THE Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a foremost participant in the Superfund program, is the target of a $2 billion federal cleanup and the focus of a debate about the safety of destroying toxic chemical wastes through incineration.
One of the most toxic sites in America, the Army-run arsenal is also - in a touch of irony - one of the newest urban wildlife refuges in the United States. As a topper, it is destined to become a national wildlife refuge when the cleanup is completed, many years from now.
The 17,000-acre arsenal, commissioned in 1942, is nine miles northeast of downtown Denver. It sits right next to the new Denver International Airport, scheduled to open in December.
The US Army produced a variety of chemical weapons here, and Shell Chemical Company, a division of Shell Oil Company, manufactured pesticides here from 1952 to 1982. An arsenal spokesman says that wastes were disposed of "using widely accepted practices of the time. Contamination occurred from burying toxic waste and using evaporative basins for disposal of hazardous liquid wastes."
On Jan. 12 the Army unveiled the Submerged Quench Incinerator (SQI), its $22 million answer to dealing with 10.5 million gallons of extremely toxic chemical wastes - the remnants of 240 million gallons of waste once held in the locally famous Basin F. The residual waste is now stored in three tanks and a double-lined covered pond.
The Army and its cleanup partners - Shell Oil, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Colorado Health Department - say that more than 40 separate technologies were reviewed before SQI was settled on. "Tests using actual Basin F liquid showed that the submerged quench incineration was at least 99.99 percent effective in destroying the organics," an arsenal official says.
The Army says that Basin F liquid "cannot be stored indefinitely" because of its corrosive nature and must be destroyed.
Army safety assurances have not convinced neighbors and environmentalists, though, who recall the dredging of Basin F in 1988. About 100 residents of the Irondale Mobile Home Park just northwest of the arsenal began experiencing serious health problems when arsenal personnel wearing moon suits began dredging the toxic basin.
An Irondale resident who asked not to be identified said he had been in the area since the excavation of Basin F and continues to have bad headaches. "When the wind is blowing from the arsenal," he said, "the air smells like dead blood."
Basin F contains dieldrin, aldrin, mercury, lead, arsenic, DDT, DIMPD (diisopropyl methylphosphonate), benzene, chloroform, endrin, beryllium, and parathion. An arsenal spokesman acknowledges that "a small trace amount of metals will be in the emissions," but "most of the metals will be captured from the exhaust by two air-scrubbing systems. These metals will be recovered and recycled."
Officials say that after extensive testing and a trial burn, they expect to begin operating the incinerator in May. They estimate that it will take from two to two-and-a-half years of round-the-clock burning to destroy the waste.
Adrienne Anderson, former Western states director for the National Toxics Campaign, says toxic gas clouds escaped during the 1988 dredging, causing months of health problems for Irondale residents. She began organizing residents at the invitation of one woman. "She and her daughter were very ill," Ms. Anderson recalled. "I became very ill myself. The Health Department and media people would become very ill when they would go out there.... I assisted them in evacuating the area because of the fumes. It wa s a very obvious serious public-health threat. Deadly pesticides, including dieldrin and aldrin, which had been banned by the EPA in the '70s, were wafting across the road and into people's yards."
Arsenal spokesman Bill Thomas was quoted Jan. 5, 1989, as saying, "There are no data at this time to indicate that there is a link between short-term discomfort such as a headache, and any long-term health risks.... If there were, we'd close this operation in a second."
About 100 residents of the trailer park and surrounding area filed suit against the Army and Shell, however, alleging personal injury and property damage from the cleanup of Basin F. According to Ms. Anderson, the plaintiffs allege that "Shell and the Army sickened all these residents and greatly increased the risk of their contracting cancer or other serious diseases down the road." The courts have dropped the Army from the suit. A hearing on the suit against Shell Oil has been set in US District Court in Denver for April.
Celia VanDerLoop, an environmental engineer for the Colorado Health Department, is the state's acknowledged incinerator expert. She says that "people always compare woodburning with the incinerator, but this is much more efficient than even the most efficient woodburning stove."
Jeff Edson, the Colorado Health Department's arsenal-project manager, points out that, although the state is now cooperating with the incineration project, it also remains involved in a complex court battle against the federal government, based on the Army's decision to transfer liquids out of Basin F in 1988.
Noting that one of the three holding tanks has now breached its inner liner, Mr. Edson explained the state's position: "We chose to side with human health and sign into a four-party agreement with the EPA, the Army, and Shell that gave us a much more active role for the Basin F liquid than we have on the rest of the arsenal. As long as this incinerator is operated according to the design specifications and the parameters that are defined in the trial burn, we feel comfortable that the emissions that come
out of that stack will not pose a significant risk to any person living adjacent to the arsenal."
Midge Pierce, a Denver homemaker, helped organize a December demonstration against the Army's plans to burn the chemicals. "No matter how insignificant the Army says [the risk] is, it seems to fly in the face of other clean-air measures," she says.
Ms. Pierce says she wants to raise some questions about the cleanup. "The residents of Denver need to know more about this incinerator before it goes on line and they need to hear from scientists who are opposed to it and those who think that it is the best alternative."
A public forum was held in Denver Jan. 25 to hear about the incinerator. One opponent, the Rev. Charles Nelms, an African-American physicist and minister from Montbello, a Denver suburb south of the arsenal, condemned the incinerator.
Phil Hufford, a member of Denver Region Greens, a local environment group, says, "The Army and Shell Oil have chosen the cheapest form of dealing with the Basin F liquids, but the full price will be paid at a cost of human suffering...."
The arsenal's position is that "there are no health risks" from the incinerator. A study by the Human Health Risk Assessment determined that the incinerator at the arsenal could add between zero and one additional case of cancer if 20 million people were exposed. The EPA considers the risk to be negligible if there is "less than 1 in a million additional cancer risks," according to an agency statement.
The federal government also is putting together an extensive cleanup plan for the arsenal, known as the Record of Decision, which is scheduled for release in 1994.