A Trooper, A Dump, And a Tale Of Doubt

Plutonium concerns bedevil cleanup plan for a Denver landfill

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Besides a chemical-weapons production plant, there was the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility - a high-security complex of labs and windowless, cinder-block buildings - that hugs the feet of the Rockies northwest of Denver. There, at the cusp of the Atomic Age, workers began assembling plutonium triggers used to set off nuclear bombs. In time, the Department of Energy (DOE) facility would house the largest stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium in the US.

On the other side of town, out east where suburbs are now creeping across the plains, was the Lowry Bombing Range. The base cut a 13-mile-wide swath through the dusty flatlands, and military pilots used it for target practice, raining chemical and incendiary bombs upon the ground from 1940 to 1962. For a few years in the 1960s, the range even housed 12 Titan I nuclear rockets, sheathed in four sunken missile silos, now empty and mothballed.

In 1961, when trooper Wilson stumbled upon the stainless-steel truck, Rocky Flats was in full swing and F-100s were flying over Lowry. There was still an innocence in the land - Chubby Checker's "The Twist" was moving up the pop charts - but the US was also in an ominous nuclear standoff with the Soviets. The sorties over Lowry were part of that vigilance.

Wilson recalls that he was dumfounded by what that truck driver told him on that fateful sunny day, but he also says he didn't have many courses of action. "It came from Rocky Flats. These things happened, it's true," says Wilson, a World War II Navy veteran who is now retired from a career in law enforcement and civil service. "At the time, they thought it was safe. There was no one to report it back then: I was the authority. The only thing we had was the courts, and there were no laws against it." So Wilson did the only thing he felt he could do: He wrote a report about what he saw and filed it with the state trucking regulator, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

For the next three years, he saw more milk trucks dumping liquid - sometimes on the range, sometimes in and around the missile silos, and sometimes in ditches or along the road. He saw them mostly at night, but sometimes during the day. Wilson pulled over other truck drivers, filing PUC reports on them as well.

About the time of the truck incidents, the Air Force abandoned the range, and Denver took over a tiny corner of the property to use as a city dump. The first truckload of household and industrial garbage came to Lowry Landfill in 1964; over the next 16 years the city would accept for disposal 150 million gallons of liquid waste from most major industries in the area.

Back then, disposal wasn't a sophisticated process. Earthmovers dug pits, some as big as a football field and 30 feet deep. Liquid industrial waste was poured into these dirt-bottom holes, and household trash was piled on top. As a trench was filled and covered with dirt, a new one was dug alongside.

By the late 1970s, public pressure was building to close Lowry Landfill. The suburb of Aurora, once a sleepy farm town, had undulated east toward the bombing range. Playgrounds and front yards were still several miles away, but residents were beginning to complain of odor and truck traffic. Denver shut down the landfill in 1980 - the same year the federal Superfund program began to identify the nation's toxic hot spots.

EPA knew from the start that Lowry was a likely Superfund candidate: Wastes dumped there had included DDT, asbestos, solvents, petroleum products, and dioxin - one of the worst toxic stews of the Industrial Age.

But then came surprise readings of radioactivity in the Lowry groundwater. Not one of the 266 companies and agencies tagged as Lowry Landfill polluters could account for that - leading some government officials to revisit Wilson's old claims.

As it turns out, Wilson wasn't the only one who saw silver tanker trucks out near the bombing range. Mary Ulmer, whose family had homesteaded on the rough prairie near the base for four generations, says, "It had been going on as long as anyone could remember. People saw enough of it that they didn't ask any questions."

Mrs. Ulmer is the daughter and granddaughter of Colorado farmers, and she's raising seven children to value the down-to-earth farm traditions. With plain-spoken candor, she tells of a day in 1980 when her curiosity about the trucks got the better of her.

"I pulled off [Highway 30] and waited until [a truck] came along," says Mrs. Ulmer, who now leads FES UP, a group fighting the Lowry cleanup plan. Before long, a truck approached, and she took out her camera and snapped a few frames.

The next thing she knew, the truck, which bore no license plate, had braked to a stop, and the driver was striding toward her. "He was a huge man, wearing a white T-shirt, with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve," she recalls with vivid detail. "He said, 'I want the camera.' I was terrified. I gave him the camera."

