It was a clash not only of ideas and ideologies, but also of genders and generations. A longtime advocate for public-interest groups, Anderson had started out lobbying for lower utility rates for senior citizens, then became involved in union and environmental issues. For six years she was the western director of the National Toxics Campaign, a grassroots organization focusing on hazardous-waste issues. One of her most intense battles centered on the allegations that toxic chemicals from Martin Marietta's aerospace complex had contaminated the drinking water in the Friendly Hills neighborhood, causing cancers and birth defects among children who lived there.
In 1992, Anderson started teaching environmental-studies courses at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The classes, which focused on real-life case studies involving such companies as Coors, were popular with students but periodically triggered threats of funding cutoffs from university administrators.
Anderson was a superb strategist -- "If I had her in one of my undergraduate classes, I'd give her an A," says Steve Frank, Metro's public-relations officer -- and in a short time, she had an impressive coalition of students, farmers and union workers rallying behind her denunciation of the district's Lowry deal.
The Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers opposed the plan to discharge the Lowry effluent, arguing that spreading Superfund wastes would create an unnecessary risk to the public and to workers. The union also contended that the proposal made little economic sense, since discharging the effluent through the sewers rather than treating it on-site would save only $1 million over thirty years. "This is an insignificant amount of money considering the potential clean-up costs associated with leaking sewer pipes and adverse effects on the river and the farm land," wrote health physicist Richard Hillier.
But Metro officials fought hard to get their point of view across. One of the district's most effective proponents was Steve Pearlman: No matter how high tensions were running, his frank and laid-back demeanor invariably calmed the audience. "The word 'Superfund' scares people," Pearlman once explained to a reporter. "It conjures up images of toxic waste and fuming pits, but that's not what Superfund is about, necessarily."
It was Pearlman's job to examine the health and safety ramifications of accepting the Lowry effluent. He concluded that Metro could easily absorb the groundwater without endangering workers, harming the quality of the district's biosolids, or exceeding state standards established for water that would eventually be discharged directly from the plant back into the South Platte River.
"We took a look at every pollutant that was known or supposed to be at Lowry," he says. "And we built such safety standards into the permit that even if something did come through, you would still be safe."
The Lowry Landfill contains hundreds of radioactive and non-radioactive chemicals. Approximately 165 of the 275 chemicals that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has declared as presenting the "most significant potential threat to human health" are in the landfill. Only about a third of these substances -- fifteen radionuclides and 53 chemicals -- are regulated under the Metro permit; the remainder simply flow through the sewers.
Every morning, heavy trucks rumble out of Metro's headquarters in north Denver, laden with steaming black sludge known in the business as "beneficial biosolids." The trucks make over twenty trips a day to Deer Trail, where the district's "Metrogro Farm" is located. There, backhoes transfer the sludge into gigantic machines that trundle over the hills, scattering the material across the fields. From a distance, the sludge resembles nutrient-rich soil, dark and loamy. But up close, it's unnaturally black and has a claylike texture.
Some of the farmers who own land near Metro's 50,000-acre Deer Trail spread were disgusted to learn that the district's dank-smelling sludge, already known to contain heavy metals and chemicals, would soon contain plutonium and other radioactive substances. They were also concerned that runoff from the fields could harm their water.
During one Metro board meeting, John Kalcevic, whose family has ranched in eastern Colorado for a hundred years, said he was "astounded" that Metro had agreed to accept Lowry's wastes. "Why in the hell do you people want to take on someone else's problems?" he asked. "You're going to create for yourself a problem that you're never going to get rid of."
Another farmer, Dolores Tippett, pointed out that growing crops in sludge isn't even economical these days. "People don't want chemicalized food. Why are we going to produce it?" she asked. "Our kids and our grandkids are going to be buying this, and they're going to get sick from it, and here we just let it go on. I'm ashamed of it. I think I'd rather move to another state that's cleaner and more organic."