In 1988 Irma Zimmerman stood on the back porch of her lime-green house in Overland Park and faced a tornado. "We watched it come right up Asbury," she says, shaking her head of tangled gray hair. "Stood there like idiots and just watched it come. Hurling doors and sheds and whatnot."
That twister is one of the experiences that the 76-year-old Zimmerman says should only have to be faced once, along with hailstorms (like the one in 1990 that took a chunk out of one of her Siamese cats) and floods. She sprinkles these cataclysmic events into any discussion of Shattuck Chemical Company, whose factory for years processed uranium ore just down the street from her home. Because Zimmerman also has another classification system: those things people should never have to witness at all. Like a radioactive dirt pile cemented into place not 800 feet from her back door.
The tornado didn't look like the tornadoes on TV, Zimmerman continues. "No indeed," pipes in her husband, Cecil. "There weren't any dust in it. No dust at all."
"Just things," agrees Irma. "Just stuff like doors and pieces of roof and things like that."
For a moment the tornado fades back into memory and the Zimmermans' talk turns to other things: the spoons Irma collects, their four adopted children--now all over forty. Finally, there's mention of the double mastectomy she underwent four years ago.
"You can't say if Shattuck caused it or not," she says in a low voice. "We just don't know."
There is silence as a breeze blows through the open window and makes the dozens of wind chimes that fill Irma's living-room ceiling mingle and sway.
"That twister had such force," Cecil starts in again. "But it didn't have dust. It was clear--except for all the things it had swept up."
About a block and a half from the Zimmermans' squat house on the corner of Asbury Avenue and Acoma Street stands an enormous pile of dirt--50,000 cubic yards of it--covered with miles of black tarpaulin. Remnants of the efforts of a few graffiti artists can be seen from the dusty roads that run beside the long black hulk. A small sign, hardly noticeable from behind the flimsy chain-link fence that surrounds the site, bears the universal symbol for radiation.
Welcome to Shattuck, a gigantic lump of radioactive soil just off South Santa Fe Drive and Evans Avenue from which gamma rays shoot out in all directions. It's the eighth of eleven Denver Radium Sites that were designated for Superfund cleanup in the early 1980s. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state health department finished mopping up the other ten sites years ago, shipping radioactive material to a dump out of state and replacing contaminated soil with fresh dirt. Shattuck alone has sat idle, caught up in a controversy that has pitted the EPA against the City of Denver in a fight over whether the city has a constitutional right to prevent a federal agency from storing dangerous materials within its boundaries. On the sidelines, two more battles rage as a low-income neighborhood rails against the $172 billion New York-based investment company that now owns Shattuck and skeptics debate scientists over the safety of leaving the huge mound of radioactive waste where it lies.
Today the war is all but over. Shattuck and the federal government have prevailed at every juncture, and men in white protective suits and gas masks can already be seen at the factory site, making preparations to solidify the tainted soil into a rock-hard mass that will remain in place for centuries. But there is still much that remains unanswered about why anyone would agree to bury acres of radioactive waste in the heart of Denver, cutting a line down the middle of one of its oldest neighborhoods.
Especially when they had a choice.
What happened at the Shattuck site, according to those who live in the Overland Park neighborhood, was nothing short of a betrayal. The EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment initially promised neighbors that they were going to take the radioactive waste away and dump it in a high-tech holding facility deep in the Utah desert. In fact, both the EPA and the health department said in writing in April 1991 that moving the waste was the best remedy. Overland Park, they promised, would never have to worry about the effects of radon and gamma rays again.
Then, in January 1992, the EPA and the state changed their minds.
The EPA and the health department say that while they initially chose excavation and off-site dumping as the best solution, they re-evaluated the decision after deciding that leaving the waste in Denver would be much cheaper--and more in line with a decade-old federal environmental law that favors what the government calls "on-site" remedies.
And Salomon, Inc., the New York-based conglomerate that owns Shattuck and is paying for the cleanup as what the EPA calls a Potentially Responsible Party, says through its attorney that it is being more than responsible and generous as it forks over $26 million to stabilize and cap the site.
