The Longmont Daily Times-Call

Superfund waste scrutinized

Plan to pump sludge into Denver sewer system on hold after group's suit claims waste is radioactive

Greg Campbell
The Daily Times-Call

April 21. 2000

DENVER - A controversial plan to clean up a southeast Denver Superfund site by pumping its hazardous - and possibly radioactive - waste into the municipal sewer system was put on hold last week, when an injunction was granted in Denver District Court on behalf of concerned workers and citizens.

The move prevents the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District from receiving waste streams from the Lowry Landfill Superfund Site pending a hearing on the injunction, which is expected within a few weeks.

The Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, which represents Metro laboratory workers, filed the suit with concerned landowners who live near the site and near city-owned wheat fields where Metro dumps thousands of tons of sewer sludge a year.

Lowry Landfill has been on the federal Superfund list since 1984. A former city dump, Lowry received tons of sewage sludge, old tires and household waste from 1966 to 1980. It was also the depository for a variety of industrial waste from companies such as Coors Brewing Co., Gates Rubber and Conoco.

But most ominously, critics believe the landfill may have also been an illegal dumping site for radioactive waste from Rocky Flats, a U.S. Department of Energy facility that made plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons from 1954 to 1989.

It's a charge that EPA and DOE officials have long denied.

Adrienne Anderson, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a former Metro Wastewater board member, first discovered the Lowry remediation plan when voting to approve outside attorney's fees.

She learned that the fees were in relation to a Lowry cleanup plan that involved building a pipe to carry the site's contaminated ground water into the Denver sewer system. The waste would be treated like normal sewage, with treated water released into the South Platte River, and the remaining sludge - a viscous stew of human excreta, industrial and household waste and, in this case, Superfund waste - would be disposed of as fertilizer on city-owned wheat fields or sold to the public as bagged fertilizer called Metrogro.

What was most disturbing to Anderson was a document she unearthed in the EPA's Superfund library that suggests the Lowry Landfill is dangerously polluted with radioactive waste as well.

In the early 1990s, a group of companies which were identified as potentially responsible parties - or PRPs - for the landfill's contamination hired Harding Lawson Associates to analyze the site's radioactivity.

The group, which called itself the Lowry Coalition, used the resulting document to argue that the Department of Energy and its Rocky Flats contractors should not be considered for de minimis settlement by the EPA, a punishment that equates to a financial slap on the wrist.

The 1991 HLA report shows concentrations of plutonium-239 and plutonium-240 - man-made radionuclides that are used in nuclear weapons production - at concentrations "10 to 10,000 times greater than background levels reported for the Rocky Flats Plant by EG&G," the DOE contractor at the time.

The report also showed elevated levels of americium-241, another radionuclide. These radioactive isotopes were found in shallow and deep groundwater and in testing wells just outside the southern border of the landfill.

It is on this southernmost section of the property that a now-retired Colorado Highway Patrol officer claims to have witnessed illegal nuclear waste dumping in the early 1960s, according to EPA records.

The wells in this area, which are off-site, are also used by the EPA to determine "background" radioactivity, or the amount of radioactivity that can be deemed naturally occurring or resulting from global fallout from weapons testing.

The EPA has long claimed that the amount of radioactivity detected at Lowry has fallen within these background levels and is there fore of no concern. But the HLA report summarized the findings differently: "On the basis of these evaluations, we have concluded that the occurrences of man-made radionuclides at Lowry Landfill cannot be attributed to background levels associated with atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons but are most likely associated with disposal associated with nuclear weapons manufacturing wastes at or near Lowry Landfill."

The EPA disagrees strongly with this view of Lowry contamination.


Nevertheless, a recently issued discharge permit from Metro Wastewater Reclamation District still establishes discharge levels for plutonium, americium, cesium, uranium and a host of other radionuclides associated with nuclear weapons production.

The permits sets a maximum allowable level of plutonium discharge that is twice as high as the limit set by the state for plutonium in drinking water.

As noted on the EPA Web site, the South Platte River is not a drinking water source and therefore isn't held to those lower standards of plutonium contamination.

Gwen Hooten, the EPA's project manager for the site, said that limits on radionuclides were "in direct relationship to the public concern" over radioactivity at the landfill.

She reiterated that she did not believe Lowry was contaminated with significant levels of radionuclides. "We can assure the public that there will be no unsafe levels of plutonium leaving Lowry," she said.

She said that the high levels of plutonium and americium shown in the 1991 HLA report have never been duplicated. She said the data was flawed.

"We had data before then and we have had it after this report and at no other time in the history of this site have we had the levels detected in that report," Hooten said.

Even the report's author, water engineer Paul Rosasco, agrees.

"We went back to the lab and it took about six or seven months, but we discovered that there was a problem with the analysis," he said. "The lab wrote a letter saying that the results were not valid. ... At the time there was a question, but later, the question did not exist. People seem to seize on the fact that we raised the question in the first place."

A coalition of citizens, students and union workers are not swayed by these arguments.

Another document unearthed by Anderson again alludes to radioactive contamination at the landfill.

A 1988 memo from then-site manager John Haggard to EPA colleague Vera Moritz addresses the allegations of former Colorado State Patrolman Bill Wilson, who claimed to have witnessed Boulder milk trucks dumping liquid near the southern border of the landfill. When he asked what was going on, he was told that the waste was from Rocky Flats and was radioactive, according to Haggard's memo.

"Since we had found elevated radiation levels at Lowry, I am concerned that he may be right," Haggard wrote.

"This is not a clean-up plan," said Anderson. "It's a cover up."

Jed Gilman, a PACE union spokesman, said he's concerned about possible radioactive ingredients in the waste stream because Metro lab workers are not qualified to handle radioactive waste, nor is the Metro treatment plant an approved nuclear facility.

Farmers living near Denver's 40,000-acre sludge farm are concerned about airborne radiation, contamination of crops and a live aquifer in the area.

If the Lowry remediation is allowed to proceed, "this plan will be in effect for 30 to 50 years," said Anderson.

"This is a way of redistributing radioactive waste rather than cleaning it up."