The Lowdown on Lowry

Page 5 of 9

Soon, trucks from Denver, Golden, Longmont and Boulder began rumbling down Highway 30 toward the new landfill. Sloshing inside their shiny tankers were hazardous chemicals that scientists decades later would learn were capable of producing birth defects, genetic anomalies, immune system disorders -- even cancer if exposures were large enough. The EPA estimates that between 1964 and 1980, about 140 million gallons of hazardous waste were dumped at the site. But that number could significantly underestimate the problem. Landfill records maintained by the City of Denver show that in the first two weeks of 1975 alone, some 611,925 gallons of liquid waste were dumped at Lowry -- a figure that could push the total closer to 220 million gallons.

EPA officials spent countless hours studying landfill receipts, trucking records and other documents in an effort to figure out how much the various private and public entities had dumped at the landfill. Using their considerable federal clout, they demanded from private companies and public agencies alike waste disposal records and information about industrial processes. From this, they developed "waste-in lists," or compilations of what a particular firm had dumped at Lowry. The EPA officials then sent these rough estimates to the "potentially responsible parties," who, in turn, fired back with their own invariably low estimates. The potential responsible parties, or PRPs, kept a close watch on the EPA and each other: When one company's liability went down, another's usually went up. The EPA eventually concluded that Coors was the single largest user, trucking to the site an estimated 32 million gallons of sludges, solvents, acids, pesticides, inks and waste oil. Syntex Chemicals came in second, with 28.6 million gallons of waste, and S.W. Shattuck Chemical Company was third in line, with 17.6 million gallons.

But there were many others who took advantage of the city's dumping ground. "The landfill served industries up and down the Front Range," remembers Orville Stoddard, a former official with the state health department. "Somebody had to take care of the liquid problem." Small businesses, large industries, school districts, hospitals, universities and numerous federal agencies -- including the U.S. Mint and the EPA itself -- also dumped their wastes at Lowry.

"For sixteen years, industry was provided a Denver taxpayer-subsidized disposal facility that in all probability limited industry's Superfund liability to one site instead of many," wrote Theresa Donahue, an aide to Mayor Wellington Webb, in a fiery letter dated Christmas Eve 1991 -- the very day the city filed the first of two mammoth lawsuits against various polluters. (Today Donahue is the director of the city's Department of Environmental Health.)

But the City of Denver, owner-operator of the landfill from 1964 to 1980, could hardly be characterized as a shining knight. Disposal practices were shockingly crude by today's standards. Backhoes simply dug pits down to the bedrock, and then tanker trucks backed up to the unlined pits and, in the words of one former trucker, "let it rip." Sometimes pits were dug directly into the mounds of trash, and household garbage and construction debris were then thrown into the holes, under the theory that the solids would "soak up" the liquids. By 1979, an aerial map showed that the landfill contained millions of tires, dead-animal pits, low-level radioactive waste disposal pits, and a special area reserved for Continental Oil's "sludge experiment."

Lloyd Hesser remembers screaming through downtown Denver during rush hour traffic with his tanker truck loaded to the gills. He made three, four, five trips a day to the landfill, hauling wastes from companies throughout the metro area. Even now, decades later, a tone halfway between awe and horror creeps into his voice when he thinks back to the vast pit where he would dump his loads. "We could get about eight or ten trucks backed up to it at one time," Hesser says. "We'd back in there and pull the cord. You ought to have seen that pit. The ducks would land and it would kill them instantly."

It took exactly eight minutes to empty a tanker, and then Hesser would be back on the road. He used to haul three or four loads a day out of Arapahoe Chemicals, a Boulder company that is now known as Syntex Chemicals; one of his buddies hauled six to eight loads a day from the Shattuck facility in south Denver, and other truckers worked from dawn to dusk and on weekends hauling liquid waste from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. "We'd start loading at 4:30 or 5 in the morning," Hesser remembers. "We got paid by the gallon, a penny a gallon." The truckers were given no safety manuals and no protective clothing -- except, perhaps, an occasional pair of rubber gloves.

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Eileen Welsome

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