In the meantime, the new plan that Zimmerman and other neighbors have been protesting for the past four years has become a federal case. The U.S. Department of Justice last year successfully sued the city for refusing to go along with the EPA and issue permits approving a permanent waste dump at the Shattuck site. That decision was appealed by the city and is now before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Mayor Wellington Webb's administration has fought hard for the neighborhood, angered by what it perceives as strong-arm tactics on the part of the feds and dubious of Shattuck's ability to ensure the safety of the site for the 250 to 1,000 years required by state statute. But the city has waged a losing effort. In a move that came just weeks before work was scheduled to begin on the site, the administration last month introduced a bill in city council instituting an $8.50-per-cubic-foot waste-disposal fee for radioactive material inside Denver's perimeter. It's a piece of strategic legislation that, if it passes, will cost the company an additional $12 million.
Imposing high fees to fight the dumping of radioactive waste isn't a new tactic, says Webb aide Theresa Donahue. "It worked in Illinois," she says, referring to that state's successful effort to block industrial giant Kerr-McGee from storing thorium under a clay cap in DuPage County. "And we're hoping it'll work here."
But for a company like Salomon, Inc., $12 million is likely to represent a drop in the bucket. And the residents in Overland Park, including Irma Zimmerman, aren't optimistic that the city will be able to stop the EPA from carrying out its plan at Shattuck. After all, engineers are so wedded to the idea of the "solidification" project that they already have a pet name for the block-long object they will create. They call it "the Monolith."
Shattuck wasn't always just a pile of dirt. In the 1920s the locally owned chemical company was part of the booming World War I-era radium industry, one of many facilities in Denver that treated molybdenum and extracted uranium. Radium has a luminescent quality that made the manufacturing profitable: Everything from watch dials to lanterns were treated with the glowing substance. And, ironically, radium salts were widely prescribed by doctors at the time to treat arthritis, as well as neuritis and other nervous-system disorders.
In the 1930s Shattuck produced radium, radium salts and uranium compounds. By the 1940s and '50s--just about the time the Zimmermans moved into their little green house--Shattuck had concentrated all of its production on the processing of uranium ore, probably for atomic-energy research.
Salomon, Inc., purchased Shattuck--the company and the name--in 1969. And for the next fifteen years, the New York holding company, which has more than fifty subsidiaries, concentrated Shattuck's industrial efforts on processing molybdenum, a steel strengthener. A downturn in the industry led the plant to shut down for good in 1984--but not before its years of operations had left behind a potentially lethal stew of radioactive soil, lead, thorium, uranium, molybdenum, lead and arsenic.
By the time Shattuck closed its doors, the federal government had already declared it a Superfund site. But work to remedy the situation started at a snail's pace and continued that way for the next decade.
An EPA-sponsored risk assessment conducted between 1988 and 1991 deemed the area a "carcinogenic risk," concluding that the chances of getting cancer increased substantially for residents, trespassers and on-site workers. The gamma rays (which are continuously emitted in all directions) compounded the health risks. So did the groundwater contamination: Studies showed that a shallow aquifer beneath the Shattuck site contained radioactive contaminants and metals at levels far above public health standards. Surface-water contamination was also a concern: The South Platte River lies only 3,000 feet from the site, and Denver had already discovered that storm drain runoff, which feeds directly into the river, was bringing contaminated water to the metro area's drinking supply.
For the neighborhood in which Shattuck Chemical sat, an ethnically diverse, lower- to middle-income community set on either side of Santa Fe Drive and bordered by Broadway and Evans, these revelations were nothing short of an environmental nightmare.
Irma Zimmerman stretches back in her BarcaLounger, pulls an afghan over her swollen feet and remembers a simpler time, when the factory was just another part of the neighborhood. Then everything changed, on a single night, when the Overland Park Neighborhood Association first learned that it might be sitting atop a powder keg. "In '85 or something like that, the Shattuck people came over to several of our meetings and told us about the [contamination] and said they wanted to do what would please us," she says. "And you know, we just wanted it out of there."
