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The Lowdown on Lowry

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Hesser's big industrial customers maintained that the liquids being removed from back lots, underground tanks and evaporation ponds simply contained wastewater. "We were too dumb to know better," Hesser says. "All we knew is that we were making good money, and most of us were home every night raising families."

Hesser was one of a fleet of drivers who worked for Milt Adams, a self-made Commerce City businessman who'd started off recycling used oil and eventually became the owner of Waste Transport Company, the largest transporter of liquid waste to Lowry. "If your wastes are flammable, toxic, odorous, or organic in nature, then the bombing range is the safest place for their disposal," Adams once wrote in a letter circulated to customers.

Adams had begun his Denver career collecting used oils from gas stations and garages and then selling them to a Utah firm that re-refined the oil and sold it back to railroads. "We were heroes because we took it to be re-refined and used by the railroads," he said in a 1993 deposition, "whereas, before that, why, some of it was thrown over the fence..." As a favor to his corporate customers, Adams said he'd occasionally "blend" some of his used oil with the company's liquid wastes so that they could "get rid of it, and it wouldn't have to go to Lowry."

Over time, it became evident that Denver did not have the ability to cope with the diversity and amount of liquids being hauled to the landfill. Records documenting what went into the pits, and where, were extremely sketchy. Often a city employee would just scrawl "brine water" or "waste water" on receipts. The workers, one former manager said disdainfully, "wouldn't know water from Pepsi-Cola anyway."

During one routine inspection in June 1972, an official with the Tri-County Health Department, which oversees Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, noted that six new toxic waste pits, each approximately 300 feet long and fifty feet wide, had been dug down to the bedrock. "At present there is no log as to what type of chemicals, or how much toxic waste, is being dumped," he wrote.

Chemical fires broke out frequently. Rats swarmed over the garbage mounds. Hazardous gases collected within the landfill mass and often exploded, tossing barrels fifty to sixty feet in the air. Operators complained of acids and unknown chemicals being dumped into "oil holes" and the indiscriminate "dumping of carcinogenic agents and radiation-contaminated substances." Workers were advised to don respirators, and in 1974, the Colorado Department of Wildlife reported one confirmed animal death that could definitely be tied to Lowry.

For the unfortunate residents who happened to live downwind of the site, the odor was simply unbearable. The sludge and chemicals in the open pits created a stench "so strong it makes outdoor activity impossible and the opening of windows limited to only certain times of the day. Even if the odor were not overwhelming, the flies are so abundant they soon chase us indoors," one resident, a Mrs. Crab, told the EPA in 1979.

The neighbors were also worried about the quality of their well water, according to numerous documents in the EPA's Superfund Records Center. "The water well contamination is a terrific concern to all of us," wrote Maryann Rains in a letter to former Colorado senator William Armstrong. "We've met with Shell Co., Colo. State Health, etc., and they reassure that precautions are being taken and any number of tests being made etc., but nobody really knows what the long-term effects are going to be."

In 1968, just four years after the landfill opened, Don Turk, an official with the Tri-County Health Department, warned that the disposal of "liquid industrial hazards may create a water table pollution problem." A few years later, Don Berve, also with Tri-County, noted that high levels of cyanide had been detected in water flowing off-site. Even more ominous, one of the liquid pits seemed to mysteriously recede overnight. In a letter, state health department official Orville Stoddard theorized that the subsidence might be caused by "a possible 'lens' in the shale layer at the bottom of the pit," then added, "This leaching material could adversely affect groundwater quality."

Camp, Dresser and McKee, a consulting firm working for the City of Denver, described a similar phenomenon in a 1979 report: "One of the pits appears to be full; however, wastes continue to be dumped into it without apparent increase in the level of the liquid. Wastes are emptied into other pits where liquid seeps completely from view within a short period." The firm warned that disposal practices could result in severe groundwater contamination. But the warnings apparently fell on deaf ears, and the tankers kept dumping their loads at the bombing range.

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Eileen Welsome

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