It was a bad week for Adrienne Anderson.
On February 3, the environmental-studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she's taught for eleven years, was informed that she wouldn't be reappointed to her post. The following morning, after a night during which Anderson says "I was unable to sleep and in distress," she fell down the stairs in her home, breaking her leg in three places. She underwent surgery and was not well enough to attend a rally staged several days later by students demanding that her contract be renewed. Then, on February 10 -- "my birthday," she reveals -- the Rocky Mountain News published an editorial headlined "CU Making Right Call on Anderson," in which the anonymous author described her as "an instructor whose rhetoric on environmental issues has been almost as reckless as the ranting of Ward Churchill."
Despite being physically incapacitated and zonked on assorted painkillers, Anderson didn't raise the white flag à la CU president Elizabeth Hoffman, who resigned rather than continuing to scrap with her detractors. Instead, she sent a February 17 e-mail to Vince Carroll, editor of the Rocky's editorial page, labeled "Notification of Libel and Request for Publication of Rebuttal" -- a phrase dripping with lawyerly terminology. She went on to say that the "defamatory" editorial had been published "with malicious intent" and asked that the Rocky publish a refutation written by her "in its Saturday edition, of equal or greater length, and of equal or greater font size for the headlines and text" as a "minimum measure of response."
Carroll forwarded the e-mail to Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple, who sent Anderson a carefully worded response on the 18th. Temple wrote that "it is impossible to respond in any detail, because you do not point out a single factual error or falsehood," adding, "The News welcomes op-ed submissions and would be happy to consider a rebuttal. However, we will not guarantee that it will be published, nor will we commit to a specific day of publication, length or the size of a headline. And, of course, we cannot agree to publish anything unedited."
Temple sees this reply as eminently reasonable. After all, Anderson hadn't fired back at that point, and besides, he says, "Nothing goes into the Rocky Mountain News unedited." Nevertheless, Anderson considered Temple's unwillingness to immediately grant each of her wishes to be evidence of a dark scheme she detailed in a rebuttal sent on March 8.
That same day, the Rocky published a predictably obdurate op-ed by Churchill, but his offering has nothing on Anderson's. For one thing, its 709-word span is succinct in comparison to her response, which easily breaks the 1,500-word barrier, making it nearly three times longer than the original editorial. Moreover, Churchill attacks media figures such as KHOW's Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman for opportunism, while Anderson goes several steps further, charging the Denver dailies with a full-scale coverup. She writes that "the News and its joint partner, Dean Singleton's Denver Post, have attempted to silence me for years over their own dirty laundry -- the newspapers' toxic waste disposal at the Lowry Landfill southeast of Denver, where Coors, Rocky Flats, Martin Marietta and this region's other top polluters also dumped their hazardous wastes during the '60s and '70s, contaminating important aquifers and breaching the boundaries toward fast encroaching Aurora subdivisions."
That sounds bad, and maybe it is, but the story, like any involving Anderson, is a complicated one. In 2001, Westword divulged that during the mid-'90s, the City of Denver and Waste Management, a private company that oversaw the landfill, quietly settled with 166 entities that dumped at the site (most of them prior to its 1984 Superfund designation), and the Denver dailies were listed as de minimis, or small, parties to the pact. But while the Rocky and the Post didn't disclose that deal at the time, and haven't since, would this association really motivate them not to report that, as Anderson contends, "extensive nuclear contamination" from Lowry is presently coursing through public sewer lines?
Absolutely, she believes -- and this view, combined with her uncompromising personality and relentless manner, has given her a widespread reputation for being difficult. Some reporters are in her corner, but others say that working with her on an investigation quickly becomes an exhausting, all-consuming task, and if they subsequently try to withdraw or question any of her presumptions, she's apt to conclude that they've been silenced as part of a massive plot. If not, they're simply "too lazy to do the work I've done."
Tom Yulsman isn't buying this argument. In his role as co-director of CU's Center for Environmental Journalism, Yulsman has talked with plenty of environmental reporters from these parts, and he feels that assuming these scribes "are sitting around meekly, saying ŒIf I write about this, I'll be fired' is silly. I know many of them personally, and they would not lay off of a story because of some faint, vague connection from years ago. It doesn't make sense."
Neither, in Yulsman's opinion, does another of Anderson's assertions -- that he should have recused himself from joining the bloc of faculty members who voted against her reappointment because the journalism center is partially funded by Scripps-Howard, which owns the Rocky. He calls the suggestion that he's under Scripps's thumb "pathetically ridiculous."
Anderson sees similar links between Scripps and Kyla Thompson, a onetime Denver public-relations specialist with a crisis-communications business in New Mexico. Some Scripps papers ran a Q&A with Thompson on February 20. Two days later, Anderson says, the Rocky printed an anti-Adrienne letter Thompson had written without pointing out that she once did PR for some of "Colorado's most nefarious polluters" and "tried to get CU to ax me" a decade or so back.
This last claim may be overstated, but it's not entirely baseless. According to a 1995 Westword article, Thompson, whose company was working with a mining firm called ASARCO, wrote a letter to then-CU president Judith Albino proposing that university personnel and industry reps meet to discuss Anderson's "continued employment." This incident is the key to another of Anderson's conspiracy theories: She hints that Thompson may have penned her February 22 Rocky missive at the behest of a corporate client in cahoots with Scripps.
Editorial-page editor Carroll wisely avoids addressing this implication. He thinks that a mention in Thompson's letter of her PR past "was sufficient reference to the probability that she had been at war with Adrienne in one context or another," and notes that her comments were published in tandem with a piece of correspondence lobbying for Anderson's reinstatement. Thompson, for her part, denies that she's carrying anyone's water, saying she wrote the missive because "I was thrilled to think someone is catching on to this woman," and she scoffs at the accusation that she's in Scripps's pocket. "Adrienne's the Paris Hilton of Boulder -- the biggest publicity-seeker that I've ever known in my professional career," she maintains. "She obstructs every process, good, bad or ugly, and costs taxpayers more and more."
Anderson rejects this notion, but she confirms that she's kept attorneys busy over the years. In the '80s, she won a settlement from G.D. Searle & Co., manufacturer of the Copper-7, an IUD that she said in a 1985 Newsweek article had made her infertile; microsurgeries eventually repaired the damage, allowing her to give birth to two daughters. She also emerged victorious in a case prompted by a '90s car crash, and she was awarded over $400,000 in a federal whistleblower lawsuit against Metro Wastewater in relation to Lowry. The judgment was overturned in 2001, but Anderson's appeal is pending; a ruling is expected this year. On March 4, meanwhile, she filed another whistleblower complaint (her fourth) with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Other legal action could beckon as well, depending on how the Rocky reacts to her rebuttal ultimatum (as of mid-day on March 8, Temple and Carroll hadn't yet seen her letter, because she sent it to the wrong e-mail addresses) and whether CU reverses its decision to terminate her employment (she'll present her appeal package on March 15). "I'm considering all options to protect my academic freedom, my professional credibility and my right to keep speaking out on illegal environmental actions," Anderson says.
One way or another, it's likely that she'll make someone pay for her bad week.
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.