HARD TO SWALLOW
It was in late August 1984 that residents in the southwest Denver subdivisions of Friendly Hills and Harriman Park called a news conference to demand an explanation from public officials about an unusual number of cancer deaths and health problems among children living in the area. Ten years later, they're still waiting.
A health assessment begun in 1987 by the Colorado Department of Health and completed by the agency two and a half years ago remains unreleased. And two independent researchers charge that the state agency to this day is obstructing an outside study of the incidence of health disorders in the area by withholding critical data.
Consequently, a debate thought to have been put to rest by the 1990 dismissal of a lawsuit against Martin Marietta and the Denver Water Department by Friendly Hills residents who believed their drinking water was contaminated instead continues to boil.
Last February, Dr. Glen Groben, a resident pathologist with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, contacted the state health department to get census tract data on birth defects, cancers and nonaccidental deaths among children in the Denver metro area from 1977 to 1993. Groben wanted to determine whether areas alleged to have received Denver water contaminated with chemical discharges from Martin Marietta's plant in Waterton Canyon showed higher levels of health disorders among children.
"They called me into the health department so they could check me out," Groben recounts. "They quizzed me about what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it and who I was with." He never got the data.
Groben says he believes the problem was who he was working with: Adrienne Anderson, a local environmental activist and longtime critic of the health department who was the first to suggest that health problems among residents of the Friendly Hills area were linked to contamination of the water supply by defense giant Martin. The company's rocket-and-satellite production plant in Waterton Canyon is located directly uphill from the Kassler water plant, Denver's original treatment facility. Toxic discharges into two creeks that feed the water supply at the now-closed Kassler facility have been noted by Denver Water Department personnel since shortly after the Martin facility opened in 1956.
Anderson maintains that CDH tolerated the release of industrial waste by Martin Marietta. "These are supposed to be the guardians of public health," says Anderson, "and they let Martin Marietta use our drinking-water supply as an industrial sewer for thirty years."
In 1991 another researcher associated with Anderson made a data request similar to Groben's. He, too, never received the data he sought. "I suppose CDH was concerned we were going to take the data and use it to beat on some corporate polluter," says Richard Clapp, who teaches environmental epidemiology at Boston University. "But that wasn't part of the research. We didn't know what the result was going to be before we did the research."
An epidemiologist who headed the state cancer registry in Massachussetts for nine years, Clapp is familiar with data request procedures in many states. He says he was surprised to find Colorado officials requesting additional explanation of the "aims and intentions of your research project."
"My impression was I was getting the runaround," says Clapp. A year and several letters later, CDH sent Clapp one page of data. It was useless, he says. "They gave us data on too large a scale," Clapp explains. "We wanted it broken down by census tract. What they sent wasn't broken down beyond the Denver metro area."
Adds Groben, "I think it's absurd that the health department has a right to evaluate my research project to decide whether or not it's valid before they give me the data. That data should be available to any researcher. They're essentially controlling research by withholding public data."
But officials at the health department (now known as the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) say data is readily available. "We view this data as public data, and to the extent we can share it with researchers, we'll do it," says state epidemiologist Richard Hoffman. "As long as a researcher is going to bring good science to it, we don't have a problem with the angle of the research."
"Our requirements are the same for everyone," adds Carol Garrett, head of CDH's Health Statistics Section. "Everyone must submit a study protocol telling how he'd use the data." Neither Clapp nor Groben did so, she says, which is why their requests weren't honored.
Yet other researchers who have obtained data from the health department say they never had to submit protocols. John Reif, an epidemiologist with the Environmental Health Department at Colorado State University, says he has made numerous data requests of CDH, the most recent one a county-by-county comparison of cancer incidence earlier this year. Reif says he can't recall ever being asked to submit a protocol.
Karen Keller was a nursing student at the University of Phoenix in 1991 when she and three fellow students working on a class project requested death data on residents of the Windsor Gardens area broken down by census tract. "I filled out the form they sent and hand-carried it over there," she recalls. CDH asked for nothing more, she says. "We got the data within a week."
A number of other researchers' requests for data obtained by Anderson through the Colorado Open Records Act contain no indication that protocols were required. Most of the researchers were sent data in less than a week.
