Colorado Hazardous-Waste Cleanup Stirs Up Controversy

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

CLEANUP efforts at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a 27-square-mile hazardous-waste site, have been beset by a heated debate over public-health concerns. The arsenal, poisoned by several years of chemical weapons and pesticide production, has been called one of the most polluted areas in the country. The United States Army and Shell Oil Company plan to clean up the entire arsenal site. After the estimated 15-to-20-year project is finished, the Army is considering making the site into a wildlife preserve.

Residents have been concerned about the release of toxic chemical fumes during recent excavation work, and many fear risks of cancer. State and local officials say, however, cleanup work will bring no such health risks.

Part of the cleanup work at a 93-acre section of the arsenal, Basin F, will be completed this spring. The 240-million-gallon lake contained 150 chemicals, some of them carcinogens including aldrin and dieldrin - pesticides that have long been banned in the US. Both Shell, which had manufactured pesticides at the site, and the US Army funded the $50 million project.

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Cleanup plans for the rest of the arsenal, however, could be hampered by the same objections aired during the Basin F cleanup. Irondale trailer park residents, who live within a mile of Basin F, complained about chemical fumes emanating from that cleanup, which began last March. They say the government was much too careless about health risks. ``There should have been more done to prevent us from being the Army's guinea pigs,'' says Ira Diagle, the trailer park owner.

While the government admits the residents were exposed to some contamination, no one is quite sure how many or exactly what kind of chemicals people were exposed to when contamination was at its worst. Despite the risks, Jim Scherer, regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency in Denver, says the project could no longer be ignored. ``We feel that you have to look at the long-term benefit, and I don't think anyone's health was really affected in the long term,'' he says.

Trailer park residents have formed a group called Poisoned Arsenal Neighbors of Irondale Community (PANIC). With the support of environmentalists, they have urged the governor of Colorado, Roy Romer, to buy out the entire area and establish it as a buffer zone. But Governor Romer, a Democrat, says that act is unnecessary. PANIC has taken the issue to federal court and legal action is currently pending there.

Paradoxically, a variety of unusual wildlife thrive at the polluted arsenal site. The facility has one of the most concentrated populations of bald eagles in the nation. Golden eagles, white-tail and mule deer, coyotes, foxes, and prairie dogs are also among the many wild animals here who live in the arsenal's unviolated areas. Wildlife enthusiasists are pushing for the area to be made into a wildlife refuge.

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