The current low readings for plutonium and americium -- touted everywhere from City Hall to the EPA as proof there is no contamination at Lowry -- are being taken from approximately 35 newly drilled wells located just outside the areas of historic contamination, or from wells that never showed much contamination to begin with.
None of the roughly 25 wells that are deeper than 100 feet are being sampled for plutonium or americium. By contrast, those that are being sampled are mostly shallow wells located in the alluvium or uppermost bedrock. The deep wells -- not the shallow wells -- could alert officials as to whether the plutonium and americium are descending toward the underlying aquifers.
Wells located at the outermost western edge of the landfill and north of a barrier wall are not being sampled for plutonium or americium. These wells could provide officials with important information regarding whether any radioactive contaminants are creeping toward populated areas.
Waste Management's Lori Tagawa and Dennis Bollmann, one of the city's environmental scientists based at Lowry, defend the current sampling program, arguing that new wells drilled in the last two or three years provide ample data about any potential lateral and downward migration of contaminants. "We have early-warning monitoring wells for just about everything," Tagawa says.
Both Tagawa and Bollmann also say there's no evidence that any contaminants have descended into the lower aquifers. "We haven't seen any kind of contamination in the deeper wells," notes Bollmann. Yet documents on file at the Superfund Records Center and the database itself show positive results for both radioactive and nonradioactive chemicals in wells drilled deeper than 300 feet.
Westword has also obtained numerous confidential documents describing settlement agreements that the city and Waste Management entered into in the early- to mid-'90s with the companies that dumped wastes at Lowry, as well as the two multimillion-dollar trusts that were established with the settlement funds. Those documents indicate that all of the parties involved in the lawsuits have a huge financial stake in making sure the landfill's cleanup costs do not exceed the $94 million set forth by the EPA in its 1994 Record of Decision, a legally binding document that guides cleanup activities at the site. In fact, the "profits" that the city and Waste Management hope to someday reap from overseeing the cleanup and the expenses polluters may have to pay for that cleanup are directly linked to how much money they can save on the remediation. These records also show:
Some polluters were apparently so concerned about potential radioactive contamination that they purchased "radioactive premiums" from the city and/or Waste Management. The radioactive premiums were one of a number of premium options offered to the various polluters during settlement negotiations; the premiums protect them from such things as cost overruns, private-party litigation, potential toxic tort claims, and natural-resource damage claims that could conceivably be brought by Colorado's attorney general, or even fines levied by the EPA itself. The City of Denver, the two trusts established with the settlement funds and/or Waste Management get to pocket the premiums as profit, court documents state. But if lawsuits are eventually filed or cleanup costs increase substantially as a result of some unforeseen event -- such as radioactive contamination -- then the city and Waste Management could be out millions of dollars.
Some of the companies that settled with the city and Waste Management have "reopener" clauses in their agreements, which means that if cleanup costs exceed a certain amount, those companies could be forced to come up with more money.
In recent years, the city and Waste Management have been debating whether they can legally withdraw "management fees" from the trust funds established to pay for the cleanup. Denver officials won't say how much is collectively held in the two trusts, but records indicate that by the end of 1994, approximately $110 million had been collected in cleanup costs, premiums and other fees. The management charges, which could amount to millions, would be based on several factors, including the difference between the money actually spent by the city and Waste Management on cleanup versus the $94 million that the EPA estimated in 1994 it would cost to remediate the site.
Other than a handful of city officials and a few private individuals, most people in Denver have no knowledge of the settlement agreements or the trusts, which are administered outside the purview of the city and apparently not subject to Denver City Charter regulations governing public funds. Even the EPA says it doesn't know how the settlements were structured or how much money is currently in the cleanup fund.