At all but one of the ten other Denver Radium Sites, the EPA had done just that, excavating and hauling away thousands of cubic yards of radioactive waste. In just one case--a site where the radium was trapped under a double layer of asphalt on the streets surrounding Cheesman Park--the decision was made to leave the contamination alone.
But Shattuck wasn't under the streets. It was out on the edge of an industrial park, which in turn sat in the middle of a neighborhood. Everyone involved assumed it would be excavated.
The EPA and the state health department (with which the EPA had contracted to study and recommend remedies for all of the Denver Radium Sites) called a public meeting in April 1991 to announce their intentions for the site and to get community input. At that time, the agencies presented the seven alternatives they had considered and announced their "proposed plan": to excavate the site and take the waste to a high-tech facility in Utah. The agencies called that alternative the "most effective with regard to human health risks" and noted that it "provided the greatest degree of certainty that long-term groundwater protection would be attained."
The neighborhood association was ecstatic, and it overwhelmingly supported the plan. The City of Denver also formally endorsed it. But a month later Shattuck/ Salomon, the so-called Potentially Respon-sible Party that was paying for the cleanup under the auspices of the Superfund law, filed its own written comments. In that 195-page document, the company argued for the fifth alternative: on-site "stabilization." Shattuck cited both cost concerns and a provision in a 1980 federal environmental law that indicated a preference for on-site remedies.
Nine months later, on January 28, 1992, the EPA and the health department issued their "record of decision," the official document that formally sets out a plan of action to be followed on a Superfund site. The selected remedy was listed as on-site stabilization. The reason given for the abrupt turnaround read like a carbon copy of the Shattuck document: cost considerations and a single provision contained in a 1980 federal environmental law.
The EPA and the state's sudden reliance on a federal law that was more than a dozen years old by the time their first plan had been written raised eyebrows in the Overland Park community. And it raised questions that have yet to be satisfactorily answered.
"We used to think the Environmental Protection Agency was on our side," says Irma Zimmerman. "We used to think they wanted what we wanted. Then they changed."
From Camilla Dade's front yard on the corner of Acoma Street and Mexico Avenue, it's easy to see the towering black mound that will soon be turned into the Monolith. Both health-department engineers and EPA officials used the eerie term repeatedly at the most recent community meeting on the issue. At that gathering, held May 15 at the Johns Collins United Methodist Church on South Bannock Street, the engineers once again gave the residents a briefing on the layers of radioactive waste, cement, stone and clay that they propose to fashion out of what is now loose dirt. The plan is to essentially gum up the dirt with a mixture of fly ash and cement--"stabilization"--and then cover it with a cap of clay, soil and stone. The Monolith is expected to rise eight to nine feet in the air and be slightly rounded. Camilla Dade shakes her head at the prospect.
About three summers ago--during one of the half-dozen studies the state health department and the EPA have conducted since the early 1980s--the health department discovered something it calls "vicinity contamination" on Dade's property. More specifically, it found that Camilla Dade's grass was radioactive. So was the soil beneath it. Everything had to be dug up.
"They dug two, maybe three feet down," says the 68-year-old Dade. "I lost all the grass, all the rose bushes and two blue spruces." To finish the task, the health department also had to move piles of what Dade calls her "collection"--everything from a vintage Land Rover to rusted bicycles, statues, wire cages, lawn ornaments and a dozen other unrecognizable objects that clutter the backyard. Then she made them put it all back.
In exchange, the EPA gave her a cedar fence, some sod ("I bargained for that, too") and lots of little red rocks. "I wanted the rock so that I didn't have to do so much upkeep to it all," Dade says now, waving her hand around the expanse. "I'm getting on, you know."
Dade doesn't look like she scares easily. She's solidly built and has a steady gaze that she fixes on her listener and doesn't let go. But she does admit to being just a bit nervous over her radioactive yard. "I've lived here all my life," she says. "My folks built some of the house. I've never had cancer, no one [in my family] had cancer. So I can't say anything about that. But it did scare me."
