Longform

The Lowdown on Lowry

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Mary Ulmer, who lives near the bombing range and is a member of FES UP, or Family Farmers for Environmentally Safe Use of Property, says the stainless-steel tankers "were pretty common" around the bombing range. "Some of them were actually marked as milk trucks, but the ones I saw didn't have marks at all," she adds. Ulmer's suspicions were further aroused after she noticed that some of the tankers didn't even have license plates. Once, when she stopped to take a picture of a tanker, the driver got out and threatened to take her camera away. "They looked just like milk trucks," she says. "The same apparatus. They loaded from the top and dumped from the back."

In 1961, the same year Bill Wilson stopped the "milk truck" at the bombing range, Coors Porcelain was using steel tankers to transport liquid wastes to the evaporation ponds at Rocky Flats. Even though Rocky Flats was already overloaded with its own waste problems and rapidly becoming what one official facetiously described as the world's barrel capital, the plant continued to "accommodate" Coors through 1970. This accommodation included the acceptance of 750 barrels of enriched uranium scrap and 180,000 gallons of radioactive water containing isotopes of yttrium, zirconium, enriched uranium and beryllium -- some of the same isotopes that were eventually detected in the Lowry Landfill.

Coors Porcelain was under contract to fabricate nearly 800,000 fuel elements composed of beryllium and enriched uranium for "Project Pluto," a civilian-military effort to build a nuclear-powered jet. When the project was terminated, the company was unable to account for 3,016 of the 5,276 grams of uranium it had processed.

Coors Porcelain had other research contracts during the Cold War years, including one with Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop special ceramic sponges that could be used to absorb and hold radioactive wastes. The "sponges" were dunked in aluminum-nitrate wastes spiked with fission products, such as strontium-90, fired in ovens and then re-immersed in water to see what radioactive elements leaked out.

Confidential court documents show that Coors Ceramics, the company's successor, paid $113,801 in cleanup costs and another $445,598 in premiums and other costs, including $36,000 for the radioactive premium, to settle its liability at Lowry. Terry Terens, a spokeswoman for Coors Tech, which succeeded Coors Ceramic, says the company never hauled any radioactive waste to Lowry and speculates that the payment might have been made as a precautionary measure.

On a questionnaire filed with the EPA in 1990, Coors Porcelain said it shipped waste oils, lead dross, an industrial by-product, and miscellaneous chemicals off-site during the period from 1965 to 1980 but didn't know where they went.

Terens says she was told that approximately 1,500 to 2,000 55-gallon drums of waste from Coors Porcelain were taken to the bombing range and placed in a "secured-drum burial area" that was not part of the Superfund site -- although she doesn't know where, exactly, that area is. Terens says it's her understanding that the "whole area for the landfill was the bombing range, but some of it was Superfund site and some was not, and our waste went into an area that was not part of the Superfund site."

Although the bombing range encompasses 65,000 acres, the landfill is less than a square mile in size. According to Terens, the Coors drums were later dug up and moved to another location. "We followed whatever regulations existed and put them where we were told to put them."


At the very least, the response to Bill Wilson's letter showed that times were changing by the late '70s; open stretches of seemingly empty prairie were no longer acceptable dump sites.

Milt Adams, who had become so wealthy that he bought a new Mercedes every year, got out in the nick of time. In 1980 he sold his business to Chemical Waste Management, which is part of Waste Management, Inc., a huge multinational conglomerate. "It was an offer I couldn't turn down," he said in his 1993 deposition. Adams got $350,000 worth of stock; Waste Management got his tankers, vacuum trucks and business records.

Just four years later, in 1984, Lowry was declared one of the most hazardous Superfund sites in the country.

The same year that Milt Adams sold his company, Chemical Waste Management contracted with the City of Denver to operate the landfill. Chemical Waste Management immediately assigned the contract to Waste Management of Colorado. Sanitary landfill operations continued until 1990 at the Superfund site, then were moved to the section directly north of the closed site. Today Waste Management shares an office at the landfill with city employees and continues to be deeply involved in the cleanup activities.

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Eileen Welsome

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