Longform

A Matter of Trust

Page 2 of 10

Only a handful of city officials were privy to these settlement deals, and they say they can't discuss them because they're bound by a confidentiality order issued eight years ago.


For the Environmental Protection Agency, which was struggling to clean up a number of Superfund sites in the region, Lowry seemed to bring nothing but heartaches and headaches. By the time the agency got around to interviewing Wilson, it was already reeling from an excoriating round of attacks by some of Colorado's most powerful corporate citizens.

In 1986, two years after the landfill had been declared a public health hazard and placed on the National Priorities List, the EPA had released its first $1.5 million scientific study of the site. The key finding, which sent shock waves through the community, was that millions of gallons of toxic chemicals dumped at the landfill could have moved further and deeper than anyone had suspected. Instead of remaining in the shallow groundwater, as previously believed, contaminated water might have migrated downward through fractures in the underlying bedrock, moving as much as twenty feet in a year, which could result in "a 400-foot downward penetration into the unweathered bedrock in the next twenty years."

If the EPA's study was correct, the consequences would be devastating. The aquifers that lie beneath Lowry -- the Dawson, the Denver, the Arapahoe and the Laramie-Fox Hills -- supply both irrigation and drinking water to hundreds of thousands of suburban and rural residents. Although the EPA stopped short of saying the contamination had reached drinking-water supplies, Vera Moritz, the project manager, told reporters, "It's getting there."

Letter after letter lambasted the agency's findings. The Adolph Coors Company, which in a few short years would earn the dubious distinction of being the largest dumper at Lowry, castigated the EPA for spending $1.5 million on an "inadequate and flawed investigation." The City of Denver and Waste Management, owners and operators of the landfill, argued that downward movement was "essentially nil" because of the relatively impervious claystones found throughout the site. And the East Cherry Creek Valley Water and Sanitation District threatened legal action if the EPA dared to drill another well through the plume of contamination and into the Arapahoe Aquifer.

But the most detailed critique came from the Lowry Coalition, whose members included Coors, Shattuck, Syntex, AMAX, Asamera Oil, Conoco, Gates Rubber, Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell, IBM, the City of Lakewood and Metro Wastewater. With the help of its paid consultants, Harding Lawson Associates, the Lowry Coalition marshaled persuasive scientific evidence to rebut all of the EPA's findings. "Totally inadequate," attorney John Faught said of the study.

Two years later, the EPA divided the Lowry Landfill into several areas and ordered that subsequent follow-up studies be done by the polluters themselves. The City of Denver and Waste Management were ordered to investigate the landfill's gases and solids; Denver, along with Metro Wastewater, was also to research the soils, surface water and sediments, and the Lowry Coalition was to perform a definitive study of the shallow and deep groundwater.

For the Lowry Coalition, which had raised such a ruckus over the EPA's initial analysis and was facing millions in liability costs, to now have responsibility for determining the extent of contamination in the groundwater seemed odd, to say the least, and a clear conflict of interest. But according to Gwen Hooten, the EPA's current project manager at the Lowry Landfill site, that provision was written into the law after concerned corporations lobbied Congress. "The law allows them to do that," she says. "Only when they decline does the EPA step in and do the studies."

The Lowry Coalition and the EPA's own technical consultants, CH2M Hill, soon began receiving preliminary laboratory analyses suggesting that Lowry contained not only some of the most dangerous chemicals in the world, but an assortment of radionuclides as well. The radioactive isotopes were everywhere -- in the shallow and deep groundwater, in the waste pits, along the periphery of the landfill, even in the wells that were considered "upgradient," or upstream from the main site. The existence of some of these radionuclides was easy enough to explain; hospitals and universities used numerous relatively short-life isotopes in countless analytical procedures on patients and in research projects. Lowry had routinely accepted such radioactive waste, and the southeastern portion of the dump had even been reserved for radioactive animal pits. The animals most likely had been used in research experiments conducted by various colleges and universities, possibly even by military installations.

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Eileen Welsome