Board Games

On July 23, 1996, Adrienne Anderson grabbed her briefcase and drove across town to Gaetano's restaurant, where she'd be meeting for the first time with some of the other Denverites who sat on the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District's board of directors. Denver mayor Wellington Webb had appointed Anderson to the board several months earlier, but her confirmation had been held up -- largely because of questions raised by Ted Hackworth, an outspoken city councilman and longtime member of the Metro board. Hackworth was concerned that Anderson might be an "environmental extremist" with strong union ties who'd disrupt the congenial relationship that the twenty or so Denver delegates to the 59-member board enjoyed with their suburban counterparts. But after Anderson assured Hackworth that she was no radical, her appointment became official.

As she made her way through rush-hour traffic, Anderson thought about how she'd raise the issue of the Lowry Landfill. She'd done some preliminary research and learned that Metro had quietly reached a settlement with the City of Denver and Waste Management regarding its financial liability at the landfill, which the Environmental Protection Agency had named a Superfund site in 1984. Instead of paying millions to aid in the cleanup, Metro had agreed to pump contaminated water from the landfill through its sewer system. Anderson found the plan disturbing, because she'd found evidence that the landfill contained radioactive materials. The proposal also represented a departure from the cleanup program announced by the EPA in 1994; Anderson, who was familiar with the laws governing Superfund sites, knew that such a change would require a public hearing.

At Gaetano's, Anderson joined other members of the Denver delegation, exchanged a few pleasantries and then launched in. Did you know the Lowry Landfill was radioactive? she asked.

As she reached for her briefcase, she sensed a growing turmoil at the table. Hackworth, she would later recall, seemed to be turning a deeper shade of red, and boardmember John Wilder, an excitable Irishman, was breathing heavily. Suddenly, Wilder threw down his fork and thundered, "Those are very serious accusations, young lady." A moment of stunned awkwardness followed. Then Wilder, Hackworth and fellow boardmember Robert Werner stood up and stormed out of the restaurant.

So began Adrienne Anderson's tenure on a little-noticed board that has the unglamorous job of overseeing one of the largest sewage-treatment facilities in the West. Over the next few years, a fierce controversy would rage over Metro's plan to pipe the Lowry groundwater through its sewer system. The firestorm soon engulfed not only Metro's upper management and union, but also lawyers and bureaucrats at the EPA and Denver's City Hall. They exchanged "white papers" and swapped e-mails that often disparaged Anderson and other critics. Anderson fired back with a whistleblower lawsuit of her own; an administrative law judge is expected to rule on her case within the next few months.

When the EPA and Metro eventually submitted their plan for public comment, not one citizen embraced it. "We want the ugly corporations to clean up their own mess -- like we learned in kindergarten," wrote one irate citizen. Yet the project moved forward. A new sewer line was dug, a small treatment plant constructed, pumps and monitoring wells put in place, and on July 25, 2000, Lowry groundwater started flowing through the public sewers.

The discharge will continue for fifty, a hundred years, maybe longer. "We made our decision. It was a final decision. And that's the way it was going to go down," Hackworth would testify years after that aborted dinner.

By July 1995, only a year after the EPA issued its Record of Decision spelling out how the Lowry Landfill was to be cleaned up, Denver officials were pressuring Metro to take the groundwater.

Metro was the last holdout in the massive litigation brought by the city and Waste Management against the companies that had dumped at Lowry, some of which had banded together in an organization called the Lowry Coalition. Together Denver and Waste Management had cajoled and browbeaten at least 166 entities into paying almost $110 million for the cleanup and "premiums" that would protect the polluters from such potential liabilities as cost overruns and lawsuits. Some of that money had subsequently been placed in privately managed trust funds known collectively as the Lowry Environmental Protection/ Cleanup Trust.

Metro had spent nearly $4.5 million defending itself. The litigation was so costly and time-consuming that the district had assigned one full-time employee and two clerical staffers to keep up with the paperwork. Metro had argued that its liability should be less than that of other polluters because the sewage sludge spread at the landfill in previous years wasn't toxic. But the district had been dealt a major blow just two months earlier, when U.S. District Judge Zita Weinshienk ruled that Metro's sewage sludge did indeed contain hazardous wastes. Soon after that ruling was issued, Denver and Waste Management stepped up the pressure. "The only reason they wanted us," Metro manager Robert Hite would later testify in Anderson's whistleblower lawsuit, "is because we were the only ones who had the capability to clean up the water."