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The Lowdown on Lowry

Page 4 of 9

The agreements were sealed by then-federal judge Sherman Finesilver at the request of Waste Management and with the tacit agreement of the City of Denver and other settling parties. Finesilver, who is now retired, was the judge who issued a gag order for the Rocky Flats grand jurors, barring them from ever talking about their two-and-a-half-year investigation into alleged environmental crimes committed at Rocky Flats by its contractors and federal officials.


In the beginning, the land where the future Lowry Landfill would be located was little more than a vast, unbroken expanse of prairie and sagebrush, ravaged by blizzards and wind, far from downtown Denver and its growing suburbs. The area was part of a much larger parcel of property that was purchased by the City of Denver with general-obligation bond funds before World War II, then donated to the U.S. military in 1940 for a bombing range. As the heavy bombers chugged above the scorched earth, dropping their payloads on hapless targets, the area became known as Lowry Air Force Base and Bombing Range.

The bombing runs were discontinued in 1958 when the Air Force decided to excavate and build four separate missile-launch complexes, each containing three missile silos, for the Titan Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program. Constructed from steel and reinforced concrete, the launch complexes were extremely elaborate affairs and built to withstand many pressures, including a nearby atomic blast. Located far below the ground were control centers, generating equipment, living rooms, kitchens, sleeping quarters and, of course, the long narrow silos that housed the nuclear weapons themselves. A web of underground tunnels allowed military personnel easy access to all parts of the site. Soon, twelve armed nuclear missiles -- three in each of the four launch complexes -- sat ready and waiting for the doomsday signal. But the warheads had barely been settled into their underground homes when the Strategic Air Command decided to phase them out. In an effort to wring a few pennies from the boondoggle, the General Services Administration sold three of the launch complexes for $450,000 to a construction firm in Salt Lake City, which salvaged what it could and left the rest behind.

In 1964, the federal government conveyed back to the City of Denver five sections of land in a quitclaim deed. City officials decided to locate a new dump on Section 6, a square tract of land that was readily accessible to highway traffic and bordered on the west by Gun Club Road, on the north by Hampden Avenue and on the south by Quincy Avenue.

The government's quitclaim deed specifically stipulated that a portion of the property being conveyed back to the city be used as a landfill. The stipulation suggests that the federal government may have already been using some of this property as a landfill; several aerial photographs of Section 6 support that hypothesis. A photograph taken in June 1963 -- a year or two before the city took over the facility -- shows numerous dirt roads crisscrossing the area and an oval-shaped lagoon in what would become the southeastern corner of the landfill. Another aerial photograph taken two years later, in December 1965, shows roads leading east from this lagoon to two long, liquid-filled trenches and several smaller ones on the landfill proper.

To the unpracticed eye, Section 6 seemed like a perfectly reasonable place to put a landfill. The land was relatively flat, sloping gently down to a bowl-like depression where an intermittent stream called Unnamed Creek emerged during heavy rains and flowed in a northerly direction. Beneath the site lay four aquifers -- the Dawson, the Denver, the Arapahoe and the Laramie-Fox Hills -- that provided water for rural communities and Denver suburbs alike. The U.S. Geological Survey, which did a seminal study of the area in the late '70s, concluded that surface water and shallow groundwater generally moved north, while water located in the deeper aquifers flowed west. But later investigations also found that water bubbled up to the surface and flowed down through fractures, two phenomena that would greatly complicate future efforts to determine the migratory path of contaminants. "Sand lenses" -- shallow beds of loosely packed soils beneath the surface - are also present at the site and could affect water flow.

But no one was thinking about aquifers when the dump opened for business in the mid-1960s. Instead, the city was widely applauded by regulators and private companies alike for providing such a vital public service. "The willingness of the city and county of Denver to dispose of questionable wastes (formerly without charge) keeps much of this material out of less suitable landfills and provides a useful service to industries and institutions. The 'concentration' of these materials at this site has prevented potential pollution of other drainage areas and aquifers," wrote one state official in a 1976 Colorado Department of Health report.

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Eileen Welsome

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