A Trooper, A Dump, And a Tale Of Doubt
Plutonium concerns bedevil cleanup plan for a Denver landfill
Under a clear Colorado sky, state trooper William Wilson was on routine patrol outside Denver when he noticed something peculiar. Ahead, on a dirt stretch of Highway 30 near a remote Air Force bombing range, a stainless-steel milk truck was spewing liquid.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But it wasn't milk.
As he pulled up behind the 16-wheeler, the truck spattered mud on his shiny patrol car. Irate, the young officer pulled the driver over to ask what he was doing.
The reply startled trooper Wilson: The man said he was hauling radioactive wastewater from the nearby Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons plant and that - by government agreement - he was dumping it at Lowry Bombing Range.
The year was 1961. Wilson's experience, which prompted him to track years of "clandestine" dumping at the site, has never been proved. Indeed, US officials insist it could not have happened. But his account remains one explanation of how radioactive contamination came to be at the bombing range.
Today, 37 years after that encounter on rutted Route 30, Wilson and his story lie at the heart of a simmering dispute. The controversy centers on one of the worst toxic sites in the United States - a polluted dump on the old bombing range - and on federal plans to clean it up.
The trooper's concerns, documented in his letters to government agencies over 25 years and reiterated in a rare interview, raise anew some old concerns. Just how much plutonium is in groundwater beneath Lowry Landfill? How did it get there? Is the cleanup plan safe?
The questions are not idle ones. The government's approach at Lowry marks a new direction in the nation's 30-year struggle to rid the earth of some of the most dangerous detritus of the Industrial and Atomic Ages.
After overseeing years of burning, vaporizing, condensing, or pelletizing toxic waste, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now wants to conduct what may be the ultimate recycling project. It will pump contaminated water out of the landfill, run it through Denver's sewage-treatment plant, and discharge the treated water into the South Platte River. Leftover sludge would be spread onto Colorado wheat fields as fertilizer.
The project marks the government's most ambitious attempt anywhere to turn toxic waste into a beneficial resource. Supporters include the EPA, Denver, and businesses that dumped hazardous waste at the site. They say it's a cost-effective way to deal with one of the late 20th century's most difficult environmental problems.
But critics - including farmers, environmentalists, and scientists - see it as a cheap fix to a dangerous problem. They argue it will imperil the environment and public health, especially given the uncertainties of the presence of plutonium at the site.
Enough questions surround the project that the EPA inspector general has begun to investigate. The Monitor's own in-depth look has found:
* Conflicting studies over the past 10 years about the amount of plutonium under the landfill.
* Disagreement about current plans to monitor the Lowry groundwater as it travels through the elaborate sewage-treatment process.
* Sharp disputes over the wisdom of recycling toxic waste, with or without plutonium. Even the basic solution - to dilute the toxicity of the landfill groundwater in a sea of general wastewater - is under fire.
"Dilution has never been the solution," says Ross Vincent, a policy strategist for the Sierra Club. "The truth is that any exposure that can be avoided should be avoided."
In one regard, Lowry Landfill is unusual: Few toxic sites have pollutants that may have come from the manufacture of nuclear arms. But it is also a far-reaching tale - a case study of the scientific and political ambiguity that often permeates the obscure world of toxic cleanup.
The making of a Superfund site
More than most places, the arid flatland near the Mile High City has done its part in the defense of America during 50 tense, cold-war years.