And Not a Drop to Drink

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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."

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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