Friday, February 18, 2000

Here comes the sludge

But officials say Lowry Landfill clean-up plan poses no danger

By BRIAN HANSEN
Colorado Daily Staff Writer

The state of Washington this week blocked a company from selling "fertilizer" containing hazardous wastes derived from nuclear fuel production, but officials here stand ready to implement a plan that critics say effectively authorizes the spreading of plutonium-laced sewage sludge on farm fields in eastern Colorado.

The plan, which could be launched within the next six weeks, authorizes the city of Denver to treat contaminated groundwater from the Lowry Landfill Superfund Site at its York Street municipal sewage treatment plant.

According to the plan, the Lowry groundwater will be incorporated into the plant's sewage sludge, which has for years been sold as a commercial composting and fertilizer product known as "Metrogro." Additionally, the processed sewage sludge -- which industry groups prefer to call "biosolids" -- will be routinely applied to about 52,000 acres of taxpayer-owned farm lands near Dear Trail, Colo.

The practice of using sewage sludge as a "fertilizer" has long been controversial, since such "products" have been found to contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorinated pesticides, heavy metals and tens of thousands of other toxic substances.

But critics are particularly alarmed with Denver's plan, since the permit governing the flow of groundwater from the Lowry Superfund Site authorizes the municipal sewage treatment plant to accept wastewater containing specified amounts of plutonium, Americium, strontium and other radionuclides.

"We believe that we have the only case in the United States where a sewage treatment authority has approved a permit for the release of plutonium, depleted uranium and other nuclear wastes ... to become incorporated into sewage sludge 'fertilizer' for ... unsuspecting farmers and home gardeners," said Denver resident Adrienne Anderson. "Our investigation of this case over the last four years concludes that this is a staggering state and federal cover-up of an illegal ... nuclear waste dumpsite that federal officials wish to ignore."

There are, in fact, scores of documents -- and at least one eyewitness -- that declare that nuclear wastes from Rocky Flats were illegally dumped at the Lowry Landfill prior to its being shut down in 1980. But federal officials downplay the documents, saying they were either flawed scientifically or drafted by companies in desperate attempt to force the U.S. Department of Energy to contribute to the landfill's clean-up costs, or both.

Nevertheless, despite what may or may not have been dumped at Lowry, the sewage sludge-based "fertilizer" produced by the Denver plant will not pose any public health risks, said plant spokesman Steve Pearlman.

"We have a program in place to have our biosolids monitored for radioactivity on a regular, ongoing basis by the United States Geological Survey," Pearlman said. "The biosolids -- whether they're in the bag or on the fields -- will meet every standard set for them by the federal and state government."

Pearlman said that the radionuclide discharge limits were written into in the Lowry permit as a precautionary measure, and that they should certainly not be construed as "evidence" that the landfill contains higher-than-background amounts of radioactive materials. And as long as the permit levels are adhered to, Pearlman said, the Superfund Site groundwater will have virtually no effect on the plant's sewage sludge-based fertilizer, which he said was "perfectly safe" if used as directed.

"We did the prudent thing by any stretch of the imagination," Pearlman said. "The way we meant the limits in the permit was to say, if there was radioactivity out there, this is all (Lowry is) allowed to discharge to us."

Critics aren't convinced. They argue that there is no safe level of plutonium -- and certainly when it has the potential to be incorporated into a product sold as fertilizer.

Moreover, the thousands of documents that the Environmental Protection Agency refuses to make public on the Lowry case is indicative of a cover-up, critics say.

Pearlman denies the charge, but he said he can't talk about the deals that were cut between the city of Denver and the scores of companies that the EPA identified as "potentially responsible parties" for the Lowry clean-up.

"There's no cover-up, but I cannot discuss the financial arrangements because I would be in contempt of court to do so," Pearlman said.

Pearlman said the EPA-backed plan to pump the Lowry groundwater to Denver's York Street plant could begin as early as next month. For more information on the plan, see the plant's Web site at www.metrowastewater.com.