Shy, but Not Retiring
The public, no doubt, would have preferred clear skies and sunshine. But some 600 kids and adults came anyway on this blustery Saturday morning, to search for prairie dogs and chomp on hot dogs at "Wild Things '98," hosted by the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Wildlife Refuge, ten miles northeast of Denver. At the arsenal's Visitors Center, a building that housed an Army Officer's Club overlooking the nation's chemical arsenal just a half-century ago, visitors now gawked at a three-foot-long iguana, played "Recycle Relay" and snatched up T-shirts and wildlife calendars.
The October 17 festivities celebrated the arsenal's ongoing transition from a chemical dump to an urban oasis for mule deer, badgers, eagles and human bird-watchers. But for all the cheery hype, the heart of the 27-square-mile Rocky Mountain Arsenal--once billed as the most contaminated square mile on earth--still contains a quagmire of toxic Superfund soup. And while the man in charge of its cleanup has officially retired, financially speaking, he's still cleaning up.
Colonel Eugene H. "Doc" Bishop had been the arsenal's program manager for more than seven years before retiring from the Army last month. But Bishop didn't just take his officer's pension and go home. Thanks to a labyrinthine arrangement with the U.S. Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command (CBDCOM), he was immediately re-employed at the arsenal through a contract with Colorado State University.
Just prior to Bishop's cake-and-coffee retirement party on September 30, the Army announced that he had been hired to conduct a review of on-site operations at the arsenal and to "recommend transitional changes necessary to move to civilian management"--even though that civilian management will be headed by Bishop.
According to Ruth Mecham, the Army's arsenal spokeswoman, the CSU agreement calls for Bishop to review the Remediation Venture Office, a coalition Bishop himself helped create to guide the arsenal through the next decade. The RVO includes representatives from the Army and Shell Oil Company--the two parties responsible for the contamination and its cleanup--as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the site as a wildlife refuge.
For all its headaches, the arsenal's top job has its rewards: Bishop reportedly will collect $58,705 in salary and benefits by the end of a six-month contract. That's on top of a standard colonel's pension, estimated by the Army at $4,684 a month, plus medical and cost of living allowances.
The 52-year-old Bishop, previously an Army "lifer," is now employed by CSU's Center for Ecological Management of Military Lands in the Department of Forest Services. The center is largely funded by federal contracts to hire and manage biologists, data analysts, resource managers and other experts who focus on the ecological well-being of U.S. military lands. Shortly before Bishop's retirement, CBDCOM asked the center to fill the job of a new "research associate" whose "responsibilities" sounded much like the colonel's old job description: "Direct the environmental remediation and cleanup of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and oversee the mandated transfer of the site to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to include all budgeting and program management. Manage personnel and material requirements. Direct public involvement and outreach efforts. Direct cooperative efforts with other federal and state agencies and the private sector."
The center followed the usual protocol, which calls for posting the opening on its Web site and in three environmental publications for five weeks, then whittling down the pile of applicants and interviewing the top three candidates. In this case, however, just two people applied for the job--and only one was interviewed.
In tapping Bishop for the job, CSU followed the law "by the letter," says university spokesman Tom Milligan. The center also made some money for its trouble: about $20,000 to cover the costs of overhead, hiring and oversight of the employee in the field.
Although several workers at the arsenal question why someone wasn't promoted from inside to replace Bishop, Michael A. Parker, the CBDCOM deputy who arranged the CSU contract, says the cost of a "direct salary and direct benefits" would have been just as expensive. In his consultant role, Bishop will not have direct oversight over the contractors he previously hired to work at the arsenal, Parker adds; that task will go to an "acting program manager" based at CBDCOM headquarters back in Maryland.
In 1942 the Army chose this stretch of Colorado farmland for an arsenal that would manufacture incendiary munitions and chemical weapons, including mustard agents, nerve gas and rocket fuels. In the mid-1950s the Rocky Mountain Arsenal was the free world's largest producer of sarin, a deadly nerve agent developed by Nazi scientists. A business later bought by Shell Oil Company moved into the arsenal at the end of World War II. Shell manufactured pesticides at the site until 1982--about three decades after farmers north of the arsenal first complained that contaminated groundwater was curdling their crops.
By the time the arsenal was nominated for Superfund status in 1983, it contained eight million cubic yards of contaminated soil, two huge basins full of toxic waste, and a history of leaking sewer lines and spills that had poisoned groundwater supplies stretching well outside the arsenal's boundary.
Years of legal wrangling followed to determine how the arsenal would be cleaned up and who would pay. In 1992 Congress designated the site a refuge in the making, pleasing supporters of a wildlife outpost so close to an urban center--and saving countless millions because the arsenal would avoid the full cleanup necessary to make the land fit for human habitation. The remediation is slated to take another eleven to fourteen years. After that, the Army will continue to be responsible for the buried waste.
Despite Shell's involvement in the initial contamination, the taxpayers are picking up most of the tab. Last year, for example, the Department of Defense spent $75 million to Shell's $20 million; this year the DOD will pay $81 million and the oil company $30 million. The remediation's final price tag: $2 billion plus.
