And Not a Drop to Drink

John Yelenick was raising his family on a farm in Henderson when he had his water tested in 1985. He wasn't looking for nerve gas. But a few years later, after the nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal made the Environmental Protection Agency's first Superfund list, Yelenick and the rest of the state learned that 750 chemicals were bubbling in that toxic soup. Among them was diisopropyl methylphosphonate (DIMP), a chemical unique to the Army's manufacture of GB nerve gas, or sarin. Outside the arsenal, the worst level of DIMP contamination identified by the EPA was 148 parts per billion. Yelenick unearthed his old paperwork. "My well was 425 ppb," he says.

Today the law considers any concentration of DIMP over 8 ppb hazardous. Colorado takes it further, mandating that anyone whose well tests over 3.92 ppb be hooked up to municipal water.

Robert Bakes's Henderson farm is surrounded by a plume of DIMP contamination that the EPA estimates to be at 8 ppb. He has lived there and farmed there for 36 years--since long before anyone had any idea of the Army's deadly legacy. He didn't start worrying about his well water until 1990--the year health officials put 500 residents of unincorporated Adams County on bottled water because of DIMP. Bakes was one of them.

"Back in the early Sixties," he remembers, "I had a deep well here, and we started getting earthquakes." When his few neighbors found their wells going bad, too, they contacted the Army and asked if anything at the arsenal might be causing the trouble. But officials there denied any responsibility, and Bakes had no reason to doubt them. (Remember, this was the early Sixties.) He and his neighbors went ahead and drilled new wells. "We didn't think any more about it," he says. "It didn't even enter my mind that they were putting contaminants in underground water." Actually, the Army was putting chemicals into injection wells, causing earthquakes in the process. But ending that practice didn't clean up the problem, as Bakes learned when health officials dropped by seven years ago.

Dan Mulqueen first visited the arsenal in 1992. By then, the facility's priority cleanup--of its image--was well under way. Boy Scouts camped on the property, and families picnicked there. The year before, then-representative Pat Schroeder had introduced a bill to designate the 27-square-mile site a national wildlife refuge. The Army had spent $200,000 in 1991 alone on warm-and-fuzzy projects designed to hype the concept: calendars, pens and pencils, tours and Bald Eagle Days, which celebrated the birds that had been sighted on the arsenal back in 1986, eight years after they were added to the endangered-species list.

When his son's University Park class scheduled a field trip to this Disney-level delight, Mulqueen went along as a "parent helper." He got an eyeful. "I was just amazed," he says. "We never saw an animal. It was a clear use of the children."

But it was Mulqueen who got the education, and he soon got involved in arsenal study groups. "I punish them with my presence," he explains.

The Rocky Mountain Arsenal was considered a plum, not a punishment, in 1942 when the Army decided to put a new chemical-weapons factory near Denver. Being so close to a transportation hub, one with a ready labor supply, argued in the site's favor; so did the fact that it was so far inland that the Army had nothing to fear from enemy planes. "It's up to Hitler and Tojo now," a Denver Post reporter trumpeted in 1943, in a story announcing the arsenal's opening. "Either can choose his weapons. Uncle Sam is ready. He will not be found wanting."

During the war, the Army manufactured chemical and incendiary munitions at the arsenal, including mustard agents, nerve gas and rocket fuels. From 1953 to 1957, the arsenal was the Free World's largest producer of sarin, a nerve agent developed by Nazi scientists that was so deadly, a drop could kill a man in half a minute. Hollywood starlet Piper Laurie apparently was unaware of the threat when she was crowned Miss Flamethrower and posed at the arsenal for cheesecake shots.

The Army ended chemical-weapons production in 1969. Shell Oil, which had leased space at the facility from the start, continued manufacture there until 1982.

Then came the arsenal's most dangerous mission: cleaning up an area that included an expanse dubbed "the most contaminated square mile on earth."

The site that had seemed so ideal forty years earlier turned out to be a uniquely poor choice: fine loams, porous underground rock formations and a high water table combined to provide a pollution highway right into the groundwater. Other contaminants were spread by surface water and the wind. "The potential exposure pathways include ingestion, skin absorption and/or inhalation from contaminated soils, surface water and groundwater," notes the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's current crib sheet on the Superfund site. "Residential development, agriculture, use of on-post water as drinking water, and consumption of fish and game taken at RMA are prohibited. There is extensive contamination of subsurface soils in the central area of the RMA; lesser soil and building contamination is widespread over several square miles onsite. There is evidence that offsite contamination of soils and air may have occurred to the north and northwest. The contaminated groundwater onsite has moved north and northwest into the alluvial aquifer."

The arsenal was first nominated for Superfund status in 1983. Soon after, the government sued Shell to make it a party to the costly remediation to follow. That essentially led to the fed fighting itself--the EPA on one side, Shell Oil and the Army on the other.

It didn't take long before the Colorado health department found itself in the middle of the fray. Unhappy with the Army's cleanup plans, in 1986 the Colorado attorney general filed suit to gain control over waste treatment and disposal at the facility, arguing that the feds had a conflict of interest--with themselves--on the project.