One of the demands of the neighborhood association is that an epidemiological study be conducted in the area to determine whether residents in Overland Park suffer from higher incidences of cancer, leukemia and other diseases. Some residents say they've noticed more than their share of such illnesses. But so far, the health department has refused their request.
"It's typically not done for a Superfund site," says Larry Bruskin, the state health department's project manager for Shattuck, with a shrug of his shoulders. "There's just no indication of a need for it."
Bruskin also defends the decision to "stabilize" the radioactive dirt, calling the procedure "protective of human health and the environment." There is absolutely no doubt in his mind, he says, that wrapping and capping the radioactive waste will make it safe as a baby's cradle.
There's a flicker of impatience in Bruskin's responses, as if he's had to explain complex issues to laymen one too many times. "The impermeability of the stabilized mass won't let the radioactive particles leak out," he says. "We'll have stopped the contamination of the groundwater at the source, and thus what is there already will attenuate."
Ron Abel, another health-department engineer and the project manager for Shattuck until Bruskin took over in 1994, nods in agreement. "It's perfectly safe," he says.
Bruskin says he understands the neighbors' concern, especially after what he terms the "unfortunate" shift in plans that the EPA and his department made in 1992. He says that at the beginning of the decision-making process, his agency projected it would cost roughly twice as much to take the waste off-site. "We estimated anywhere between $36.8 million to $48.8 million to take it off-site, and about $26 million to leave it on-site," he says.
But Ken Acoma, a spokesman for Utah's Envirocare, the only facility in the country to which Shattuck could have shipped the material at the time, says Envirocare never gave Shattuck that quote. "That's their number, not ours," he says. In fact, Acoma says his price has remained about the same since the beginning--about $250 per cubic yard, or $12.5 million.
The EPA and the state health department dispute Acoma's version of the cost difference. But they say it's irrelevant, anyway. "Our remedy is protective," Bruskin repeats. Fears about cancer or other diseases, he adds, are completely unfounded.
"It's a perception thing," Bruskin says. "We're totally convinced that this remedy is protective of health and environment, and we don't see a problem with it. It's not like it's barely acceptable. It's perfectly acceptable."
Rebecca Thomas, the EPA's regional project manager, agrees. In fact, she and a number of other health officials have suggested that the cap be carefully landscaped and turned into a park for neighborhood children.
"I'm very sympathetic to the concerns of the neighborhood, but I think the neighbors need not be worried about their health," says Thomas. "I really honestly don't believe they have any reason to fear getting radiation after the remedy. I honestly believe that it is very protective. We've done the most stringent tests that we can, and all of our information indicates that this [remedy] will last. It's perfectly safe. I'd let my kids play there."
Bruskin and Thomas acknowledge that the Shattuck site is unique among the Denver Radium Sites: It's the only one with a Potentially Responsible Party who is required under law to pay the freight for the cleanup. But they insist that's not why they chose the cheaper alternative. "Actually, the fact that we had a PRP in this instance," says Thomas, "only made a difference in that we had a party who owned the land and was willing to dedicate it for this use."
Former Denver city councilman Dave Doering, who was involved in the Shattuck fight when he was still representing the neighborhood, has a different take on the situation. "When it was the taxpayer paying, we spent millions of dollars shipping this stuff off-site," he says. "When it's a private party who's responsible for the cost, on-site is deemed acceptable. What's wrong with this picture?"
Some impartial experts agree that the "stabilization" remedy is a safe one. Harvard physics professor Richard Wilson says he far prefers the on-site stabilization remedy to carting the waste off-site. "Once you immobilize the waste in the center of concrete, you're in good shape," says Wilson. "In general, I think it's the right thing to do."
But science isn't always exact. And there are reputable critics of the Shattuck plan. Stephen Lester, science director at the Citizens Clearinghouse Against Hazardous Waste, the group that originally brought Love Canal to public scrutiny, is one of them. "Stabilization technologies suffer from one problem," he says from his office in northern Virginia. "They lack a track record."
Lester, a toxicologist schooled at Harvard, contends that of the dozens of stabilization systems that have been tried recently, "a good number have failed in less than two years.
"Two major problems occur," Lester says. "First, there's cracking of the slab as a result of freezing. And that cracking then becomes a pathway for moisture to get in and create leaching opportunities for what's inside. Second, there have been instances of a gradual softening of the concrete. So eventually, you end up with material you can't walk on."
If that scenario sounds familiar, it should. According to Ken Korkia, program specialist at the Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board, a similar process was attempted at the Rocky Flats nuclear plant with sludge that had been contaminated with plutonium, uranium and nitrates. The sludge was mixed with concrete, but because of a chemical reaction caused by the nitrates, the cement failed to set properly. The result, says Korkia, was "something like Jell-O, or pudding, or toothpaste in consistency." Critics later dubbed the otherworldly creations "pudding ponds."
The health department's Bruskin says he doesn't doubt that there have been problems with solidification efforts in the past. And he acknowledges that the stabilization technique being proposed for Shattuck is "relatively new, relatively innovative." But he insists that "the way we're doing it, we feel we're being protective. Our protective cap has been designed to address a number of those concerns. I'm not aware of any other stabilization project [in the past] that actually put a cover over the stabilized material. And freeze/thaw was a design consideration in our project."
But Denver Public Health Administrator H. Sterling Drumwright isn't convinced. He says the EPA and the health department are making a big mistake at Denver's expense. In a letter Drumwright wrote to the state health department in 1991 and says he stands by today, he listed numerous concerns with leaving the radioactive soil within the city limits. He claimed there was a low probability that the waste would remain stable and that groundwater would not be compromised. And he asserted that maintaining the security of the Monolith for the 250 to 1,000 years required in state statute was "unfeasible in an urban zone." Drumwright's letter even questioned the very premise of the design. "We do not believe that there is sufficient information...that shows that solidification will permanently and effectively control contaminants in the soil," he wrote.
Bruskin, however, is not fazed by Drumwright's criticisms. He says city officials think of the Monolith the same way they think about sidewalks--as concrete that will crack and need constant repair. "This isn't a sidewalk," Bruskin says. "It's made with different material. We've eliminated the freeze/thaw action. Groundwater contamination ceases because we've stabilized the source. And security--well, even without a fence, it'll be secure. It's a concrete mass with an enormous cover. A kid can't move it. Maybe an adult could, with a lever or with some machinery. But who's going to do that?"
Such assurances have done little to assuage the neighbors. Years of dealing with thousands of pages in the EPA's "administrative record" and conflicting consultant reports have taught them, they say, to question everything. And they're disturbed by some of the answers they've received. Teresa Durrant, a member of the association who has assumed the mantle of "librarian" on this document-intensive issue, lists some of the neighborhood's concerns.
"The fly ash that they're going to add to stabilize the stuff is itself toxic, which means they're going to increase the toxicity of the mass, which is counter to what [federal environmental law] demands," she says. "In the EPA's own words, there's no way to neutralize radioactive materials." Durrant reads from an EPA "Waste Disposal Fact Sheet" issued in July 1989. "Radium retains its radioactivity for thousands of years," the document proclaims. "For these reasons, the EPA's cleanup plan calls for excavating...contaminated soil and debris and transporting it to a disposal facility." Durrant puts down the document and frowns. "So how come they're not doing the same thing for us?" she asks, taking off her glasses.
A 47-year-old registered nurse, Durrant is currently devoting herself to the Shattuck issue full-time. She lives across Santa Fe Drive from the pile and estimates that it's about 1,500 feet from her small but picturesque home and tidy garden. As she stands in the middle of her living room, which has been equipped with a photocopier so she can quickly disseminate the information she's constantly digging up, she shakes her head and points to a mountain of supporting documents that have all been carefully highlighted and indexed. "You can't prove to me this remedy is safe," she says.
The other members of the neighborhood association, though perhaps a bit less well-informed than Durrant, agree. At their most recent meeting last May at the Methodist church, 91 community members presided over a grilling of Bruskin and Thomas, as well as other representatives from the EPA and the health department. Questions flew regarding the potential for contamination to the neighborhood's groundwater, long-term maintenance of the Monolith, and the potential of any concrete mass to last for the thousands of years it takes radium and uranium to stop being dangerously radioactive.