Compared to that, Bishop's dual paychecks may seem like a contaminated molehill. But his hiring is not exactly business as usual.
Although it had been standard Army practice to rotate the arsenal's top commander every two years, Bishop had been in place since 1991. Roland Russell, a Commerce City resident and member of the arsenal's Restoration Advisory Board, says he's fielded calls from arsenal employees and environmentalists concerned about both Bishop's tendency to be "too cost-conscious" and the way he got rehired at the arsenal. "The method of his hiring," Russell concedes, "has been secretive, at best."
In most cases, retiring senior Army officers must enter a one-year "cooling off" period before they can re-enter the government; even then, according to Army policy, they "may not attempt to influence any official action in the department where the last year of active duty was performed." That policy was put in place to thwart the "old boys' network," explains Alfred H. Novotne, the Army's ethics attorney.
But Bishop could bypass that requirement because his arsenal deal "is not a direct hire," says CBDCOM's Parker. "Technically speaking, the university hired him." And the Army expects to extend the arrangement for at least two years, probably using the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, which allows the government to hire back its own retirees as "experts" in a particular field. Bishop "is preeminently qualified" for the consultant position, Parker adds. "In no way was it intended to cook the books."
It makes sense to have a civilian in charge when the arsenal's sole remaining mission is cleanup, says Howard Roitman, hazardous materials and waste-management division director for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "I think he [Bishop] has done a very good job at working with his partners," says Roitman, who's served on the arsenal project for a decade. "It's important to maintain continuity."
Besides, Roitman points out, the state health department and the EPA are charged with making sure the Army and Shell live up to their 1996 cleanup agreement. That Record of Decision, the product of further negotiations, is now the official remediation roadmap.
Bishop's arsenal tenure--both past and proposed--gets high marks from Chris Wyatt, head of the Tri-County Health Department, whose territory and jurisdiction overlap the arsenal's. Bishop has created "a different level of dialogue" between the Army and other agencies, Wyatt says, resulting in "a more effective cleanup. There's a dynamic out there that works well. If it's not broke, don't break it."
"I would characterize the colonel's role as one of responsible accommodation of all interests," agrees Edgar Benton, who has worked on the arsenal project as a lawyer for Shell. "I am unaware of any instance in which the colonel did not give an audience to anyone with a legitimate interest in the site."
Not many citizens' groups would agree. "I think his performance lacks the diligence the job deserves," says Dan Mulqueen, a longtime activist. "His management and decision-making have been turned over to Shell."
John Yelenick, co-chair of the Restoration Advisory Board, which was formed to give citizens a voice in the cleanup project, says that during his four years on the board, he's never seen Bishop attend a meeting. Yelenick, one of the most active lay experts on the arsenal, says he can't judge Bishop's performance because he's never met him. "I can't link what I perceive to be the weaknesses and subterfuge that I see going on out there to one man," he adds.
Other critics of the arsenal cleanup, however, see Bishop's role as pivotal. "The program manager sets the tone for the entire site," says an official with a long history of arsenal involvement. "He sets the schedule, the mood, the dynamics."
Although his staff preaches a commitment to openness and re-establishing public trust, Bishop himself would not agree to an interview. Arsenal spokeswoman Mecham describes the chain-smoking Texas native as a "shy" person who for the past seven years has deferred all media contact to her. Bishop, a grandfather, puts in long hours on the job, she says, then likes to go home to watch the news with his wife or take an occasional trip to the zoo or the natural history museum.
"He's a hands-on kind of guy," says Mecham. Talking to the media "is not his style."
But just after his arrival at the arsenal, Bishop wasn't as retiring. According to a 1991 interview in the Christian Science Monitor, Bishop "stressed that he wants to see the facility 'become a learning resource...sort of campus,' where cleanup technology could be shared with others. 'We are going to make our records open to the public...There is no reason why the people should not have a return on their investment.'"
Yelenick's RAB co-chairman is deputy program manager Kevin Blose, a civilian who's worked for the Army at the arsenal for fifteen years. Personable and energetic, with a beeper on his belt and tennis shoes on his feet, Blose doesn't mince words regarding the challenges of pleasing three federal agencies, the state government and countless citizens' groups. "It's been a nightmare," sighs the environmental engineer. "We're all techies!"
Morale at the arsenal has been a problem for years, Blose admits as he hikes up Rattlesnake Hill, a small rise overlooking the arsenal's new double-lined toxic-waste landfill--under construction by a private contractor. In the past five years, government staff has been cut in half, replaced by Shell employees or workers from private environmental firms.
"We have such a different mission than we used to," Blose says. For the twelve years leading up to the Record of Decision, government employees studied and analyzed what should be done to clean up the arsenal. "Now we're in the actual dirt-moving mode," he explains. "It takes a different kind of engineering. It's hard to retrofit someone."
Except, perhaps, former military man Bishop, now back on the job as a civilian.
Bishop's continued presence at the arsenal shows the Army's commitment to "see this through," says his spokeswoman. Citizens' groups "may not trust the Army," Mecham adds, "but they trust Doc."
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.