Down in the Dump

In 1988 Irma Zimmerman stood on the back porch of her lime-green house in Overland Park and faced a tornado. "We watched it come right up Asbury," she says, shaking her head of tangled gray hair. "Stood there like idiots and just watched it come. Hurling doors and sheds and whatnot."

That twister is one of the experiences that the 76-year-old Zimmerman says should only have to be faced once, along with hailstorms (like the one in 1990 that took a chunk out of one of her Siamese cats) and floods. She sprinkles these cataclysmic events into any discussion of Shattuck Chemical Company, whose factory for years processed uranium ore just down the street from her home. Because Zimmerman also has another classification system: those things people should never have to witness at all. Like a radioactive dirt pile cemented into place not 800 feet from her back door.

The tornado didn't look like the tornadoes on TV, Zimmerman continues. "No indeed," pipes in her husband, Cecil. "There weren't any dust in it. No dust at all."

"Just things," agrees Irma. "Just stuff like doors and pieces of roof and things like that."

For a moment the tornado fades back into memory and the Zimmermans' talk turns to other things: the spoons Irma collects, their four adopted children--now all over forty. Finally, there's mention of the double mastectomy she underwent four years ago.

"You can't say if Shattuck caused it or not," she says in a low voice. "We just don't know."

There is silence as a breeze blows through the open window and makes the dozens of wind chimes that fill Irma's living-room ceiling mingle and sway.

"That twister had such force," Cecil starts in again. "But it didn't have dust. It was clear--except for all the things it had swept up."

About a block and a half from the Zimmermans' squat house on the corner of Asbury Avenue and Acoma Street stands an enormous pile of dirt--50,000 cubic yards of it--covered with miles of black tarpaulin. Remnants of the efforts of a few graffiti artists can be seen from the dusty roads that run beside the long black hulk. A small sign, hardly noticeable from behind the flimsy chain-link fence that surrounds the site, bears the universal symbol for radiation.

Welcome to Shattuck, a gigantic lump of radioactive soil just off South Santa Fe Drive and Evans Avenue from which gamma rays shoot out in all directions. It's the eighth of eleven Denver Radium Sites that were designated for Superfund cleanup in the early 1980s. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state health department finished mopping up the other ten sites years ago, shipping radioactive material to a dump out of state and replacing contaminated soil with fresh dirt. Shattuck alone has sat idle, caught up in a controversy that has pitted the EPA against the City of Denver in a fight over whether the city has a constitutional right to prevent a federal agency from storing dangerous materials within its boundaries. On the sidelines, two more battles rage as a low-income neighborhood rails against the $172 billion New York-based investment company that now owns Shattuck and skeptics debate scientists over the safety of leaving the huge mound of radioactive waste where it lies.

Today the war is all but over. Shattuck and the federal government have prevailed at every juncture, and men in white protective suits and gas masks can already be seen at the factory site, making preparations to solidify the tainted soil into a rock-hard mass that will remain in place for centuries. But there is still much that remains unanswered about why anyone would agree to bury acres of radioactive waste in the heart of Denver, cutting a line down the middle of one of its oldest neighborhoods.

Especially when they had a choice.
What happened at the Shattuck site, according to those who live in the Overland Park neighborhood, was nothing short of a betrayal. The EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment initially promised neighbors that they were going to take the radioactive waste away and dump it in a high-tech holding facility deep in the Utah desert. In fact, both the EPA and the health department said in writing in April 1991 that moving the waste was the best remedy. Overland Park, they promised, would never have to worry about the effects of radon and gamma rays again.

Then, in January 1992, the EPA and the state changed their minds.
The EPA and the health department say that while they initially chose excavation and off-site dumping as the best solution, they re-evaluated the decision after deciding that leaving the waste in Denver would be much cheaper--and more in line with a decade-old federal environmental law that favors what the government calls "on-site" remedies.

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Michelle Johnston