Particularly galling to Adrienne Anderson, a former visiting Rockefeller Scholar on environmental ethics at CU-Boulder, was CDH's ready accommodation of a 1989 data request by Dr. Steven Piantadosi. A biostatistician with the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center in Baltimore, Piantadosi had been hired by Martin Marietta and the water department in the suit filed by fourteen families in Friendly Hills and Harriman Park. That suit sought damages for the deaths of four children and the illnesses of a number of others allegedly caused by chemical contamination of drinking water.
Not only was Richard Clapp's request nearly identical to Piantadosi's, but the Johns Hopkins researcher also received data that had been denied the attorneys of Friendly Hills residents, Anderson says. Piantadosi used the CDH data to support defense contentions that Kassler water had not caused an elevated incidence of cancer in children or deaths among newborns in any census tract receiving it. (In 1984 the health department itself said the childhood cancer rate in Friendly Hills was two and a half times greater than the metro-area average; the agency later backed away from the finding.)
"Piantadosi got data that we did not get in discovery," says Kathleen Mullen, a Denver attorney who represented Friendly Hills families in the suit. "We maintain our experts should have gotten the same data."
Lack of supporting epidemiological data hurt the residents' case, noted U.S. District Judge Zita Weinshienk in her ruling dismissing the suit. While acknowledging "overwhelming evidence" that Martin Marietta had contaminated land and water in Waterton Canyon, the judge ruled that residents had failed to prove that water they received caused their injuries. The plaintiffs proved only that it was "possible that they were exposed [to contaminants]," Weinshienk wrote. "They submitted virtually no circumstantial evidence of exposure." (Throughout the suit, Martin denied either polluting Waterton or tainting municipal water at Kassler. In a recent statement, a spokeswoman said the company believes Weinshienk's ruling confirmed that Martin "neither caused nor contributed to the health problems cited by the Friendly Hills residents.")
"The court's decision left a bad taste in all our mouths," says Alan Keiser, a Denver Police Department detective whose son was born with a heart defect that necessitated two major surgeries. "Our whole area was affected by that water. My family's health was seriously affected. We were always sick back then. I still believe the water was contaminated. In the heart I know it happened, no matter what the court says."
The court might have allowed the suit to go to trial if not for Piantadosi's findings, says Anderson. And she claims that those findings were skewed by bad information given to the oncologist by the Denver Water Department. In determining the effects of Kassler water on the metro area, Piantadosi needed to know which census tracts got the water and which did not. According to Anderson, the water department misinformed him about water routing, something residents' attorneys didn't learn until after Weinshienk's dismissal order.
Maps Anderson obtained from water department files show that water pipes ran from the Kassler plant to the Friendly Hills area--in contrast to the map Piantadosi used for his report, which attributed Friendly Hills water to a source designated only as "other." Without proper water-delivery mapping, says Anderson, Piantadosi's study was inherently flawed.
Stephen Work of the water department provided the routing information to Piantadosi, according to a notation in Piantadosi's report. Now the department's director of operations, Work insists he wasn't involved in supplying information to Piantadosi. In any case, he says, "water from Kassler almost never ended up in Friendly Hills. The only way for it to go there would have been when the Marston treatment plant was out of service, and that was very rare." Work says he can make no sense of the "other" designation used in the report as the source of Friendly Hills water.
That point is moot to water department manager Hamlet "Chips" Barry. "The court threw the whole case out, saying there was no evidence of polluted water being served to anybody," he says. "There was no chemical contamination of the water supply by Martin Marietta or anyone else. They may have leaked some chemicals across the boundary of Kassler, but none of that contamination ever entered our system."
For the most part, Barry is backed in that assertion by his predecessor, William Miller, who headed the department during the Friendly Hills controversy. "There was no contamination in the Kassler water," Miller says, though he allows a shallow well that served as a source of some of the Kassler supply was found to be tainted with traces of toxic chemicals. That well was closed by the state health department at the end of 1984. Kassler was shut down a year later because its sand filtration system was too slow and labor-intensive to make it useful today, Miller says--although "there was concern" that an underground plume of contamination from Martin Marietta would move downhill and "find its way into the Platte, and we were taking water out of the Platte into the Kassler plant."