EPA added Lowry Landfill to the Superfund list of toxic messes in 1984. Any firm or agency that sent waste to the dump was obligated to help pay for cleanup.

Ironically, the EPA itself is among the 266 named polluters, having used Lowry to dispose of pesticides, among other things. So, too, is the city of Denver and Metro Wastewater, the regional sewage- treatment authority that dumped sludge at Lowry. Consistently absent from the list of polluters - despite Wilson's allegations and readings of plutonium in Lowry groundwater - is the US DOE, owner of Rocky Flats and overseer of the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Plutonium turnabout

It was 1985, and John Haggard was puzzling over new water samples from Lowry that tested positive for radioactivity.

Mr. Haggard was EPA's site manager at Lowry back then, and he took steps to unravel the mystery, including a face-to-face interview with Wilson.

In an internal memo Haggard wrote: "Since we have found elevated radiation levels at Lowry, I am concerned [Wilson] may be right with respect to disposal."

Haggard, who now works at General Electric in Albany, N.Y., says he took Wilson seriously. "He raised some issues that clearly had to be evaluated," he says.

The EPA hired CH2M HILL, a Denver-based international engineering firm, to test for contaminants in Lowry groundwater. The company took groundwater samples from 1985 through 1988. By then, Haggard had reported to area newspapers: "What's surprising is not just the levels [of radiation] we found, but its widespread nature. It's everywhere, all over the site."

While the tests found radioactivity in Lowry groundwater, they did not identify its source. Wilson's allegations were just one explanation. Among other unanswered questions: Was the radioactivity naturally occurring, like uranium? Or was it man-made, like plutonium? More tests were needed.

Next, the Lowry polluters commissioned their own study in 1989. That three-year report by the engineering firm Harding Lawson and Associates (HLA) concluded that the radioactivity was indeed man-made, coming from weapons-grade plutonium and other nuclear materials. It also found that Lowry concentrations of plutonium and associated isotopes were as much as 10,000 times higher than "background" (the concentration of plutonium that is present naturally).

The 35-page HLA report stated, "The occurrences of man-made radionuclides at Lowry Landfill cannot be attributed to background levels, but are most likely associated with disposal of nuclear weapons manufacturing wastes at or near [the] landfill." If true, that conclusion would likely have shifted the bulk of the cleanup cost to the federal government.

By 1992, EPA officials were publicly suggesting that the DOE might be responsible for nuclear contamination at the landfill. "If we do have man-made radionuclides at Lowry, then Rocky Flats would be the first place we'd look," Gwen Hooten, a subsequent Lowry site manager for EPA, told a local newspaper.

Certainly, other events at the time did nothing to dispel those suspicions. Rocky Flats had been shut down in 1989, after an FBI raid there uncovered evidence of environmental crimes. A federal grand jury concluded in 1992 that the DOE and its contractors had conspired to violate environmental laws "through a variety of continuing acts, including illegal discharge of pollutants, hazardous materials, and radioactive materials." The jurors' report states that: "For 40 years, federal, Colorado, and local regulators have been unable to make DOE and the corporate operators of the [Rocky Flats] plant obey the law." The report, however, said nothing specifically about dumping at Lowry.

Despite the two groundwater studies and the alleged problems at Rocky Flats, the EPA would soon change its position about radioactivity at Lowry Landfill. Within a year, the agency would no longer implicate the DOE facility. Instead, officials began to attribute plutonium detections to "global fallout" - the layer of radioactive dust that has settled unevenly upon the earth since the advent of the Atomic Age and nuclear-weapons production.

Marc Herman, EPA's current Lowry manager, says the agency shifted positions when follow-up testing failed to verify the original high plutonium readings. He acknowledges that the degree of plutonium contamination at Lowry remains "a gray area." But he adds: "What we do know is that the concentrations of plutonium are extremely low, and that's all we need to know to move forward."

The EPA's shift also came at a time of a major policy change on the use of sewage sludge. In 1993, EPA for the first time allowed sludge to be spread on farmland. That change expanded the Lowry cleanup options, opening the way for the toxic groundwater to be mixed, or diluted, with municipal wastewater. That remedy would also be exponentially cheaper for the polluters, provided the residual sludge didn't contain illegal levels of contaminants - or unacceptable levels of radioactivity.

But there was still the matter of the Wilson allegations. They appear to have been resolved during a face-to-face meeting between US officials and the former patrolman in the early 1990s.

Wilson says now he can't remember when the meeting took place, probably 1991 or 1992. Although he had written letters to state and federal agencies over the years, Wilson at first resisted a meeting, wanting to be left alone. Finally, he agreed to meet with US "intelligence" officials in Denver.

"There was a battery of seven guys interrogating me," Wilson recounts. "They asked me, 'Do you have a reason to gripe with the government?' I said no, and explained that I'd served in the military all my life and that I support the US government. When they realized I was a loyal American, then they understood that we were on the same side. So we shared information and talked about it."

Wilson says he agreed to "shut up about this" because he believes nothing can be done now about radioactivity at Lowry. "They said, 'What can you do?' And I totally agree with that: What can you do? I've got other things in life to do than chase around and be an activist.... I do not want to be anyone's champion any more. I want to stay out of it."

Since then, EPA has released three Lowry reports - all concluding that levels of man-made radioactive materials in Lowry groundwater are no higher than in the general environment, requiring no special treatment.

These reports were prepared by the same consulting firm that did the early ones - CH2M HILL. In addition to its work at Lowry for the EPA, CH2M HILL also works for the DOE - at Rocky Flats. Public records reveal the firm itself recognized a potential conflict of interest between its two clients.

In a letter to EPA dated Feb. 27, 1992, CH2M HILL wrote, "there could be a real or at least publicly perceived conflict of interest if CH2M HILL supports EPA on specific radionuclide issues at Lowry Landfill, while also providing consulting services to the US Department of Energy at the Rocky Flats plant." The letter also noted that if CH2M HILL were to determine that Rocky Flats was not a source of nuclear contamination at Lowry, it could be claimed "that we made that determination to keep from jeopardizing our consulting business with DOE." The EPA maintains it found no conflict of interest in contracting with CH2M HILL.

Bones of contention

On several floors of a glass-and-steel tower on 19th and Champa Streets in Denver are the offices of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Region 8. Here, Marc Herman, EPA's current Lowry manager, takes phone calls from the press and public about the plan. Here he reviews volumes of paperwork about the increasingly controversial Superfund site.

Professional, punctual, organized, Mr. Herman represents just one of several agencies forming a united front for the waste-to-fertilizer recycling plan. The city of Denver, the state health department, Metro Wastewater, the polluters - all now support the proposed remedy for Lowry and say, unequivocally, it is safe.

They all know, too, about Wilson's eyewitness accounts. But US officials say "extensive" records searches at Rocky Flats turned up no evidence to support his claims. There are invoices from a waste hauler, showing that the private-sector operator of Rocky Flats sent more than 200,000 gallons of liquid waste to Lowry. But the nature of this waste was unspecified.

Without any evidence to bear out Wilson's claims, officials have relied on groundwater studies to tell them what's under the landfill. Testing over the course of time, says Herman, did not corroborate the initial high readings for plutonium and other nuclear materials.

"I have no other motivation than to protect the environment. That's my job," he says in defense of the cleanup plan. "Trust me, we have this covered."

Keeping Lowry "covered" is going to be costly. After all the pipes, pumps, and pretreatment systems are in place, the cleanup will cost $94 million over 30 years. That doesn't count some $80 million that various companies and agencies have already spent just getting ready to clean up the site.

But it could have been much worse. If plutonium had been identified as a contaminant of concern at Lowry, experts say, cleanup costs would rise into the billions.

It's the unanswered questions - and perhaps a fundamental lack of faith in government bureaucracies - that nag at critics. They want EPA to reconsider the Lowry remedy, which became final in November, and they are heartened by news that the EPA's inspector general is looking into the Lowry decisionmaking process.

