Gunbarrel Hill," she says.