A Matter of Trust

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Jeffrey M. Guenther, one of the scientists who signed the letter, declined to comment for this story. Brian LaFlamme, the geochemist who authored the Harding Lawson report and still works in Denver, also refused to comment.

The revised report was a stunning reversal. For regulators and polluters, it eliminated a hugely expensive scenario of figuring out how to clean up a site that might contain both hazardous chemicals and radionuclides. That combination would have raised cleanup costs by millions, says Hugh Kaufman, a longtime EPA official.

Teledyne's suggestion that the wells be resampled went unheeded. With the exception of one well, not a single well that had shown high levels of plutonium or americium was retested.

As for Rocky Flats, it was granted the de minimis settlement after all and paid just $314,587 toward the cleanup of Lowry Landfill.

While the dispute over radionuclides simmered, the City of Denver was moving aggressively on another front to make sure it wouldn't be left with 50 percent or more of the tab for cleaning up Lowry.

Estimates for the cleanup fluctuated wildly, with some figures running as high as $4.5 billion. "We were looking at big dollars," remembers Shaun Sullivan, an assistant city attorney involved in the litigation.

In July 1990, city officials held a "Lowry Retreat" to address the technical issues, the political implications and the "enormous potential liability" that the landfill represented. According to one document, Lowry was "an issue, which, although quieter, was on the scale of the new airport politically and economically." Many of the companies that had dumped at the landfill were already lobbying their congressional representatives for changes in the Superfund law; city officials wondered if it would be to their advantage to join one of the "political Superfund groups."

"As Lowry and Superfund is every bit as much a political problem as it is technical or legal, we need to strengthen this arm of the effort," one retreat document states. "It appears that the decision between a $100 million or an $850 million remedy may be as much reliant on political influences as technical."

Denver officials stayed in touch with members of Colorado's delegation. Mayor Wellington Webb requested a meeting with Carol Browner, then head of the EPA, in the spring of 1993 to discuss issues relating to Lowry. Webb met with William Yellowtail, administrator of the EPA's Region VIII, in 1994 as well, to talk about the agency's pending Record of Decision on the Lowry Landfill cleanup.

Denver also undertook a number of measures to contain the contamination. In the early 1980s, soon after Waste Management took over day-to-day operations, the city had erected a barrier wall and a pumping system on the northern end of the landfill to keep a plume of contaminated groundwater from moving off-site. The polluted liquids were pumped into a treatment plant, where some of the volatile organic chemicals were removed; the cleansed water was then injected back into the ground.

In the years that followed, the city and Waste Management would also dispose of six million tires, restore an acre of wetlands, construct a bentonite slurry wall seventy feet deep on three sides of the landfill, install a cap over the landfill, put in place an extraction system to remove gases, and build a new water treatment plant.

In 1991, Denver filed suit against Waste Management and 39 of the landfill's largest polluters in an effort to recover some of the cleanup costs. Waste Management subsequently realigned itself with the city, and together they went after the polluters. This case, which became known as "Lowry I," triggered an avalanche of additional claims and cross-claims. More than 140 lawyers were involved; nearly 100 depositions were taken; thousands of discovery requests were filed. The document database soon grew to millions of pages.

By May 1993, a week before the case was to go to trial in U.S. District Court, Denver and Waste Management had reached settlements with nearly forty parties. A second lawsuit, dubbed Lowry II, was soon filed against fifteen additional polluters. This case, too, was resolved out of court in 1994.

Along the way, numerous other companies also settled Lowry claims outside of the courtroom. By the end of October 1994, Denver and Waste Management had entered into settlements with approximately 166 entities. They included large corporations, small businesses, hospitals, universities, school districts and suburbs. The money obtained from the settlements was placed in two trusts collectively known as the Lowry Environmental Protection/Cleanup Trust. The manager for these trusts is Bankers Trust, which was selected through a competitive process overseen jointly by Denver and Waste Management. The trusts were arranged this way because Waste Management didn't want the trust funds placed within the city structure, according to Denver records. But as a result, information about the trust funds was also placed outside the city structure.

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Eileen Welsome