February 25, 2000

Secret files to be opened
EPA to ‘reclassify’ superfund files

By BRIAN HANSEN
Colorado Daily Staff Writer

Chastised by a U.S. Senator over its handling of the Shattuck Superfund site in southwest Denver, the local office of the Environmental Protection Agency this week pledged to open more of its confidential files to the public.

Sonya Pennock, the interim ombudsman for the Denver-based office of the EPA, said that the fallout from the Shattuck experience has taught the federal agency some tough lessons.

"We have learned some things with regard to privileged documents," Pennock said. "What we're trying to do now is reexamine the way we handle those things."

Pennock said that federal officials are in the process of pouring over the untold number of "privileged" records pertaining to Colorado Superfund sites that the EPA currently has in its files. Classified documents that do not disclose certain types of information -- such as business secrets or pending litigation matters -- might eventually be made available to the public, Pennock said.

"It's a very resource-intensive thing to do, but it's something we learned from the Shattuck experience," Pennock said. "We learned that maybe we need to reprioritize where we put our resources."

The EPA's pledge to declassify a portion of its secret documents comes in the wake of a scathing indictment leveled by Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard, who, in a Feb. 2 letter, characterized the EPA's actions in the Shattuck case as a "myriad of collusion, cover-ups, lies, half-truths and misrepresentations."

According to Allard, the Shattuck saga consisted of "seven years of EPA stonewalling" that only ended with the intervention of national ombudsman Robert Martin, whose independent office has the authority to investigate complaints about government officials and administrative actions.

"In early 1999, (Martin's) office began the investigation and quickly determined that the claims made by (Shattuck area) residents were not only meritorious, but that EPA officials had engaged in an effort to keep documents hidden from the public, thereby placing their health in danger," wrote Allard in the Feb. 2 letter to his Senate colleagues.

Pennock said that many documents in the Shattuck administrative record remained secret not because of their substantive content, but because of "bureaucratic priorities" at the EPA.

"What we learned in this Shattuck experience is that people would request the (document) index, and they would see this list of privileged materials," Pennock said. "They would then assume that they could never get (those privileged documents) -- and therefore they felt that we were hiding things from them."

That charge -- which was verifiably borne out by Martin in the Shattuck case -- has also dogged the EPA in its handling of the Lowry Landfill Superfund Site in Aurora, Pennock acknowledged.

"I understand there are a great many privileged documents in the Lowry file, and it is one of the sites where we're going through the reclassification process right now," Pennock said. "It will take some time with that many documents, but we are trying to be proactive about it."

As of October 1999, there were 9,058 "privileged" documents in the EPA's Lowry Landfill file. Twelve of these documents -- including document number 527778, titled "Lowry Landfill: transuranics in groundwater" -- are also classified as "exempt" from the Freedom of Information Act.

Secret documents such as that one alarm critics, who note that the EPA-backed clean-up plan for the Lowry site calls for the landfill's groundwater to be pumped, via public sewer line, to a municipal sewage treatment plant in Denver. There, the Lowry groundwater will be conventionally treated, discharged into the South Platte River, and incorporated into sewage sludge that will be used to "fertilize" crops in eastern Colorado.

EPA officials acknowledge that materials from the (now former) Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant were dumped at Lowry, but they steadfastly deny that plutonium contaminants or other radioactive wastes were discharged there.

Critics, though, aren't convinced. The EPA's own index of secret Lowry documents, they say, indicates a cover-up far more sinister and egregious than the one that Martin eventually exposed at the Shattuck site. Central to that charge are a number of "privileged" records from the EPA's Lowry file, which the agency identifies only by document number, title, author, recipient, and, sometimes, date.

These documents include:

  • Number 213358: "Result of interview on Lowry radioactive dumping";

  • Number 237089: "Volumetric contribution of wastes sent from Rocky Flats to Lowry Landfill Superfund Site by Dow Chemical Company";

  • Number 537779: "Plutonium transfer -- fertilizer/soil to root update";

  • Number 537778: "Risk decision basis to not treat for radionuclides reduction";

  • Number 221979: "Note saying U.S. Attorney's Office thinks the boxes should not be made public."

Pennock said she wasn't sure if the EPA would release such documents to the public. Gwen Hooten, the EPA's project manager for the Lowry site, failed to return numerous phone calls to the Colorado Daily by press time Thursday.

Martin's investigation of the Shattuck site is continuing, and Congressional hearings on the matter may be conducted this spring. The Lowry Landfill clean-up plan is proceeding as scheduled.