Toxic Wait

For decades, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal served as a playground for the production of lethal chemicals. Nearby city officials want to make part of it a playground for kids.

Civic cheerleaders in Commerce City are pushing to buy more than 900 acres of arsenal property north of 56th Avenue and west of Quebec Street. On 200 acres in the southern part of the parcel, they envision a park where families can hike nature trails or view zoo animals, where kids can kick around soccer balls or slide into home on the community baseball diamond. Commerce City, known for its refinery smokestacks and the arsenal's poisonous-chemical legacy, could take on new life--a new image--with this open-space showcase, they say. Businesses could spring up on the newly purchased land.

Which is exactly what critics are afraid of.
Citizens' groups monitoring the arsenal's remediation say the government hasn't proven that Commerce City's planned land purchase, known as the western tier parcel, is clean enough to be considered just another chunk of real estate. In the past, Commerce City has considered several different uses for the hundreds of acres north of the proposed park: senior center, teen center, swimming pool, restaurants. And the option pushing the most buttons: daycare centers.

"The use of the land is being proposed for the most sensitive populations," wrote attorney Sandra Jaquith and others in a recent letter to the Environmental Protection Agency. "We completely support the transfer and sale of the long as it poses no risks to human health or the environment, a fact that has not yet been properly or adequately determined."

The EPA has so far published a Notice of Intent to Delete, the first step in the process to cross the western tier parcel off its Superfund list. When Jaquith and others questioned the data the EPA used to declare the acreage "clean," the EPA replied with a sixteen-page scientific risk assessment. The study results "suggest that the western tier parcel is not associated with unacceptable risk levels," the EPA wrote. The cancer risk for kids who might ingest soil--by playing in the dirt, dropping a sandwich on the ground and the like--were low enough to pass EPA standards, the agency said.

The Rocky Mountain Arsenal was built in 1942, after the Army decided the 27-square-mile stretch of farmland was a good place to manufacture incendiary munitions and chemical weapons, including mustard agents, nerve gas and rocket fuels. After the end of World War II, a business later bought by Shell Oil Company moved onto the site. Shell manufactured pesticides there until 1982--about three decades after farmers north of the arsenal first complained that contaminated groundwater was curdling their crops. By the time the arsenal was nominated for Superfund status in 1983, it contained eight million cubic yards of contaminated soil, two huge basins full of toxic waste and a history of leaking sewer lines and spills. Poisoned groundwater seeped below areas of Commerce City, including land that is now dotted with new homes.

The western tier parcel is still full of mysteries. No one is sure what toxins might lie below the soil's surface. Some accounts say a pit for white phosphorous grenades is located there. Chemicals could have been drained from railcars passing through the site. Laura Williams, the EPA project manager who's worked on the arsenal only since 1995, mostly has to rely on a book written in the 1950s that documents chemical production there nearly a decade earlier.

No one is even sure of the parcel's exact size. For years the western tier was known in Commerce City vernacular as "the 815"--and it's still identified that way, even though state and federal documents put it at 920 or even 960 acres.

As the Superfund work continues--it's a chore that could take decades--the remainder of the arsenal is being transformed into the country's largest urban wildlife refuge. Citizens' groups are incensed by the cheery hype: At the invitation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, up to 60,000 children and adults visit the site each year to look for wildlife, play on the ballfield or climb Rattlesnake Hill--which overlooks Basin A, a sink so contaminated it can only be covered--never cleaned--up.

Now that the Army intends to unload the western tier parcel, Commerce City has first dibs. But the arsenal's 1992 Wildlife Refuge Act restricts the land to recreational or commercial purposes--no industrial, agricultural or residential use is allowed. If the EPA approves the sale (expected to be only 600 acres to start), the federal General Services Administration will appraise the property, a process that would take only a month or two. Commerce City will have to pay up front for the land, which could run anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 an acre for "the more prime" stuff, says City Manager Tim Gagen. Lottery dollars, city capital funds and grants are expected to pay most of the bill. "Usually," Gagen admits, "you're giving away Superfund land."

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Gayle Worland

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