Ken Salazar: Lessons on the Gulf spill from Denver's own "toxic horror"

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has been spending a lot of time on the Gulf Coast lately, dealing with the noxious plumes (environmental and political) spewing from the Deepwater Horizon oil leak.

In the past few days, the Secretary has had photo ops with oil-slimed pelicans, issued his umpteenth press release vowing to hold British Petroleum and its contractors accountable for the spill, and wrestled with troubling reports about a lack of diligent regulation of offshore drilling by the DOI, including more evidence of missed inspections compiled by the Associated Press.

Yet in all his tribulations, Salazar might be able to find some lessons and even inspiration in what's been accomplished back in his home state, in an area once considered the most polluted piece of ground in America.

The Rocky Mountain Arsenal, just a few miles northeast of downtown Denver, was a government and industry dumping ground for decades. The U.S. Army built chemical weapons there. Shell Chemical cranked out herbicides, pesticides and lethal goo by the truckload. One researcher's assessment described the place as "27 square miles of toxic horror."

I visited the horror -- now the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge -- on Sunday. It's the first time I'd been back since Salazar hosted a tour of the place for media and political leaders last spring, touting the stimulus money that was going to be used to upgrade the visitor center and bring more jobs. Other than a few folks fishing around the lakes, there was nobody on the trails -- just lots of prairie dogs, deer, eagles and other wildlife.

The transformation of a toxic dump into an urban refuge for man, beast and native plants didn't happen overnight, of course. The contamination bred years of lawsuits and political posturing, with Shell and the Army blaming each other and various contractors for the mess. Ultimately, though, a settlement was hammered out that cleared the way for the ongoing cleanup. A key figure in that long, bipartisan battle was one Ken Salazar, first as director of natural resources and then as Colorado's attorney general.

The current eco-disaster in the Gulf has the potential to be much more devastating -- and difficult to remediate -- than anything ever done at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Still, it's worth noting that the government couldn't set up a deadly operation like the arsenal -- or Rocky Flats, for that matter -- with quite such heedlessness of environmental consequences. Maybe the day will come when all the rhetoric about environmental protection now blaring from the Secretary's office will translate into tougher standards for offshore drilling, too.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast