Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
June / July 1998


Toxic Tours? Rocky Mountain Arsenal: Update
by Sandy Horrocks, Angela Medbury, Dorothy Colagiovanni, and Sue Maret

Rocky Mountain Arsenal (RMA) is a 27 square mile superfund site northeast of Denver. RMA was initially used by the US Army to produce chemical weapons, such as Sarin and Lewisite. It was later leased to Shell Chemical Company for the production of pesticides. There were over 600 documented chemicals produced on the arsenal. Because of inadequate handling of chemicals used in production processes, irresponsible waste treatment procedures, and explosives testing, contaminants have leached into groundwater and have been dispersed by wind onto soil on arsenal property.

Amid this contamination and the current remediation efforts, public tours are offered on RMA. This is the only superfund site in our nation that allows public tours unrelated to clean-up activities. In addition, volunteers are regularly on site as guides and conducting research while school children and families are encouraged to frequent RMA for wildlife viewing. These tours are a source of disagreement between regulatory agencies and citizen/environmental advocacy groups. Whether or not you feel this is the correct thing to do prior to completion of clean-up, we are shortly going to be facing a new situation.Although calculations of risk to human health on RMA indicate that it is currently safe to visit this facility, major clean-up efforts are about to begin and are anticipated to continue until at least the year 2011. Vast amounts of contaminated soil from various on-site arsenal sites will be moved and contained in landfills or capped in several locations. With soil movement the potential for dispersion of soil particles with attached contaminants (i.e. dieldrin or DDT) or volatile chemicals (i.e. benzene) being released greatly increases. During the soil relocation efforts no plans have been made to discontinue public tours. The RMA Subcommittee is concerned about visitor access to RMA during major soil movements. Although emergency procedures are planned in the event of a problem, there is potential for visitor exposure to hazardous chemicals. Visitors could be on the arsenal if a release occurred and evacuation would then occur after the fact. We are especially concerned for school children who may be particularly sensitive to chemical contamination.

We find the visitor policy disturbing. Documentation of current wildlife health problems on RMA have shown pesticide poisoning within a half mile of the visitor's center. Some examples of wildlife contamination which have occurred on RMA include:

Additionally, a citizens subcommittee tasked to establish community health criteria has determined that air quality on RMA may be a problem during remediation. For example, the chemical of concern, dieldrin, presently shows high concentrations at interior sampling stations. At the arsenal fenceline, however, further sampling shows it reduced to background levels. The potential for additional chemical exposures to visitors close to remediation sites is worrisome.

We think common sense needs to be used during the clean-up of RMA. It does not seem logical to our committee that citizens should be allowed on a site where accidental releases of DDT, arsenic, chlordane, dioxins, mercury, dieldrin, and chemical agents could take place during soil movements. Why take the chance of exposure to these toxins? After all, there will be plenty of time following remediation for the public to visit the area. We would advocate limiting visitor access during the soil movement efforts.

The RMA principle responsible parties are drafting recommendations for the clean-up. Numerous proposals and plans are currently being evaluated for choosing the optimal techniques and specifications of landfill design, air monitoring criteria, biota health, and dust suppression. Many of these documents are available for public comment. If you are interested in more information on these issues, please contact Sandy Horrocks at (303) 470-1352.