Jerry Kopel


It's rather nice to celebrate Earth Day worrying about "who" is giving the money to help clean up Lowry Landfill. Fourteen years ago, Coloradoans weren't even aware of how dangerous the place was, and still is.

Damage to the earth often follows this scenario: Profiteering, exposure, public awareness and attempts to cleanup. Lowry Landfill was no exception.

PROFITEERING: From 1965 to 1980, about l10 million gallons of toxic liquid waste were dumped in sixty waste pits dug at Lowry Landfill, located east of Aurora. The liquids and other hazardous materials were mixed with household rubbish. Denver Department of Public Works ran the operation and Denver received the money for allowing the dumping from a number of polluters. But in 1980,thanks to new federal requirements, Public Works was getting out of the dump business. The city had contracted with Waste Management, Inc. and its subsidiaries, Chemical Waste Management Inc. (CWM) and Chemical Disposal, Inc. , to operate the dump.

EXPOSURE: In 1980, concern began to surface about what was going on at the landfill. Gov. Dick Lamm had established a Lowry Landfill Task Force. They met in Denver in September to listen to Chris Sutton of the Colorado Health Department Hazardous Waste Section. I attended the meeting (uninvited ) as a state legislator, and heard some remarkably bad news: "An underground organic plume of hazardous chemical wastes is moving off the dumping sites at the landfill and is heading towards homes two miles to the north. The wastes are traveling north at 400 feet per year, but this can accelerate due to the loose sandstone through which the containments are moving."

I looked around the room. No press was present. For someone who began employable life as a journalist, this was what reporting was all about...being there first with the story. I took my notes to Pete Blake at my former employer, the Rocky Mountain News. Pete suggested I write the story myself, and I did. The News gave it a full page on Sept. 18, 1980 as a "Speak Out" article.

PUBLIC AWARENESS: Bonnie Exner and her husband had bought their "dream home" in 1974, which happened to be just three miles from Lowry Landfill. In the late 70s, according to a l985 News feature written by Patti Thorn, Mrs. Exner said she and the children began to have persistent headaches. "Bonnie called the Dept. of Health and wondered if anything at the landfill could be causing the problem."

"Trash (she was told) was the only thing buried at the landfill. Exner says "I thought I was just being silly."

"(In September 1980) Bonnie read an article in the News and the puzzle, suddenly, was frighteningly complete. For years, wrote Rep. Gerald Kopel, Denver had dumped chemicals on top of trash in Section 6 of the dump, creating a witches brew of elements in open trenches. Containments were moving north, wrote Kopel, at the rate of 400 feet a year." "How would you feel" he continued "if you had just purchased a home with a 30-year mortgage and then picked up the newspaper and found that an underground plume of hazardous chemical waste was heading your way and could be under your basement in l0 years?"

Thorn wrote that the article helped stir Mrs. Exner to action. With a friend, Maryann Raines, Bonnie wrote two petitions, calling for the closure and cleanup of the landfill and for an immediate hearing with their county commissioners. "They began knocking on doors, armed with the News article and their anger." Exner organized Citizens Against the Lowry Landfill (CALL), helped obtain 3000 signatures on the petitions and forced the Arapahoe County Commissioners to hold a public meeting.

According to Thorn , "Commissioner Thomas Eggert said: We were holding a hearing as to whether or not to approve (CWM) plans, and we ended up shutting it down." CWM filed a lawsuit, continued operation, and in July, 1982, according to Thorn, "the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the commissioners had, in fact, been wrong in the manner in which they closed the facility."

CLEANUP : Probably 38 million more gallons of hazardous waste entered the landfill after 1980, until it stopped receiving such toxic materials. In 1984, the dump made the Superfund list with the implied Environmental Protection Agency promise to reduce the danger at one of the nation's most toxic sites. But the "major" improvement to date (outside of shredding eight million tires) has been construction of a thirty foot deep, 1000 foot long underground dam that backs up contaminated groundwater trying to move north. The toxic wastewater is pumped to a plant and treated before being released beyond the dam. And Denver still uses an uncontaminated part of the landfill to bury non-toxic wastes from the city.

What will the landfill's fate be? An extremely expensive full cleanup or containment? Obviously containment is cheaper in the short run, but EPA admits that if containment is the choice "groundwater containment and treatment will continue in perpetuity, since wastes will remain on the site."

A March 1994 Denver Post article claims $120 million is now available from settlements with l7 of the landfill's worst polluters, $70 million allocated for "cleanup" and $50 million for indemnification if polluters are successfully sued by nearby landowners. The Post article listed the three major polluters as: Adolph Coors Co., 31.7 million gallons; Syntex Chemicals, Inc., 28.6 million gallons; S.W.Shattuck Chemical Co., Inc.,16.9 million gallons.

CWM spokesmen dislike the name " Lowry Landfill". Back in 1980, they proposed calling it "The Denver-Arapahoe Chemical Waste Processing Facility." I have another idea. Why not name it in honor of the dump's largest polluter...."Coors Field" ?

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Copyright 2015 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel