Toxic Wait

For decades, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal served as a playground for the production of lethal chemicals. Nearby city officials want to make part of it a playground for kids.

Civic cheerleaders in Commerce City are pushing to buy more than 900 acres of arsenal property north of 56th Avenue and west of Quebec Street. On 200 acres in the southern part of the parcel, they envision a park where families can hike nature trails or view zoo animals, where kids can kick around soccer balls or slide into home on the community baseball diamond. Commerce City, known for its refinery smokestacks and the arsenal's poisonous-chemical legacy, could take on new life--a new image--with this open-space showcase, they say. Businesses could spring up on the newly purchased land.

Which is exactly what critics are afraid of.
Citizens' groups monitoring the arsenal's remediation say the government hasn't proven that Commerce City's planned land purchase, known as the western tier parcel, is clean enough to be considered just another chunk of real estate. In the past, Commerce City has considered several different uses for the hundreds of acres north of the proposed park: senior center, teen center, swimming pool, restaurants. And the option pushing the most buttons: daycare centers.

"The use of the land is being proposed for the most sensitive populations," wrote attorney Sandra Jaquith and others in a recent letter to the Environmental Protection Agency. "We completely support the transfer and sale of the long as it poses no risks to human health or the environment, a fact that has not yet been properly or adequately determined."

The EPA has so far published a Notice of Intent to Delete, the first step in the process to cross the western tier parcel off its Superfund list. When Jaquith and others questioned the data the EPA used to declare the acreage "clean," the EPA replied with a sixteen-page scientific risk assessment. The study results "suggest that the western tier parcel is not associated with unacceptable risk levels," the EPA wrote. The cancer risk for kids who might ingest soil--by playing in the dirt, dropping a sandwich on the ground and the like--were low enough to pass EPA standards, the agency said.

The Rocky Mountain Arsenal was built in 1942, after the Army decided the 27-square-mile stretch of farmland was a good place to manufacture incendiary munitions and chemical weapons, including mustard agents, nerve gas and rocket fuels. After the end of World War II, a business later bought by Shell Oil Company moved onto the site. Shell manufactured pesticides there 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. Poisoned groundwater seeped below areas of Commerce City, including land that is now dotted with new homes.

The western tier parcel is still full of mysteries. No one is sure what toxins might lie below the soil's surface. Some accounts say a pit for white phosphorous grenades is located there. Chemicals could have been drained from railcars passing through the site. Laura Williams, the EPA project manager who's worked on the arsenal only since 1995, mostly has to rely on a book written in the 1950s that documents chemical production there nearly a decade earlier.

No one is even sure of the parcel's exact size. For years the western tier was known in Commerce City vernacular as "the 815"--and it's still identified that way, even though state and federal documents put it at 920 or even 960 acres.

As the Superfund work continues--it's a chore that could take decades--the remainder of the arsenal is being transformed into the country's largest urban wildlife refuge. Citizens' groups are incensed by the cheery hype: At the invitation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, up to 60,000 children and adults visit the site each year to look for wildlife, play on the ballfield or climb Rattlesnake Hill--which overlooks Basin A, a sink so contaminated it can only be covered--never cleaned--up.

Now that the Army intends to unload the western tier parcel, Commerce City has first dibs. But the arsenal's 1992 Wildlife Refuge Act restricts the land to recreational or commercial purposes--no industrial, agricultural or residential use is allowed. If the EPA approves the sale (expected to be only 600 acres to start), the federal General Services Administration will appraise the property, a process that would take only a month or two. Commerce City will have to pay up front for the land, which could run anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 an acre for "the more prime" stuff, says City Manager Tim Gagen. Lottery dollars, city capital funds and grants are expected to pay most of the bill. "Usually," Gagen admits, "you're giving away Superfund land."

But Commerce City officials see the proximity of the refuge as a huge boon to their town. "It's captured everyone's imagination," Gagen says. "We started viewing it as an asset rather than a negative." The imaginary drawing board contains, among other things, a "campus concept"--a commercial or wildlife research complex, perhaps affiliated with the Denver Zoo, that would spawn more schools, offices, motels and other businesses--including several daycare centers. City leaders hope that Commerce City would become more identified with the open space than with its backdrop of smokestacks and silos. "Most important to us is the image change, the chance to have people have a new view of the entrance to the city," Gagen says. "This translates into the long-term values of the community."

Growing impatient, Commerce City's city council decided this month to ask voters' approval of a quarter-cent sales-tax increase to fund development of the park. "We'd like to have seen [the land transfer] happen a year ago," Gagen says. "The longer it sits in federal hands, the longer we can't do anything about it."

The Army would also like to have the property off its back. And the EPA is eager to show that it's making progress on the land remediation. U.S. Fish and Wildlife, hard pressed for cash, will reap the profits of the sale.

But Rick Warner, a member of the arsenal's citizen advisory board, says the agencies are "dictating a lower level of investigation--and why? Because of money."

Warner and others are pressing the EPA to do a more thorough study of the western tier parcel. Its current study is based on fewer than a dozen soil samples analyzed in 1989--using not the topsoil, but a "composite" mixture of several inches of dirt. (Critics fear that huge amounts of contaminated soil could be moved around during construction on the parcel, which could potentially contain a large industrial park.) No efforts were made to chart toxins such as dioxin, "potentially the most hazardous substance out there," says Warner, who characterizes the data used in the EPA's risk assessment as "garbage in."

EPA project manager Williams says her staff is examining all the issues raised by citizens' groups. But at this point, she can't suggest an entirely new soil study to provide fresh data. "If you've done the work once, why do it twice?" she asks. A new study could take eighteen months to three years, explains Williams as she rattles off a list of bureaucractic hoops the project would have to jump through. More research would draw staff power and taxpayer dollars away from the remediation of the site, she says. "It's not something that we consider an easy task."

Williams adds that the EPA isn't feeling "pressure, per se" to release the property. "It's just that we've been working on this for over two years," says Williams. "It seemed like everything was in place. Certainly Commerce City's eagerness is something I consider."

However, recent history has made Commerce City residents like Elizabeth Montgomery skeptical. She points north of the arsenal to the Eagle Creek housing development, built over groundwater supplies contaminated with the nerve gas known as DIMP after Commerce City rezoned the area for residential use, though none of the groundwater can be used. Nothing can convince Montgomery that the western tier parcel wouldn't be used for the wrong purposes.

"It's so whitewashed," she says. "But this is an arsenal. They're not cleaning it up; they're shoving it into the ground and covering it with grass." Citizens' groups are so wary of the Army, Shell and the EPA's work that--in a highly significant move--they have recruited EPA ombudsman Robert Martin to do an outside assessment of the entire arsenal cleanup. They've now asked the EPA to assign Martin to a review of the western tier parcel; the powerful, independent ombudsman has reportedly ordered hearings on the matter.

The EPA is now considering extending its February 16 deadline for public comment on the western tier plan. Even if the agency approves the land transfer, Commerce City probably won't need to take out its checkbook right away; the battle will continue, perhaps in court. Gagen already believes the land is move-in ready. "We obviously don't want to inherit a liability," he says.

Montgomery and other critics feel that, in rushing to build its community park, Commerce City is trying to be something it's not. "This city started out as hog farms," says Montgomery, who's lived there on and off for thirty years. "In my opinion, Commerce City is always going to be Commerce City. It's a blue-collar worker town. For these people, the image of their city is not a city of golf courses and $300,000 homes and a park with an Olympic-sized pool."

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