DEER TRAIL, Colo. - Crowded into a corrugated-steel firehouse, some 50 farmers and ranchers are talking strategy. They have carved a break from their 16-hour, calving-season workdays to battle a common foe, and it's not a dismal farm economy, nor is it drought.
The people gathered in this town 60
miles east of Denver, are fighting a government plan to transform
hazardous waste into farm fertilizer. The Environmental Protection
Agency says it's a state-of-the-art recycling project, but people
at this meeting say the government is dumping an urban-waste
dilemma onto a powerless rural community.
controversial plan is part of a cleanup strategy for the Lowry
Landfill Superfund Site, a former toxic-waste dump near Denver,
which owns the landfill.
Under the approved
remedy, planned to start in a few months, contaminated Lowry
groundwater will flow into sewer pipes that empty at Denver's Metro
Wastewater sewage-treatment plant. There, Lowry waste will be mixed
with millions of gallons of household and industrial sewage that
pour in daily from around the city. After water is extracted and
discharged into the South Platte River, the remaining sludge will
form the basis of what the sewage industry calls "biosolids." Much
of this foul-smelling, black sludge will be spread as fertilizer at
a 55,000-acre wheat farm near Deer Trail, owned by the Denver
utility. The farm will take 28 trucks of biosolids a
The wastewater plant purchased the farmland
expressly for its biosolids program, an increasingly popular way of
doing away with sewage sludge. The program keeps the sludge out of
landfills and transforms it into something proponents say is
useful. The product is now spread onto American farmland at the
rate of 4 million tons a
Locals who farm and live near Denver
Metro's wheat farm first protested when Metro began trucking sludge
in 1995. When talk arose of adding Superfund waste to the mix, the
protests got louder.
"We sell food to people.
Once it hits the news that we're selling poisoned food, it will
affect our market and our ability to make a living," says John
Metli, who with his wife, Sherry, raises cattle and wheat on 5,500
acres. "We've got to stop this, absolutely."
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency, Lowry Landfill is one of the most polluted sites in the
nation. The 480-acre waste dump, which was shut down in 1980,
served as a repository for some 150 million gallons of industrial
waste over a 20-year period. Some 250 corporations - including
Coors, Shattuck, Syntex, Conoco and Martin Marietta - dumped waste
at the landfill. So did EPA, Metro Wastewater and the city of
In 1996, news spread that radioactive
materials associated with nuclear-weapons manufacturing turned up
at Lowry. This galvanized a growing opposition to the cleanup plan.
A mix of environmentalists, union workers, college students and
farmers is waging a grassroots battle. They have petitioned the EPA
inspector general to scrutinize the cleanup plan, and an
investigation is now pending. Some believe the plan is rooted more
deeply in politics - and cost - than in
"They are trying to convince the public
that this is safe because it's going to be only a small volume
that's released per day," says Adrienne Anderson, a University of
Colorado environmental-studies instructor and longtime critic of
the remedy. "But plutonium does not dissolve or evaporate. It's
with us for thousands of years. We have got to stop putting
hazardous material into the food chain."
how much radioactive material exists at Lowry Landfill is unclear.
The EPA insists that any trace of radiation found at the site
matches "background" levels found everywhere in the world. But in
1991, a three-year, $5 million environmental study commissioned by
Lowry polluters concluded that plutonium levels at the site were up
to 10,000 times higher than background radiation levels. That study
even went so far as to pinpoint Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons plant
as the source of the radioactivity found in Lowry groundwater
Marc Herman, the EPA's Lowry site manager, is
one of a host of government officials who calls these conclusions
flawed, a consequence of shoddy science. "There is no evidence that
there is any plutonium contamination at Lowry Landfill as a result
of any dumping."
A lone witness, William Wilson,
a former Colorado state patrolman, tells a different story. It is
detailed in a lengthy trail of letters and memos in state and EPA
files: In the 1960s, Wilson was on routine patrol near the landfill
when he noticed a milk truck with a stainless steel tank spouting
liquid along the road. He stopped the driver, questioning him about
the contents of his truck, and the driver explained that he was
dumping radioactive wastewater from Rocky Flats - by government
In 1988, in one of dozens of attempts
to alert authorities, he wrote to the EPA: "I observed and logged
hundreds of trucker dumpings in the vicinity of Highway 30 and the
When contacted, the now-retired
trooper confirmed his written accounts.
can ever refute the fact that they did this: They used milk trucks
to dump waste from Rocky Flats. That radioactivity is something
we'll have a problem with forever."
Department of Energy, which oversees Rocky Flats, says every waste
shipment that ever departed from Rocky Flats was studiously
recorded, and no records show radioactive wastewater was sent to
Lowry. The DOE was not named as a Lowry
Steve Pearlman, a spokesman for the
Metro Wastewater district, says the utility has committed to a $2
million radiation monitoring program to dispel any
"The Lowry contribution will be
miniscule. The discharge will immediately be mixed with a lot of
wastewater." He says the total volume of wastewater treated at
Metro each day is 10,000 times the projected daily discharge from
Lowry. "The numbers are almost unbelievably conservative. We do not
want to take any chances."
But to critics,
that's not good enough. "Here we go again, saying "dilution is the
solution to pollution," "''''says Joan Seeman of the Sierra Club's
Rocky Mountain chapter.
She also accuses Metro of
setting abnormally high thresholds for substances such as
plutonium: The utility's threshold is 150 times higher than the
"Why would you set such an absurd
standard? You don't come up with (broad) parameters like this if
you don't think plutonium is a problem," Seeman
Despite the criticism, Marc Herman of the
EPA still insists the plan is the best solution to a complex
"I never say to people that there's
nothing to worry about," says Herman. "But I think this is the
safest of the options that we've been looking at. It's the least
Jillian Lloyd writes
from Boulder, Colorado.
can contact ...
* Steve Metli, Colorado Citizen
Action Network, 303/627-2337;
* Steve Pearlman,
Metro Wastewater Reclamation District,
* Marc Herman, Environmental
Protection Agency, 303/312-6724.