Longform

The Lowdown on Lowry

Page 2 of 9

With Metro's capitulation, the city and its private partner were on their way to devising a permanent solution for the foul-smelling liquid that roiled beneath the landfill. But fierce opposition soon emerged from an unexpected quarter: One of Metro's newly appointed boardmembers, a self-contained and articulate woman named Adrienne Anderson, was worried that the Lowry discharge could endanger Metro's workers and the public at large. At a request from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, Anderson spent weeks at the EPA Superfund Records Center in downtown Denver, poring over microfilmed records related to the Lowry site. Late one afternoon, when her eyes were burning with fatigue, the parking meter was running outside, and her children were waiting to be picked up from a daycare center, she found what she refers to as the "smoking gun" memo -- a letter that had been prepared by the polluters themselves, a group known as the Lowry Coalition, and hand-delivered to the EPA a few weeks before Christmas 1991. Attached to the letter was page after page of monitoring data that described contaminants found in scores of wells drilled around the site.

The polluters summarized the most salient points in their letter to the EPA. Numerous wells at the landfill had alarmingly high levels of americium and plutonium, they told the EPA, and those radioactive contaminants could have come from only one place: the now-defunct Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant located northwest of Denver. Plutonium is a highly carcinogenic substance, and americium, a contaminant usually found in the presence of plutonium, can also cause cancer.

With this new piece of evidence and hundreds of additional documents, Anderson met with the union and then set out to alert the public to the danger. "I was sad, sick, nauseous, horrified and alarmed," remembers Anderson, who subsequently filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District that will be ruled upon this spring.

Anderson's pronouncements were met with heated denials from virtually every city, state and federal official involved with the landfill. Members of the local media soon followed suit, dismissing her as a radical environmentalist or worse. "Her allegations are bullshit," says the EPA's Marc Herman, who served as project manager at Lowry for nearly a decade. "No, no, no; they're horseshit, because horseshit stinks more than bullshit. I think that says it all."

Yet an employee who once worked for Waste Transport, a company that transported liquid wastes to Lowry from numerous plants in the Denver area, now admits that drivers stopped at Rocky Flats two to three times a month and suctioned thousands of gallons of water from sumps located near the buildings. "We hauled out of Rocky Flats, we hauled out of Shattuck, we hauled out of Arapahoe Chemicals in Boulder," says Lloyd Hesser, who lives in Needles, California, and is suffering from numerous ailments that he believes were caused by the chemicals he hauled to Lowry. "I feel sorry that I hauled that shit. How many people have I poisoned?"

According to a database maintained by the City of Denver, at the time public officials were loudly insisting that there was no plutonium at Lowry, they were making no effort to retest wells there that had consistently showed high readings of plutonium or americium. Instead, the results of the radioactivity component of the study -- which had been gathered over a four-year period at a cost of millions of dollars -- were simply "re-analyzed" and then jettisoned for technical reasons.

The database, which dates back to 1975 and contains more than 155,000 test results, can be sorted to analyze sampling activity at Lowry in seconds, showing what wells were sampled, when they were sampled, and what was found in them.

The database was part of in a formal public-records request Westword filed with the City of Denver last December, yet officials didn't include it in the boxes of documents and electronic data that were made available; Westword obtained a copy from another source. Among the trends revealed by that database:

• With the exception of one well, none of the approximately 65 wells sampled between 1988 and 1991 that showed high results for plutonium or americium have ever been resampled. The wells have either been plugged, abandoned or simply not tested for those radionuclides.

Some wells sampled early during the testing period show extraordinarily high levels of numerous radionuclides, ranging up to 4 million picocuries for americium-241, 6 million pico-curies for neptunium-239, 2 million picocuries for iodine-133, and 8 million picocuries for arsenic-76. While these figures are listed in the "results" column, officials nevertheless say they represent laboratory "detection limits" and not the actual levels of contamination. But according to several scientists who reviewed the data, those detection limits are set so high that they reveal nothing about what is present at the site.

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.
Eileen Welsome

Latest Stories