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Not in Their Backyard

While real-estate values soar across Denver, one neighborhood--Overland Park--has been left in the dust. A few miles down the river, the Central Platte Valley is finally fulfilling its century-old promise, transforming its gritty past into the city's future centerpiece: already home to Coors Field, an amusement park and a children's...
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While real-estate values soar across Denver, one neighborhood--Overland Park--has been left in the dust.

A few miles down the river, the Central Platte Valley is finally fulfilling its century-old promise, transforming its gritty past into the city's future centerpiece: already home to Coors Field, an amusement park and a children's museum, and soon to feature over a billion dollars' worth of new construction, including an aquarium, a sports arena, thousands of residential units and three new parks. Upstream by South Evans there's another new park, Grant-Frontier, an exquisite symbol of the $45 million that Denver has been pouring into reviving the South Platte River.

But amidst all those new parks, Denver is gaining another monument, a monument to shame, a monument to the fact that in this, the year of the neighborhood, the federal government still calls the shots--while big business whispers in its ear.

When completed, this monument at 1805 South Bannock Street will stand fifteen feet high, a 100,000-cubic-yard, six-acre toxic memorial to Denver's radioactive era, when the city was the center of an industry that processed first radium, then uranium.

From its modest origins in 1918 as a south Denver lab pioneering in the production of molybdenum chemicals, the S.W. Shattuck Chemical Company grew into one of America's foremost suppliers of high-quality transition metal chemicals--if you believe the company's own publicity. And apparently Salomon Inc. did, because the giant investment company bought Shattuck in 1969. With Shattuck, though, came some deadly baggage inherited by Salomon's subsequent purchasers: Travelers, and then Citicorp.

By 1969 Denver, which has a notoriously short memory for untidy messes, had forgotten its heritage as a radium-processing site. It had forgotten that some of the contaminated tailings were used to build streets in Capitol Hill and as fill in other neighborhoods, or were simply left in piles around manufacturing facilities such as Shattuck. That unfortunate memory was regained twenty years ago, when a state health official stumbled onto a reference in an old history book. From there, the city and state identified 44 hot spots, which were designated as eleven Superfund sites in 1983. Shattuck was among the hottest.

Today all but one of those sites have been remediated, the radioactive dirt carted away and replaced with clean fill. The contaminated streets of Capitol Hill now sit in storage out near DIA, awaiting treatment and transportation. The old home of the Robinson Brick Company, a dozen blocks from Shattuck, has been turned into a bustling Home Depot. But although Shattuck has been closed since 1984, it's still a wasteland--and may never be more.

Overland Park was done dirty.
Initially, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state health department and the city all agreed that Shattuck should get the same treatment as the other Superfund sites--the contaminated dirt would be dug up and carted away to a safe site in the Utah desert. As a 1989 EPA report noted: "There is no way to 'neutralize' radioactive material, and radium retains its radioactivity for thousands of years. For these reasons, EPA's cleanup plan calls for excavating some 240,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris and transporting it to a disposal facility licensed to securely isolate the waste."

That's the plan that Shattuck's neighbors were banking on. So was the city. But sometime in late 1991, the plan changed. According to a February 1992 state health department advisory: "CDEH and EPA had initially proposed excavation and off-site disposal of the contaminated soils. After receiving public comment, the agencies re-evaluated the alternatives and selected the on-site stabilization alternative."

And what public comment influenced the agencies to change their decision? Nothing the neighbors had heard at their meetings. Certainly nothing the city said. Instead, Salomon Inc., which as owner of the site was responsible for paying for its remediation, had weighed in with a hefty report advocating another alternative--treating the waste and burying it on-site, a $26 million solution that the health department said would shave $10 million from the cost of off-site disposal.

The long-term costs did not enter into the equation.
Irma Zimmerman has lived in Overland Park for fifty years. She knew she didn't want a hazardous-waste monolith several hundred feet away from her modest home. She didn't know if the stuff that would be entombed inside was responsible for the cancer that had led to her double mastectomy, but she did know that it was proving a hazard to property values.

While real-estate prices shoot up around town, Zimmerman complains to the city that its appraisals for her neighborhood are too high. The city agrees. Overland has been left in the dust.

In fact, the city was so displeased with the EPA and state health department's deal with Shattuck/Salomon that it has battled the decision on several fronts. In 1995 the feds sued Denver for refusing to issue permits for a permanent waste dump at the Shattuck site. The city retaliated by charging an $8.50-per-cubic-feet waste-disposal fee, which would have upped the ante $12 million, making off-site disposal more attractive. But the feds challenged that, too.

In May 1996, the Denver City Council issued a resolution demanding that the EPA make good on its promise to clean up the neighborhood. And soon Zimmerman and her neighbors had more supporters--people like Tom Anthony, who had been unaware he was living next to radioactive waste until Westword published a story on Overland that July. Anthony joined other residents, including Jack Unruh and Bob Sterling, in forming CLEAN-IT!, expanding the fight from the less prosperous Overland Park neighborhood into nearby--and downwind--Platte Park and West Washington Park.

They collected 7,000 signatures from neighbors demanding a complete cleanup. They wrote Bill Clinton, who passed their letter on to the EPA, which defended its decision to go with on-site remediation--even though that will create an unprecedented, federally endorsed toxic dump. They hired experts who determined that the Shattuck site's monitoring was faulty, that contaminants were appearing in storm sewers off Santa Fe Drive, that even in less violent weather than last week's floods, dangerous chemicals could reach the South Platte and dirty the city's pretty new centerpiece. They sued to protest the insufficient monitoring--an action still pending in U.S. District Court.

And for that, even improved monitoring may not be enough. A report from a federal toxic-substance agency recommends that "the City of Denver, with support of the State of Colorado, should institute long-term land-use controls to prevent use of properties within 1/4 mile of the Shattuck property for uses other than industrial/commercial or existing uses. Residential and child-care facilities should not be allowed on or adjacent to the Shattuck company."

But the city took it further still. Having lost in court, the Denver City Council voted in May to place a referendum on the August 11 ballot that asks Colorado's congressional delegates to force a complete federal cleanup of Shattuck.

The neighbors are out in force this week to push the measure and plan a rally Sunday at Shattuck to talk--not science (although they now know all about picocuries and gamma rays), not economics (although they know all about declining property values), not politics (although they have their suspicions), but simple morality. "The bottom line," says Anthony, "is should we be burying radioactive wastes in a neighborhood?

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