A Matter of Trust

Page 5 of 10

Attached to the letter were data tables developed by the coalition's consultants, Harding Lawson Associates, showing the results of more than 135 samples that had been taken from wells located throughout the site from roughly 1988 to 1991. Some of the wells contained plutonium or americium in amounts that were anywhere from 10 to 10,000 times the average background levels. The Lowry Coalition speculated that the radionuclides were the result of dumping activities conducted at or adjacent to the site prior to 1965, when it became an official landfill, as well as routine disposals that took place between 1967 and 1980.

As proof of the pre-1965 dumping activities, the coalition relied on the testimony of former patrolman Wilson and aerial maps taken in 1950 and 1956. Those maps, which showed what the terrain looked like long before the City of Denver took over the property that contained the landfill, indicated man-made disturbances at the south boundary of the site and to the west of Unnamed Creek, the intermittent stream that runs through the middle of the property.

A 1963 aerial map showed something else at the southeastern corner of the landfill that has never been explained: a long, oval-shaped lagoon surrounded by a fence and an access road. A 1965 map reveals several dirt roads leading west from this facility to liquid-filled trenches at the landfill. On a recent map produced by the United States Geological Survey, a box has been drawn around the lagoon and labeled "Exception Area."

The EPA's Hooten says she doesn't know what the facility is. Hydrologist Cecil Slaughter, a member of the USGS team recently hired by the EPA to do an independent analysis of radionuclides at Lowry, says he doesn't know what the area represents. And Dennis Bollmann, the city's environmental scientist based at Lowry, can't clear up the mystery, either.

It's Bollmann's understanding that the federal government built a road into the area prior to 1965 and used it for some kind of project. "I don't know what the purpose was," he says. When scientists drilled several holes in the area, he adds, they found only routine municipal garbage.

On December 16, 1991, three days after the Lowry Coalition delivered its letter to the EPA, a meeting was held in the agency's labyrinthine offices in downtown Denver.

Twenty-five people were present. On one side of the table were six EPA officials; on the other were four representatives from Coors, four from Shattuck, two from Syntex Chemicals and two from AMAX, as well as representatives from Sundstrand, Conoco, Gates Rubber, Hewlett-Packard and the City of Lakewood. The EPA files are silent about what transpired officially at the meeting, but Hooten remembers that the coalition's findings created quite a stir. "This particular report spurred a lot of issues for us, and our records are just peppered with our comments," she says.

The Lowry Coalition and other polluters had kept a close watch on the "waste-in" lists that the EPA was constantly updating and revising, documenting who'd dumped what at Lowry. At that moment, the EPA was in the process of cashing out the small polluters in what were called "de minimis" settlements. To be eligible for these settlements, the polluters had to meet several criteria: First, they could not have dumped more than 300,000 gallons at Lowry; second, the waste could be no more toxic or hazardous than other materials; and finally, the companies had to have been honest about what was dumped at the landfill. Although Rocky Flats and its civilian contractors had been less than forthcoming with the EPA, the nuclear-weapons plant nevertheless was being considered for a de minimis settlement. As Hooten explains it, "We were on our way to identifying and finalizing our waste-in lists, and this report was in part motivated by these parties not wanting us to settle with DOE or Rockwell."

The EPA did back off -- temporarily -- from entering into any settlement with Rocky Flats. But the agency was still not convinced that the coalition's data was any good. "We told them they needed to go back and reanalyze the samples," says Hooten.

Teledyne Isotopes, the New Jersey laboratory that analyzed those Lowry samples, had a solid reputation and had passed with flying colors a quality-control review done by the EPA for an unrelated project. Still, Lowry was a chemical stew containing hundreds of different elements, and calculating how much plutonium or americium was present in a speck of material no bigger than a pinhead could be difficult.

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Eileen Welsome