A Matter of Trust

Page 6 of 10

Given what was at stake, if there were questions about Teledyne's work, the logical step would have been to return to Lowry, draw fresh water from the purportedly hot wells and analyze the samples again. But instead, the data was simply reanalyzed to determine whether the coalition's initial results truly represented conditions at Lowry.

"Remember, we had been studying this site since 1985," Hooten says in defending the EPA's decision. "So there was a lot of pressure for us to decide what we were going to do."

The dispute over radionuclides at Lowry put CH2M Hill in a peculiar position. The consulting firm had a number of contracts with the DOE and Rocky Flats. If it were to corroborate the reports of high radioactivity levels at Lowry, then it ran the risk of alienating one of its own clients -- a client that would throw a multibillion-dollar contract its way in a few short years. In a letter dated February 27, 1992, CH2M Hill's site manager, Gary Hermann, admitted the firm had a "real or at least publicly perceived conflict of interest" and recommended that the EPA get another consultant on the radionuclide issues:

"The specific project issue is the determination of whether or not radionuclide waste materials generated at Rocky Flats were disposed of at Lowry Landfill. If certain man-made radionuclides are determined to exist at above-background levels at Lowry Landfill, this could implicate DOE as a potentially responsible party. The Lowry Coalition has, in their remedial investigations, indicated that site data implicates DOE as a source of hazardous waste disposed of at Lowry Landfill. As the project tasks proceed, CH2M Hill may be asked by the EPA to become directly involved in determining the occurrence and nature of specific radionuclides and thereby determine the source of the radionuclides...The specific conflict of interest stems from our general firm credibility if we are working for both EPA and DOE on nuclear mechanics issues having a potential connection between Lowry Landfill and Rocky Flats. For example, if CH2M Hill was to determine that the Rocky Flats plant is not a source of radionuclide contamination, then it could be claimed by the public and other PRPs [potentially responsible parties] that we made this determination to keep from jeopardizing our consulting business with DOE."

Adrienne Anderson, who discovered this memo in the EPA's voluminous public-records collection, points out that the regulatory agency continued to use CH2M Hill despite the fact that only three weeks later, the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, issued a blistering critique of the indirect costs that the firm had charged the federal government. According to the GAO report, in 1990 CH2M Hill received $68 million in revenues from contracts with the EPA, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. Some of the more outrageous tabs sent to Uncle Sam: $7,700 for alcoholic beverages; $4,100 for tickets to Denver Nuggets, Seattle Mariners and Seattle Seahawks games; $167,900 for employee parties and picnics, including costs for invitations, photographers, a musical band and a dance instructor.

The EPA didn't feel that CH2M Hill had a conflict, because the firm had nothing to do with determining the DOE's financial liability at the landfill, Hooten says. That task fell to another contractor, Science Applications International Corporation. "CH2M Hill was only involved in the oversight of the remedial investigations; in other words, looking at the data collected by the PRPs," she points out. "Since Hill was not a direct decision-maker as to who would have liability at the site, it was not considered a conflict of interest for them to work for the Department of Energy."

In any case, the conflict issue soon became moot. In May 1992, five months after the Lowry Coalition delivered its bombshell findings to the EPA, Harding Lawson Associates, the coalition's technical experts, delivered a second report to the EPA retracting virtually all of the first report.

Tough quality-control standards had been applied to the data, and positive findings were tossed out if they were associated with high counting errors, or if they could not be replicated or they conflicted with other results. Concluded the revised Harding Lawson report: "There was no case in which the presence of transuranics was positively confirmed."

A few weeks later, Teledyne Isotopes, the laboratory that had conducted the radiochemical analyses, sent a letter to the coalition's technical advisors, warning that all of its americium analyses should be considered suspect because of equipment problems and other analytical difficulties. Teledyne officials were acutely aware of the enormous ramifications of their findings. "In our meeting on May 29, 1992, you indicated that the presence or absence of Am-241 in Harding Lawson samples has vast implications concerning the approach and cost of remediation efforts," three laboratory scientists wrote. "Because of this, we recommend that sites which have been characterized as positive for Am-241 be re-analyzed by the new method."

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Eileen Welsome