Tuesday, November 16, 1999

Students, feds clash over EPA clean-up

Documents suggest conflict of interest in Lowry case

By BRIAN HANSEN

Colorado Daily Staff Writer

CU instructor Adrienne Anderson and her muckraking students clashed with federal officials once again last week over the Environmental Protection Agency's industry-backed plan to remediate Denver's Lowry Landfill, one of the most polluted Superfund sites in the country.

The spirited and sometimes heated exchange, which took place Thursday in Anderson's environmental ethics class, this time focused on the role that U.S. Department of Energy contractor CH2MHill played in the EPA's controversial scheme to clean up the 480-acre landfill, which until the 1980 was used as a hazardous-waste dump by hundreds of Colorado companies and government entities.

Tim Rehder, the EPA's site manager for the (now former) Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, on Thursday accused Anderson of fabricating wild and unsubstantiated stories that notable DOE contractor CH2MHill at one time conducted studies which found evidence of plutonium and other radionuclides associated with nuclear weapons production in Lowry's waste pits and groundwater.

Rehder, who in 1996 issued a press release in which he categorically denied that plutonium and other Rocky Flats nuclear wastes had been disposed of at Lowry, blasted Anderson for suggesting that the EPA's current position regarding the landfill had at one point been undermined by a laboratory report issued by one of the DOE's biggest contractors.

"I don't think it exists," Rehder said of the CH2MHill report alluded to by Anderson. "I think she's making this up."

Anderson's students -- many of whom have spent myriad hours in the EPA's public records room researching the Lowry matter -- gasped at Rehder's remark.

"We all have copies of that information -- how come we know this and you guys don't?" one of Anderson's students shouted over the ensuing din. "That's why there's a question of (EPA) credibility -- we all have copies of this."

Anderson then produced a document from her briefcase and turned towards Rehder.

"I got this from your files -- administrative record document number 291359," Anderson said, waving a CH2MHill memo addressed to the EPA in her hand. "The Rocky Flats contractor (CH2MHill) is also working for the EPA in determining who the liable parties is for the plutonium at Lowry Landfill ... and you're not aware of this?"

Anderson produced two CH2MHill documents that addressed the issue at hand. In a Feb. 27, 1992 memo, CH2MHill engineer Gary Hermann articulated to the EPA the company's concerns regarding its participation in studies that might ultimately suggest that nuclear waste from Rocky Flats was illegally disposed of at the Lowry Landfill.

"We believe that there could be a real or at least publicly perceived conflict of interest if CH2MHill supports EPA on specific radionuclide issues at Lowry Landfill, while also providing consulting services to the DOE at the Rocky Flats Plant," Hermann wrote. "For example, if CH2MHill was to determine that the Rocky Flats Plant is not a source of radionuclide contamination (at Lowry Landfill), then it could be claimed by the public and other (potentially responsible parties) that we made this determination to keep from jeopardizing our consulting business with DOE."

Hermann, curiously, was relieved of his Lowry-related duties on the very day he composed that memo, according to other documents Anderson and her students located in the EPA's administrative record.

The EPA, however, ignored Hermann's recommendations and kept CH2MHill on the project. And while CH2MHill ultimately did acknowledge that plutonium and other radionuclides were present at Lowry, the DOE-funded Rocky Flats contractor attributed their existence to "cosmic radiation" and atmospheric fallout from decades of nuclear weapons testing.

For Anderson, the Lowry matter at its core is a massive cover-up, in which one branch of the federal government -- the EPA -- is attempting to conceal the illegal activities of another -- the DOE.

"How convenient," Anderson said sarcastically. "Rocky Flats contractor CH2MHill puts out the report saying that the plutonium at Lowry Landfill didn't come from Rocky Flats -- it's cosmic dust that fell from the sky."

Marc Herman, the current EPA project manager responsible for the Lowry site, came to the aid of his colleague Rehder.

"We evaluated that (Feb. 27, 1992) letter, and since EPA makes the decisions and CH2MHill merely evaluates the data in accordance with proper procedures, we concluded that there was no conflict of interest," Herman said. "All the information we've collected shows that there is no plutonium contamination other than what you would expect anywhere else at Lowry."

The EPA plan to remediate the site calls for Lowry groundwater to be pumped -- via public sewer line -- to a conventional sewage treatment plant located in Denver. After being treated at the plant, the majority of the Superfund Site waste water will discharged into the South Platte River. A smaller portion of the Lowry water will be diverted to another facility, after which it will be used to irrigate public parks and golf courses. The Lowry effluent will also be used to "fertilize" food crops grown in eastern Colorado.

"Great -- we'll be using nuclear wastes from a Superfund site to fertilize crops grown for human consumption," Anderson has said.

Herman suggested that the pollutants contained in the Lowry effluent -- including ambient levels of radionuclides -- will pose no threat to human health, because they will be so diluted when they are ultimately discharged.

"By the time the 14,000 gallons of Lowry water (discharged from the site per day) mix with the 150 million gallons of other wastewater in the Denver metro area, basically, any contaminants that are present in the Lowry water will be almost undetectable," Herman said. "We got it covered -- I think we've got it covered."

The Lowry Superfund Site groundwater is expected to begin flowing towards the Denver-area sewage treatment plants in February or March.