Ever since, the state health department has led the fight for higher cleanup standards. But it, too, has made compromises. Had the state pushed to make the land fit for human habitation, the project would have been far more vast. For example, instead of a chemical-exposure health index that called for a new-cancer risk of 1 in 1,000,000, the state settled for 1 in 10,000. By promoting the land as a refuge, the Army was dunned for a much less extensive--and expensive--cleanup.

Years of wrangling over the terms of the cleanup plan drew to a close two years ago this week, when Colorado Lieutenant Governor Gail Schoettler called all the sides together and began hammering out an agreement that would establish both on-site and off-site standards. A Rocky Mountain Arsenal Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), a thirty-member group including representatives from all the involved parties, was established to work with the Army to make sure the agreement was met and to keep the community informed. Both Mulqueen and Yelenick, who no longer lived on his Henderson farm but had served on a similar state board, were named to the arsenal's RAB.

RAB's monthly meetings never went particularly smoothly. But the going really got rough for Yelenick late last year. In December he received a draft of a new toxicological profile being done on DIMP that suggested the chemical was far more deadly than previously suspected--and that was already plenty deadly. Specifically, the profile noted that this derivative of sarin has a half-life of 530 years, affects the nervous system, and results in animal mortality with a single dermal application. (Although no earlier data described the toxicological effects of DIMP on humans, studies had shown it was no treat for minks.) And if DIMP alone wasn't bad enough, there were 749 other chemicals it could interact with--and other studies were showing that chemicals, once combined, could have an even more potent impact. Synergy, scientists called this multiplier effect.

The danger was emphasized by studies of Gulf War veterans exposed to sarin whose results were made public in January. Nerve gas had long been suspected of causing vets' health problems; now scientists at the University of Texas were suggesting that the synergistic effect of combined chemicals was causing neurotoxicity.

Yelenick, who had been named RAB's chairman-elect in November, did some studies of his own. On an EPA map that predicted future contamination, he found illegal levels of DIMP in groundwater plumes through at least 2005, despite the fact that groundwater treatment systems at the arsenal were supposed to intercept DIMP and other contaminants. (Those safeguards were put in place too late to capture DIMP that had already flowed off-site, Yelenick notes.) In fact, Yelenick worried that the contaminants had migrated so far afield that they had the potential of reaching the South Platte River. At the very least, they'd clearly migrated north, where health officials had just taken thirty homes--including that of Bakes's son--off bottled water, promising that their wells were now clean.

And so Yelenick decided to take advantage of an offer the feds made late last year. Under a Department of Defense rule proposed in December, community members of restoration advisory boards can request federal grants to call upon their own technical consultants. There are limitations to this offer, though: The grant has to be justified by new science that suggests further studies of an issue are warranted.

Yelenick figured the DIMP study qualified. In fact, he was so sure of it that he contacted Dr. Thomas Kurt, the University of Texas professor who'd been the medical toxicologist on the Persian Gulf studies. He'd be happy to consult on an evaluation of the arsenal, Kurt replied in February: "Because I formerly worked in Denver at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and was on a watchdog medical committee that inspected the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, I might have a unique combined background that includes medical toxicologic expertise with nerve agents as well as familiarity with your site."

But Kurt may not get the chance to prove it.
On February 5 Yelenick submitted his grant request to the Army and asked that copies be distributed at the monthly RAB meeting the next day. That meeting was canceled because of snow. ("An inch," Mulqueen points out.) And packets subsequently mailed to RAB members omitted Yelenick's DIMP/grant documentation.

In early March Yelenick again gave the Army information to be included in packets for that month's meeting. It wasn't. So Yelenick repeated his request that the DIMP/grant package be included in the packet for this month's RAB meeting, set for April 3.

This past weekend, Yelenick finally received an addendum to the board's April packet, including information "inadvertently omitted from the March 1997 minutes package sent to you." But the lion's share of Yelenick's documentation wasn't included, even though it consisted almost entirely of government documents. "They did some serious editing," he says. "They took Kurt's [Persian Gulf] stuff out altogether."

A businessman who grew up in Denver, Yelenick is not your ordinary rabble-rouser. He's tried to play by the rules. "I've done everything I can on the inside," he says. "All I'm asking is for somebody to study this. They're allowing DIMP to leave the arsenal. It will literally go for ten generations."

"The cows are out of the barn," says Mulqeen, who notes that DIMP studies indicate the chemical can easily enter the food chain--and farms lie just to the north of the arsenal.

Yelenick admits he's "flabbergasted" by how difficult it's been to spread word of DIMP's new dangers. "They have quite the public-relations machine," he says of the Army. And they specialize in damage control--even if they're controlling the wrong damage.

"We hope people will not be allowed to build on the arsenal," chirps an Army kiddie guide to "Habitat Island," as it's dubbed the refuge, "so the animals that live here will always have homes and will always be protected."

Visit to see documents referred to in this column, as well as Calhoun's archives.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun