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Know the West

A grudge against sludge


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.

The 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 day.

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 year.

Questions still remain

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 Denver.

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 science.

"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."

Just 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 samples.

Trust us

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 agreement.

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 Lowry Landfill."

When contacted, the now-retired trooper confirmed his written accounts.

"Nobody 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."

The 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 polluter.

Steve Pearlman, a spokesman for the Metro Wastewater district, says the utility has committed to a $2 million radiation monitoring program to dispel any concerns.

"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 state standard.

"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 says.

Despite the criticism, Marc Herman of the EPA still insists the plan is the best solution to a complex problem.

"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 risky."

Jillian Lloyd writes from Boulder, Colorado.

You can contact ...

* Steve Metli, Colorado Citizen Action Network, 303/627-2337;

* Steve Pearlman, Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, 303/286-3462;

* Marc Herman, Environmental Protection Agency, 303/312-6724.