"This is going through as a guess-as-you-go proposition," neighborhood association president Catherine Sandy told the panel of government bureaucrats. "Would you like to live next to it?"
The answer they got back was one they had heard a hundred times already. "The remedy we have chosen is protective of human health and the environment," said Bruskin.
It was the type of response that Durrant, Sandy and the rest like to call "the pooh-pooh line"--the standard reply, they say, when the EPA and the health department get a question they can't answer.
"Will they put their guarantee of safety in writing?" asks Helene Orr, another Overland Park resident. "Ask them that. I have. And they won't."
If the battle over Shattuck were a Western, John Faught would be the hired gun--the mercenary hired by a bunch of East Coast dandies to watch over their interests in a less civilized part of the world. At least that's how the neighborhood residents see him. And they say he's done a hell of a job.
But attorney Faught, a tall, gray-haired Coloradan with a weathered face, thinks both he and Salomon are getting a bad rap. Faught notes that the EPA and the health department, not Shattuck/Salomon, ultimately made the "stabilization" decision that has proven so unpopular. His client is merely going along with the decision, he says: "We received a unilateral mandate to remedy the property using the alternative they selected."
Faught admits that capping the radioactive soil and leaving it on-site was the remedy that the company preferred--and the one it recommended in its plan submitted to the EPA in 1991. But he says it was the remedy of choice not just because it was cheaper than carting waste out of state. Faught says Shattuck/Salomon preferred the on-site alternative so that it could maintain control over the waste and avoid any costly mishaps in the future.
"There were two issues of concern to Shattuck," Faught says. "One was the difference in cost between on-site and off-site treatment, and the second was potential future liability. If you take materials from your site and put them on another site, you lose control of those materials. And you rely on someone else to be responsible for them. And, as many companies have learned, that doesn't always happen, and they end up being brought [back into court] for materials they thought they had given to someone else to handle properly."
It's a real concern for companies that find themselves shackled with Superfund liability. And in Shattuck/Salomon's case, the corporation has been burned before--by the same city government it's fighting today.
"Shattuck was one of the companies in Colorado that were invited, indeed solicited [by the city], to use Lowry landfill in the 1960s and '70s," Faught says. "Denver indicated that they had state-of-the-art disposal facilities for industrial waste that were in compliance with all laws and regs in effect at that time." So Shattuck, like dozens of other firms, used it as an industrial-waste site.
In 1991 Denver turned around and sued a number of those companies, including Shattuck, claiming they were liable for more than $100 million in costs to correct environmental concerns at Lowry. The case was settled out of court, and that settlement has been sealed by a judge. But Faught says that Salomon paid a "significant amount of money." And it left an impression.
"I think we have a remedy that protects the health of the residents," Faught says. But asked whether he'd want the Monolith in his neighborhood, he declines to answer. Instead, he focuses on the investment Shattuck/Salomon has made to date. He says that so far, the company has spent $20 million just on phase one of the cleanup: demolishing buildings, treating property like Camilla Dade's that was close enough to be contaminated, and digging up the enormous pile of dirt in preparation for the "stabilization" process. Next, the company's going to spend another $7.5 million to solidify the dirt mound and cap it according to EPA and health-department specifications.
"I know that the residents have made it clear there's only one solution that they're looking for," says Faught. "But don't forget now, this is an industrial area. There's a junkyard located there; there's a lumberyard; a train comes in and out; there's an auto repair shop. There's residences a couple blocks away, sure, but it's an industrial area, and Shattuck's been there since 1918 or something. This is not a situation where you're taking a residential area and coming in after that residential area is established.
"I'm not discounting their concerns," Faught adds. "I'm just saying these are the facts."
There are two sets of laws in Denver that ban the dumping of radioactive waste in urban areas. The City of Denver forbids the permanent disposal of radioactive or hazardous waste within its city limits. And the state has strict regulations regarding the siting of radioactive waste dumps.