To some degree, they are an eclectic group - student activists, the labor union representing treatment-plant workers, and some farmers. Another critic, who sits on the governing board of Metro, says the cleanup was devised amid many conflicts of interest and "a lot of behind the scenes maneuvering." Metro itself agreed to the plan only after arm-twisting by Denver, charges board member Adrienne Anderson. Together, this loose coalition has succeeded in raising some key concerns about Lowry.

Flawed studies?

Chief among them is whether EPA's studies are flawed. After poring over groundwater readings, EPA has concluded that plutonium detections in Lowry groundwater are not noticeably higher than they are anywhere else.

But some independent scientists say EPA reports have misinterpreted the data, and they question how the research was done. One problem, in particular, is with the wells EPA used to establish background plutonium levels. The trouble, they say, is that these comparison wells are fewer than 100 feet from the landfill. Moreover, the only off-site background wells are in a place already known to be contaminated with radiation: Rocky Flats.

Comparison samples should come from wells known to be free of radioactive contamination, says Niels Schonbeck, a chemist at Metropolitan State College in Denver who has studied plutonium at Rocky Flats for 10 years. "I would make sure I had at least one [comparison] well off the site, in a location with similar geology," he says. "If you're going to choose an outside place, why choose one that is probably contaminated?"

CH2M HILL, EPA's consultant, says engineers had to use available wells. "You can't always find something ideal," says Andrea Aikin, the firm's project manager for Lowry. "It may not be possible to find [a well] in an area where there was no [potentially contaminating] activity."

Adding to critics' concern is that, despite years of work, the agency doesn't know for sure how much plutonium is at the site. Original samples show 14 wells had detections above 15 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) - the EPA's own standard for the maximum amount allowable. (The state of Colorado now sets its standard for plutonium in groundwater at a more stringent 0.15 pCi/L.) Officials say they have reason to believe most of these readings are flukes, but little follow-up sampling was conducted to help settle the issue.

Some nuclear scientists say these detections cast doubt on the EPA's "global fallout" theory of how plutonium came to be at the site. "I am quite confident that plutonium from global fallout would be almost nondetectable [in groundwater]," says Ward Wicker, a radiation ecologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Sludge safety

The waving wheat fields of eastern Colorado aren't the only place where the government is fertilizing farmland with sewage sludge. Use of the sludge-based product has blossomed in the five years since the practice became legal. It's now spread onto farmland from Virginia to Oregon at a rate of 4 million tons a year.

But a backlash persists against this practice, especially in rural America. Moreover, some food processors, including H.J. Heinz Co. and Del Monte, refuse to buy tomatoes, beans, and other fruits and vegetables fertilized with sludge.

Even within the EPA, recycling sewage sludge into fertilizer is controversial. The problem, according to critics, is that any toxins, heavy metals, and sediments in the wastewater stream eventually end up in the sludge. "What they're saying is, you take a hazardous waste, wave a magic wand over it, and it's safe," says William Sanjour, a policy analyst at EPA headquarters in Washington. "EPA essentially [allows] polluters to take anything that is hazardous waste and call it fertilizer."

Metro Wastewater, now solidly behind the plan, is convinced there is no danger. Spokesman Steve Pearlman says the flow from Lowry - the equivalent of an "amount discharged by a garden hose" - is so tiny that it won't degrade the overall quality of Metro's sludge. As an added safeguard, Metro will pay for sludge testing before it spreads the fertilizer on farmland - and the tests will include sampling for plutonium.

None of this consoles FES UP's Ulmer, who now lives in the eastern Colorado town of Bennett. Beginning in 1995, Metro Wastewater bought land in the area so it could spread its fertilizer product there. Now it applies about 20 truckloads a day on this wheat-producing cropland.

Ulmer and others are concerned that Lowry Superfund waste will soon enter the mix - and be applied to Metro farmland for at least 100 years. "They are just creating a 50,000-acre Superfund site in eastern Colorado," says Ulmer, who worries about privately owned land as well as the aquifer underlying the region.

"Allowing this into the food chain is not an acceptable practice," agrees William Thilly of the Center for Environmental Health Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "The basic argument they're using is that if you spread this evenly across the US, the toxicity goes away. We don't know that."

