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Plutonium Pancakes.

Fifteen miles from downtown Denver is the sprawling 480-acre site known as the former Lowry Landfill. Between 1950 and 1980, millions of gallons of hazardous industrial wastes were pumped into shallow, unlined pits by the region's powerful corporate and governmental entities.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the Lowry Landfill a Superfund site in 1984. Now the EPA wants to treat the contaminated groundwater at the landfill and discharge it into the Denver metro sewage system. The sewage system could then use the sludge from the treated water to fertilize Colorado farmlands.

Citizens' groups are not happy about that. They say the landfill is widely contaminated with highly radioactive plutonium and other deadly wastes. "This is a plan to legally pump plutonium into the sewer line," says Adrienne Anderson, a lawyer and an instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Plutonium is one of the most deadly substances on the planet. A speck, when deposited in the lung, can cause cancer.

Anderson and her students have been digging for the past several years into the vast files amassed by the EPA on the Lowry site. Anderson estimates that she and her students have examined 200,000 documents. In the process, they have uncovered the "smoking gun," she claims. The document, dated December 13, 1991, is entitled "Preliminary Evaluation of Potential Department of Energy Radioactive Wastes." It found that the levels of plutonium and radioactive americium "detected at Lowry Landfill are 10 to 10,000 times greater than the average or maximum background levels reported for Rocky Flats," the notorious nuclear weapons plant near Boulder. This was not a document submitted by some citizens' group. It was hand-delivered in 1991 to the EPA from the Lowry Coalition, the group of corporate and governmental polluters of the site.

These polluters include political heavyweights like Adolph Coors (which once produced nuclear fuel assemblies), Lockheed Martin, the region's two biggest newspapers--the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, Rockwell (the operator of the U.S. Department of Energy's Rocky Flats bomb plant), Conoco, Hewlett Packard, IBM, and Waste Management. Government agencies on the list include the city and county of Denver, the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, and even the EPA, which disposed of pesticides and other lab wastes at the site.

Gwen Hooten, at EPA's Region 8 office in Denver, is in charge of the Lowry cleanup. She and other EPA officials adamantly deny that the site is poisoned by plutonium or other nuclear wastes. "What we have primarily at this site is chemical soup," says Hooten. She dismisses the 1991 document as "unvalidated data." In 1997, the agency released a report by the Denver-based consulting firm CH2M Hill that concluded: "None of these radionuclides could be confirmed present in ground water beneath the site."

The report is largely a reinterpretation of the field data and lab tests gathered between 1987 and 1991. "We did reanalysis," says Hooten. "We reran them in the lab and we got very different results."

Hooten says the EPA told the Lowry Coalition of polluters that "they were premature in their conclusions" about the 1991 document. "Folks want to hang onto this and look at it in a vacuum," she says. EPA'S cleanup plan, she adds, is simply "a target for an activist group looking for a problem."

Critics aren't buying it. Anderson says that the lab operators that did the original testing have "not recanted their analysis. They have never said the plutonium levels were in error. This is in hundreds of samples across the entire site."

Anecdotal evidence suggests that nuclear dumping may have been going on at Lowry.

In 1961, Colorado State Trooper Bill Wilson stopped a milk truck that was spraying liquid on the ground at Lowry. According to Wilson, the truck's operator told him he was dumping radioactive wastewater from the Rocky Flats plant and had the government's permission to do it. Wilson realized he couldn't do anything about it. But he did file reports on identical activities he witnessed for several more years with the state's transportation regulator.

Mary Ulmer grew up next to the Lowry site and still lives nearby. She recalls regular visits to the site by anonymous stainless steel tanker trucks. "It was very common knowledge," she remembers. "The neighbors would just laugh and say, `Oh yeah, they have milk trucks that dump milk out there in the middle of the night.'"

She's now convinced the trucks were spraying radioactive wastes onto the land. "If we could have put the pieces to the puzzle together, it would be so different now," Ulmer says.

Don Holmstrom is a lawyer and the former president of the union that represents the lab workers in Denver's Metro Wastewater Reclamation District (Local 5-477 of the Paper, Allied Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers). He says he's seen records for some waste shipments by Rockwell International to Lowry.

Anderson, who served for a brief period of time on the District's board of directors as a representative for the union, alerted the workers to EPA's plan to pipe wastewater from Lowry into Denver's sewage system. "We felt especially concerned given the fact that this could not only affect Our workers but would impact the community," says Holmstrom.

But it's not just Denver's community that could be affected. In 1993, the EPA reclassified municipal sludge and began promoting it as a fertilizer for farmers. If plutonium enters Denver's wastewater system, and if the sludge from that wastewater is then used as fertilizer, Colorado could begin to produce radioactive crops.

That doesn't sit well with John Price. He lives in the small rural community of Deer Trail, sixty miles east of Denver. This is where the Wastewater Reclamation District has purchased 50,000 acres of farmland and is already spreading its municipal sludge (or biosolids, as they are called). Wheat, for human consumption, is grown on the land and sold to Cargill, the giant grain company. Price and his family own 18,000 acres, and their land borders the sludge site. "I don't trust biosolids," Price says. "People around here are very much opposed to this. Do you want plutonium in your pancakes?"

Any plutonium, heavy metals, and other toxic wastes remaining in the treated wastewater piped from Lowry will likely settle into the Denver sewage system's sludge. Steve Pearlman, the Wastewater Reclamation District's director of regulation, is not overly concerned. "There is no credible evidence that there is plutonium at Lowry," he says. He adds that the Lowry wastewater will comprise just one-ten-thousandth of the system's daily flow, although it will drain into the system for at least the next thirty years.

The treatment systems in place at Lowry, Hooten explains, will neutralize some of the chemicals and remove a variety of materials from the tainted ground water, such as iron, calcium, and magnesium. A monitoring system is also in place to detect radiation, should any appear, she says, adding: "We will be sending water of better quality to the metro sewage system than household waste."

Anderson remains unswayed by such assurances. She notes that the only permit needed by the district allows it to receive wastewater from Lowry containing plutonium at levels 150 times greater than state drinking water standards. The Wastewater Reclamation District has no radiation detection equipment of its own, and key tests at the Lowry site will occur only on a quarterly basis, she contends. "Millions of gallons could go out between tests," Anderson says.

Besides plutonium, the district's permit lists fourteen radioactive materials and fifty-four potentially harmful chemicals and metals (such as mercury, cadmium, dioxin, arsenic, and PCBs) that will be accepted up to designated levels.

Anderson says plutonium-laced wastewater from the Lowry site could start flowing into Denver's sewer lines within a matter of months. "The deal is just to flush it away," she says.

Citizen concerns have caught the attention of senior EPA officials. The agency's inspector general, after receiving a petition bearing 7,000 signatures, has initiated an investigation of Region 8's cleanup activities at Lowry.

Hugh Kaufman is EPA'S principal investigator in the Office of Solid Waste. He acknowledges that the "regional office's statements are conflicting" on the matter of radiation levels at Lowry. "The big issue right now," says Kaufman, "is how contaminated that sludge will be."

Will Fantle is a freelance writer in Eau, Claire, Wisconsin.
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Title Annotation:controversy over Colorado plan to sewage sludge that may be radioactive as fertilizer
Author:Fantle, Will
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1U8CO
Date:May 1, 2000
Previous Article:Barred for Life.
Next Article:Ani DiFranco.

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