Shy, but Not Retiring

The public, no doubt, would have preferred clear skies and sunshine. But some 600 kids and adults came anyway on this blustery Saturday morning, to search for prairie dogs and chomp on hot dogs at "Wild Things '98," hosted by the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Wildlife Refuge, ten miles northeast of Denver. At the arsenal's Visitors Center, a building that housed an Army Officer's Club overlooking the nation's chemical arsenal just a half-century ago, visitors now gawked at a three-foot-long iguana, played "Recycle Relay" and snatched up T-shirts and wildlife calendars.

The October 17 festivities celebrated the arsenal's ongoing transition from a chemical dump to an urban oasis for mule deer, badgers, eagles and human bird-watchers. But for all the cheery hype, the heart of the 27-square-mile Rocky Mountain Arsenal--once billed as the most contaminated square mile on earth--still contains a quagmire of toxic Superfund soup. And while the man in charge of its cleanup has officially retired, financially speaking, he's still cleaning up.

Colonel Eugene H. "Doc" Bishop had been the arsenal's program manager for more than seven years before retiring from the Army last month. But Bishop didn't just take his officer's pension and go home. Thanks to a labyrinthine arrangement with the U.S. Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command (CBDCOM), he was immediately re-employed at the arsenal through a contract with Colorado State University.

Just prior to Bishop's cake-and-coffee retirement party on September 30, the Army announced that he had been hired to conduct a review of on-site operations at the arsenal and to "recommend transitional changes necessary to move to civilian management"--even though that civilian management will be headed by Bishop.

According to Ruth Mecham, the Army's arsenal spokeswoman, the CSU agreement calls for Bishop to review the Remediation Venture Office, a coalition Bishop himself helped create to guide the arsenal through the next decade. The RVO includes representatives from the Army and Shell Oil Company--the two parties responsible for the contamination and its cleanup--as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the site as a wildlife refuge.

For all its headaches, the arsenal's top job has its rewards: Bishop reportedly will collect $58,705 in salary and benefits by the end of a six-month contract. That's on top of a standard colonel's pension, estimated by the Army at $4,684 a month, plus medical and cost of living allowances.

The 52-year-old Bishop, previously an Army "lifer," is now employed by CSU's Center for Ecological Management of Military Lands in the Department of Forest Services. The center is largely funded by federal contracts to hire and manage biologists, data analysts, resource managers and other experts who focus on the ecological well-being of U.S. military lands. Shortly before Bishop's retirement, CBDCOM asked the center to fill the job of a new "research associate" whose "responsibilities" sounded much like the colonel's old job description: "Direct the environmental remediation and cleanup of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and oversee the mandated transfer of the site to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to include all budgeting and program management. Manage personnel and material requirements. Direct public involvement and outreach efforts. Direct cooperative efforts with other federal and state agencies and the private sector."

The center followed the usual protocol, which calls for posting the opening on its Web site and in three environmental publications for five weeks, then whittling down the pile of applicants and interviewing the top three candidates. In this case, however, just two people applied for the job--and only one was interviewed.

In tapping Bishop for the job, CSU followed the law "by the letter," says university spokesman Tom Milligan. The center also made some money for its trouble: about $20,000 to cover the costs of overhead, hiring and oversight of the employee in the field.

Although several workers at the arsenal question why someone wasn't promoted from inside to replace Bishop, Michael A. Parker, the CBDCOM deputy who arranged the CSU contract, says the cost of a "direct salary and direct benefits" would have been just as expensive. In his consultant role, Bishop will not have direct oversight over the contractors he previously hired to work at the arsenal, Parker adds; that task will go to an "acting program manager" based at CBDCOM headquarters back in Maryland.

In 1942 the Army chose this stretch of Colorado farmland for an arsenal that would manufacture incendiary munitions and chemical weapons, including mustard agents, nerve gas and rocket fuels. In the mid-1950s the Rocky Mountain Arsenal was the free world's largest producer of sarin, a deadly nerve agent developed by Nazi scientists. A business later bought by Shell Oil Company moved into the arsenal at the end of World War II. Shell manufactured pesticides at the site until 1982--about three decades after farmers north of the arsenal first complained that contaminated groundwater was curdling their crops.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Gayle Worland