Tuesday, May 02, 2000

Lowry case heads to court
Former state trooper offers to testify about plutonium dumping at site

Colorado Daily Staff Writer

A former Colorado state patrolman who claims he witnessed radioactive wastes from Rocky Flats being dumped at Denver’s Lowry Landfill decades ago has resurfaced, and has offered to testify about his experiences next week in Denver District Court.

William Wilson, whose extraordinary allegations have raised troubling questions about the Environmental Protection Agency’s impending plan to clean up the Lowry Landfill Superfund site, last week offered to serve as a "voluntary information source" in a Lowry-related court proceeding slated for May 9.

"(My) testimony will be strictly limited to truck sightings, roadside advisory notices given, information gathered from milk truck transports, and air-ground surveillance undertaken due to possible purported hazardous materials observed," Wilson wrote in an April 25 letter addressed to the court.

Wilson has long maintained that beginning in 1961 — nearly a decade before the EPA was created — he routinely observed stainless-steel milk trucks discharging radioactive wastes into abandoned missile silos and ditches at the U.S. Air Force’s Lowry Bombing Range.

Wilson, who pulled over several of the trucks, said that he was stunned when the drivers told him what they were doing. But other than report what he observed to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, there was little that he could do during that pre-EPA era, Wilson has said.

"These things happened, it’s true," Wilson told the Christian Science Monitor in 1998. "At the time, they thought it was safe. There was no one to report it back then; I was the authority. The only thing we had was the courts, and there were no laws against it (back then)."

Officials from the EPA, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have long dismissed the substance of Wilson’s allegations. Federal officials have in recent years gone even further, publicly asserting that the former state trooper has been institutionalized or has died.

But with the EPA poised to begin pumping contaminated Lowry groundwater into Denver’s public sewer system, Wilson’s allegations are once again fueling a firestorm that is expected to erupt in a Denver courtroom next week.

That firestorm was touched off on April 14, when a group of Coloradans filed an injunction to stop the contaminated Lowry groundwater from being pumped to the Denver Metro Wastewater Reclamation District’s York Street sewage treatment facility. There, according to the EPA-backed plan, the Superfund site groundwater will be treated by conventional means and discharged into the South Platte River, where it will be later intercepted and used to irrigate public parks and golf courses. The Lowry groundwater will also be incorporated into the sewage sludge produced by Metro, which is used to "fertilize" crops grown on taxpayer-owned lands in eastern Colorado.

The land application of sewage sludge — or "biosolids," as the waste management industry prefers to call the substance — became a common practice after Congress banned ocean dumping of the material in the late 1980s. Disposing of sewage sludge by marketing it as fertilizer — which is far cheaper than landfilling or incinerating the material — has been aggressively promoted by the EPA, which claims that the practice is safe.

Others aren’t so sure. Critics — including EPA scientists — have expressed grave concerns about the effects that contaminants concentrated in the sludge have on humans and animals. Private citizens who live in areas where sludge is applied have also raised concerns about the practice.

Many of those concerns were validated in a recent report issued by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General, the agency’s independent investigatory division.

"EPA does not have an effective program for ensuring compliance with the land application requirements of part 503 (of the Clean Water Act)," stated the March 20 OIG report. "Accordingly, while EPA cannot assure the public that current land-application practices are protective of human health and the environment."

The sewage sludge that will be generated from the Lowry effluent is even more problematic, since scores of tests — including some conducted by EPA and DOE-certified laboratories — concluded that the landfill’s groundwater is contaminated with high levels of plutonium and other radioactive wastes.

The EPA initially supported that conclusion, publicly suggesting that the DOE might be responsible for the radioactive contamination at the site. But the agency abruptly changed its tune in 1994, after it absolved the DOE and its Rocky Flats contractor — who were both "potentially responsible parties" to the Lowry Landfill — of any future clean-up responsibilities.

EPA officials now maintain that there is no radioactive material at Lowry beyond the normal "background" levels that would be expected from decades of nuclear weapons testing.

Still, scores of documents from EPA’s own files — some of which were recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act — suggest otherwise. Among them:

• Document No. 293424. This two-page document, written by EPA Lowry project manager Gwen Hooten on July 25, 1991, states, in part, "Talk to Rocky Flats about removal of Pu (plutonium) 239."

• Document No. 213191. This three-page document, written by Robert D. Siek of the Colorado Health Department on July 13, 1977, describes the procedures by which the "Colorado Nuclear Disposal Co." will "dispose of radioactive material at the Denver/Lowry Landfill."

• Document No. 213358. This two-page document, written by EPA official John Haggard on Nov. 3, 1988, describes Haggard’s face-to-face interview with (then former) state patrolman William Wilson.

"Since we have found elevated radiation levels at Lowry, I am concerned that he (Wilson) might be right with respect to disposal," Haggard wrote.

It was unclear at press time if Wilson was going to carry through with his April 25 offer to testify at next week’s Lowry injunction hearing. Wilson, who is upset over the EPA’s allegations that he has been confined to a mental institution, has asked the court for a "protective subpoena" to prevent "witness intimidation."

The injunction hearing on the Lowry Landfill clean-up plan is slated for May 9 and 10 at 8:30 a.m, in Courtroom 6 of Denver District Court.