So it was hardly a surprise when, as the EPA and the health department readied the Shattuck site to start gumming up the pile of dirt, Denver issued a cease-and-desist order citing a violation of its municipal zoning ordinance.
Shattuck appealed to the city zoning board and lost. That's when the Justice Department stepped in, suing Denver on behalf of the EPA and charging the city with preventing the agency from fulfilling its legal duties. U.S. District Judge Wiley Y. Daniel found for the EPA in January of this year. The city filed its appeal in the Tenth Circuit the following month. It also filed a motion to stay further activity at the site while the appeal is pending. That stay was denied, giving Shattuck the green light to begin its "stabilization" process. The city is now appealing the denial.
Shaun Sullivan, the assistant city attorney fighting the case against the EPA, calls the federal government's action nothing less than a miscarriage of justice. "Your best decisions are made by the people closest to the problem," Sullivan says. "And the people closest to the problems have been telling the state and the EPA for years that this stuff doesn't belong in their neighborhood. The position taken by the federal government in this case is essentially that they don't have to listen to local government if they disagree with them."
Sullivan views the issue as having constitutional significance. "The constitution was designed to balance the need for some overarching federal scheme in matters of national importance--like defense," he says. "But the police powers that regulate how property is to be zoned and used inside a municipality have historically been reserved for local governments--who are the first line of defense against environmental pollution."
But while the city's response was predictable in light of its laws, the State of Colorado's reaction was anything but. The state law that governs the siting of radioactive waste dumps in Colorado is quite specific about the factors that must be taken into account before such a dump is sited. State statute says that "remoteness" and proximity to "populated areas" are key to the siting of radioactive dumps. That same state law, notes Sullivan, was applied by the state to every one of the Denver Radium Sites except Shattuck and was used as a reason to justify moving the waste off-site.
But according to the EPA's Rebecca Thomas, in the Shattuck case, the Colorado Attorney General's office chose to interpret the state law as only applying to new radioactive waste sites, not existing ones. When first contacted by Westword, a spokesman for Attorney General Gale Norton insisted that the health department interpreted the law itself, without input from Norton's office. Later, Tim Tymkovich called back to say that the Attorney General's office feels the state health department made the right decision.
That kind of brush-off doesn't go over well with the neighborhood. In fact, the EPA's abrupt change of policy and the state's novel interpretation of Colorado law has convinced some community members in Overland Park that there's "something more" behind the effort to cement Shattuck's toxic soup into place.
"The governor's been particularly silent on all this," Teresa Durrant notes as she thumbs through one of her notebooks. "We'd like to know why that is."
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Roy Romer did receive a $20,000 campaign contribution in 1994 from Dwayne Andreas, the chief executive officer of the Archer Daniels Midland agribusiness leviathan and a member of the board of directors of Salomon, Inc. But the governor's office denies any connection between its support of the health department's decision and the campaign contributions.
"The governor has been kept continually apprised of the situation at Shattuck," says press secretary Jim Carpenter. Carpenter says the governor is aware of the difference of opinion between Denver health officials and state health officials but has been "supportive of what the state health department has been doing." Any suggestion of the Dwayne Andreas influence, Carpenter adds, "is just ridiculous."
Despite the neighbors' questions and Shaun Sullivan's impassioned constitutional arguments, there is virtually nothing stopping Shattuck from starting the final step in cementing the Monolith in place. The EPA projects that crews will begin pumping fly ash into the mountain of dirt within the first two weeks of July.
The irises in Irma Zimmerman's yard are still in bloom, swaying back and forth in front of the sign she has pounded into her yard protesting the Shattuck site. But she has all but given up. "I don't know what they can do once they start cementing it all in," she says. But every day she still walks the block and a half to see how much has been done "in the pit." And every day she reports back to the others--Durrant, Sandy and Orr--on whether the tractors have been moving, or if part of the fence is missing, or if new graffiti has appeared on the mound. Zimmerman watches with the same interest, the same tenacity, that kept her glued to her back porch in 1988 when the twister came down the street and took the roof off her neighbor's house. Now, like then, the thought of an unstoppable force is somehow hypnotic.