Monitoring

There is, of course, a plan for checking how well the cleanup is working. When the system starts up, various agencies will periodically test Lowry groundwater, sludge, and Metro farmland for contaminants.

But many critics say these agencies should not be in charge of monitoring, because they are also Lowry polluters.

To Metro Wastewater, the biggest concern is whether Lowry groundwater is sufficiently stripped of contaminants to enter the region's sewage-treatment system. As a result, says Mr. Pearlman, the agency will set up a monitoring system out at the Superfund site to "prevent [the water's] discharge to Metro if any dangerous levels of radioactivity are detected."

The coalition of opponents doesn't see how this could be. The plan, they say, calls only for periodic - rather than continuous - monitoring of groundwater quality at the landfill.

"You would expect to see some kind of online, real-time monitoring, where a bell sounds if levels go over standards," says Rick Hillier, an industrial hygienist who is helping the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union assess risks to Metro workers from Lowry waste.

The EPA concedes that millions of gallons of Lowry water could be released into sewer pipes before a high reading on any hazardous material - including plutonium - was detected.

Some workers at Lowry and Metro have expressed concern, too, about the way current monitoring is carried out. They say managers routinely throw out data they don't like, such as high readings of contaminants. "If they get a high reading, they look for anything that could have gone wrong, and they say it did go wrong and don't count the data," says a city employee who monitors the groundwater- treatment system now in place at Lowry. "I suspect they would give it a clean bill of health, no matter what."

Marilyn Ferrari, a lab technician at Metro for 20 years, opted for early retirement last year after hearing about the plan to accept Lowry water. "I became afraid," she says of the prospect that she would be exposed to Superfund contaminants.

Mrs. Ferrari says that, in the past, management has pressured technicians to make the readings look right on paper. "If the numbers came in high, they would say, 'Retest that.' They'd always get a lower number then."

Scientific practice is to retest when readings come in unexpectedly high. If a retest doesn't confirm the first reading, it's assumed that the first test was a false positive, says EPA's Herman.

What next?

For critics, the best hope of stopping the recycling project now rests with the EPA inspector general. If that probe turns up irregularities, the agency may have to modify the plan. A less likely outcome is that opponents will succeed in efforts to persuade the US Justice Department to investigate.

For many, though, the fight goes beyond a single Superfund site in one Western state. They seek not only to halt the Lowry plan, but also to tighten regulations for toxic cleanup in general.

Supporters, however, argue they are complying with the law. "We cannot have our actions ... dictated by those who simply believe the existing standards are inadequate," Metro's Pearlman has said.

For trooper Wilson, whose letters to government agencies weave a ribbon of doubt through Lowry's case history, the issue is largely closed.

"Well, it happened. What can you do?" asks the former patrolman, who now keeps a low profile and is reluctant to speak with the press about his experience. "It's too widely dispersed now. You can't clean it up.... You build highways and houses on top of it. You forget about it."

But that very eventuality - that families will soon live within one mile of Lowry Landfill - is what prompted Wilson to speak out again about what he saw.

The city of Aurora, Colo., has approved a new subdivision just north of the Superfund site. There will be 3,800 homes, a golf course, swimming pool, clubhouse, and park. A creek on the property is downstream from Lowry, and groundwater under the landfill flows toward the development.

"They're building too many houses out there, and people have no idea what's there," Wilson says. "I think it's a good idea to let people know about it."

How Toxic Waste Becomes Fertilizer

1. Toxic groundwater is pumped from beneath Lowry Landfill, and a plant on site removes some of the chemical contaminants. Officials also pledge to test four times a year for plutonium; testing determines if the water should enter the region's sewage system for further treatment.

2. Lowry water is piped to the regional sewage- treatment plant, where it mixes with millions of gallons of household and industrial wastewater.

3. After treatment, all the water is discharged into the South Platte River.

4. Residual solids from the sewage-treatment process, called sludge, are dried and mixed with other organic material to create Metrogro. Critics are concerned that any plutonium in Lowry groundwater will end up here.

5. Thousands of tons of the sludge-based fertilizer are trucked each year past Deer Trail, Colo., where it is spread on farmland. Owned by the sewage-treatment agency, the 52,000-acre property grows wheat sold to granaries worldwide.

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