The Progressive, May 2000
Title: Plutonium Pancakes
Author: Will Fantle
Faculty evaluator: Randy Dodgen, Ph.D.
Student researchers: Kim Roberts and Mike Graves
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to pump toxic waste water into Denver’s sewer system in order to clean up a Superfund site at the Lowry landfill.
Between 1950 and 1980, at the Lowry landfill near Denver, millions of gallons of hazardous industrial wastes were dumped into shallow unlined pits. The EPA declared the 480-acre site 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 would then use the sludge from the treated water to fertilize Colorado farmlands.
Citizen groups say that the landfill is widely contaminated with highly radioactive plutonium and other deadly wastes. Adrienne Anderson, an instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, stated that EPA’s plan is a way to “legally pump plutonium into the sewer line.” Plutonium is widely considered one of the most deadly substances on the planet.
Anderson and her students have accrued some 200,000 files on the Lowry landfill. One document entitled “Preliminary Evaluation of Potential Department of Energy Radioactive Wastes” dated December 13, 1991, found that the levels of plutonium and radioactive americium detected at the Lowry landfill were 10 to 10,000 times greater than the average levels reported for a nuclear weapons plant in that area. The document had been released by the Lowry Coalition, a group of corporations and government agencies dumped materials at the site. The polluters included Adolph Coors (who once produced nuclear fuel), Lockheed Martin, Rockwell (then operator of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Rocky Flat’s nuclear bomb plant), Hewlett Packard, IBM, Waste Management, and the Denver Post. The EPA itself also dumped pesticides and other lab wastes at the site.
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 that he couldn’t do anything about it, but he filed reports on identical activities he witnessed for several more years with the state’s transportation regulator.
Gwen Hooten, at EPA’s region 8 office in Denver, is in charge of the Lowry cleanup. She and other EPA officials deny that the site is poisoned by plutonium or any other nuclear wastes. Hooten dismisses the 1991 document as “invalidated data.”
Critics are not buying it. Any plutonium, heavy metal, or other toxic wastes pumped through the sewage system will likely settle there for years. The problem will only become more widespread.
In 1993 the EPA classified municipal sludge as a fertilizer for farmers. Denver municipal sludge is already being spread on farmland as biosolids. Wheat grown on this land is sold for human consumption.
UPDATE BY WILL FANTLE: The legacy of toxic waste left during last century’s time of ignorance and uncontrolled disposal practices will likely vex our environment and children for decades to come. Beyond containment of the problem, there are no obvious answers.
Since the publication of “Plutonium Pancakes,” the city of Denver began accepting the Lowry landfill’s toxic liquid discharges. The EPA’s solution to the headache, mostly relying upon diluting Lowry’s toxins by flushing them into the city’s wastewater stream, was halted after a couple of months, according to Steve Pearlman of the Wastewater Reclamation District.
The treated wastewater remained sufficiently poisonous to harm the growth and reproductive rates of micro-organisms used to measure health and safety. Pearlman says the district has made some changes and will began accepting the Lowry toxins again in the near future. The district has also eased its detection standards for certain contaminants (including some that are radioactive), a move Pearlman attributes to lab testing capabilities.
Adrienne Anderson, the outspoken opponent of the disposal plan, has been embroiled in a whistleblower case brought about by her testimony on behalf of the union representing the workers at the Wastewater District. Her comments at an EPA hearing were challenged, leading to a court trail.
During the course of the trial, Anderson discovered that she had been the subject of a coordinated PR campaign aimed at discrediting her. The attacks were part of an effort undertaken by the district to win public support and acceptance for the spreading of the district’s sludge on Colorado farm fields.
The district even garnered an award from the national pro-sludge Water and Environment Federation for the PR campaign. The three-ring binder detailing the district’s work (obtained by Anderson through a Freedom of Information Act request) contains an entire section describing how they labored to sabotage Anderson.
Anderson says union workers have also suffered under the Lowry waste treatment plan. Workers concerned with their health and safety have been forced out, with one employee even receiving an anonymous death threat.
Throughout, the region’s most powerful media have largely remained silent. The state’s two biggest newspapers, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News (which merged in the last year), are among the many powerful corporations who had dumped toxic wastes into Lowry.
Their hand in the mess may partly explain their silence, but Email messages reveal another story. As part of her digging into the smear campaign against her, Anderson says, she found an Email exchange between the district and a local reporter “cackling about the defamatory attacks on me.”
While occasional reportage of the Lowry situation continues out-of-state and nationally (including a Christian Science Monitor update), Anderson says “no reporter in Denver will talk to me.” News releases issued by her, the union, and others are routinely ignored. And the electronic media, she indicates, has been unwilling to commit investigative resources to the story.
Those seeking more information can contact Adrienne Anderson at 303-492-2952 or via Email at:[email protected].