The Lowdown on Lowry

One hot morning last summer, a small valve was turned on at the Lowry Superfund Site, and groundwater from the old landfill began flowing through a newly constructed sewer line. The water had no color, no odor, and had already undergone several procedures at the landfill site to remove certain chemicals. It looked cool and refreshing -- almost good enough to drink.

Day and night, at the rate of about ten to twenty gallons per minute, the groundwater surged through the subterranean network of sewers that crisscross the city. Some of the water was diverted to Aurora, where it would be sprayed on parks and golf courses, but the rest eventually flowed into the vast river of sewage that pours daily into the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District plant in north Denver. At Metro, the largest sewage-treatment facility between the Mississippi River and the West Coast, the water was filtered and cleansed, then eventually discharged into the South Platte River. Some of the heavier Lowry elements were left behind in the plant's malodorous sludge, or "biosolids," as those in the business prefer to call it, and the sludge was then hauled away in trucks to be spread on farms in eastern Colorado.

If all goes according to plan, this discharge will continue for the next fifty years, possibly much longer. And when the valve is shut off for good, millions of gallons of hazardous waste -- containing dioxins, PCBs, pesticides, heavy metals and radionuclides -- will have been transferred from the landfill site to Colorado's rivers and creeks and farmland.

City, state and federal officials insist the process is a safe and cost-effective way to treat Lowry's hazardous waste, but one longtime Environmental Protection Agency official says the deal simply lets polluters off the hook. "You're basically transferring the liability of the hazardous materials from the responsible parties at the landfill to the City and County of Denver and the region of Colorado where the material's going to be dumped," says Hugh Kaufman, who helped craft the laws governing Superfund sites in the late '70s and, until recently, was the chief investigator for the EPA Office of Ombudsman.

A confidential legal analysis prepared in 1996 for the City of Denver illuminates another aspect of the arrangement that's beneficial to polluters: As long as the contaminated groundwater remains on-site, it is categorized as hazardous waste and subject to the plethora of federal laws governing the disposal and storage of such wastes. But once the liquids are pumped through the sewers, the "site waters" need only meet the standards of the sewage-treatment facility accepting the wastes.

The EPA is currently reviewing whether the remedy at Lowry Landfill is adequately protective of "human health and the environment." Much has changed since the agency issued its formal cleanup program for the site seven years ago: Housing developments have sprung up within a mile of the landfill, and explosive growth is expected in the area in the coming years.

From roughly 1964 to 1980, nearly every major industry operating in or near Denver used Lowry Landfill as its personal dumping ground. Waste oils, sludges, pesticides, cleaning solvents, construction debris, paint, hospital waste, pharmaceutical chemicals, even dead zoo elephants were dumped into unlined pits and covered with household garbage. The pits belched and steamed, often catching fire, and the poisonous liquids eventually seeped down into the groundwater. Beneath the landfill are four aquifers that supply water to suburban and rural residents.

The landfill was placed on the EPA's National Priorities List of Superfund sites in 1984. In subsequent years, public officials and the companies responsible for the pollution tried to determine exactly what had been dumped at the landfill, who was responsible, and what was the best method for cleaning up the toxic waste. Since all of the potential polluters, from small mom-and-pop outfits to well-heeled companies such as the Adolph Coors Company, were equally liable for cleaning up the mess, there was a lot of finger-pointing. Eventually the dispute wound up in federal court.

The City and County of Denver and Waste Management of Colorado Inc., the contractor that operated the landfill, took the lead, filing lawsuits against scores of companies in an effort to obtain the $94 million that the EPA said would be needed to clean up the site. The last party to settle was the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, which had spread millions of gallons of sewage sludge at the landfill during the '60s and '70s; Metro was the big fish that the city and Waste Management wanted to reel in. Finally, in the spring of 1996, Metro agreed to pay $1.9 million, some of which would be used to construct a new sewer line and, most important, to pump the Lowry groundwater through that sewer system.