But a CDH employee who investigated Martin Marietta pollution in Waterton Canyon at the time says he thought "there was no doubt that contamination got into the water system." Greg Starkebaum, who worked at the health department's hazardous materials and waste management division until 1989, recalls the water department saying there was no problem. "I called bullshit on that," says Starkebaum, who now heads the environmental section of a local management consulting firm.
Also in contrast to the assertions of Barry and Miller, Judge Weinshienk's dismissal ruling says that "Kassler was closed due to toxic contamination." The ruling points out "the discovery of TCE [trichloroethylene] in the Kassler water supply" and describes as "reprehensible" Martin's discharge of hazardous waste to the water and land above Kassler. The overriding issue was whether that contamination reached Friendly Hills. It might have, Weinshienk wrote, but the residents couldn't prove it did in quantities large enough to cause them harm.
"The way the court ruled, we would have had to do actual samples of the water during those years [1975 to 1984]," says Curtis Logue, whose son died of a heart defect four days after birth. "We moved there in 1982," Logue recalls. "It was a brand-new subdivision. It was our first house, right next to the foothills. We were all young families in the neighborhood. We thought we were right there on the edge of the wilderness. We all thought we had a neat house in a neat community. That was the last thing on our minds, that something was wrong with the water. Who's going to be doing water samples?"
The Logues were among the first in the area to suspect the water; they had been alerted by their son's doctor, a cardiologist who was familiar with studies that related heart defects in infants to exposure of their pregnant mothers to TCE and TCA (trichloroethane) in drinking water. When they raised their concerns at public meetings with health officials, says Logue, they found their neighbors began to turn against them.
"Here were people who we had helped put up fences and mailboxes, and now they were arguing with us or they wouldn't talk to us," Logue says. "They were worried about property values going down. We got some threats. At one meeting at Kendallvue Elementary, some people were saying we deserved to be shot for what we did to their neighborhood. People were screaming at the top of their lungs. It was a free-for-all. And the people there from the water board and the health department and the EPA were sitting there at the front of the room all pious, like nothing was going on."
Health department officials are still acting as if nothing happened, complains Andrienne Anderson. CDH recently enacted a new data-request policy that officials say better protects the identity of individuals whose medical records comprise its database. But Anderson says that measure is being used to stonewall research by epidemiologists trying to get to the bottom of the Friendly Hills issue.
According to Glen Groben, the new policy, instituted last March, would have prevented him from studying the possible relationship between health disorders in children and their exposure to water from Kassler--even if he had completed a study protocol as the department demanded.
"They said they wouldn't give out data with cell sizes less than three," says Groben. (A cell size is the number of persons afflicted with a specific condition in a given population group.) "With environmentally caused cancers, you're always dealing with low numbers because of the mechanism of cancer development," Groben explains. "It takes time. So their restrictions on cell sizes under three made my research impossible."
According to the health department's executive director, Dr. Patricia Nolan, the policy was put in place due to concerns that health information might fall into the hands of people who'd violate the privacy of individuals whose records make up CDH's database. "It's not that hard statistically to identify a person in a population group of 5,000 people," she says.
"Who'd need to?" responds Richard Clapp, who believes his 1991 request was also impeded by CDH confidentiality restrictions. "We made it clear that we were not in any way intending to identify individuals in our research."
But Nolan says the new policy was instituted mainly to make policies on the release of data "consistent within the department. Actually, we were concerned that people who had legitimate reasons to receive data weren't always getting it," she says.
As CDH and researchers continue haggling, the Logues have tried to get on with their lives. Two years after burying their son, they put their home up for sale. "It seemed like we were beating our heads against a wall," says Curtis Logue. "As time went by, it became obvious that nothing ever was going to be done."
The house failed to sell. A disclosure document revealing their suspicions about the water was probably to blame, Logue says. "The only thing we could do was let it go to foreclosure," he adds. "We had to get away from there."
Logue says he doesn't fault "everyone at Martin Marietta"--just those people who "worked there that knew what was going on. Those are the people who really anger me.
"We never wanted to win some big lawsuit," adds Logue. "We wanted to see those people who were responsible at the water board and at Martin Marietta brought to justice. We still carry it around," he says of his anger. "Even after ten years. I guess we'll always carry it around.
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