Is drilling near an old landfill okay?

Vista Ridge and Vista Pointe neighborhoods had visits from pro-oil and gas solicitors this week.   Apparently there is a push from the oil and gas industry, espousing “responsible” energy development, in the face of a vote on a moratorium on new oil/gas drilling sites in Erie.  Yet we have not seen responsible oil/gas development in Erie.   Certainly the issues at Encana’s Pratt drilling site would beg the question, “how do you define responsible?” Is it responsible to unearth garbage while attempting to lay pipeline for drilling? Is it responsible to leave said garbage open and exposed to the air and natural elements?

I think any reasonable person would not expect the government (local, state or federal) to allow anyone to dig up a previously closed landfill, especially a landfill that has been investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over concerns of hazardous waste. Yet that is exactly the situation we face in Erie.

Some fellow Erie residents have investigated Erie’s sordid landfill history, and have passed along an alarming document. Here is the entire EPA report filed in November 1990:  Columbine Landfill PA (PDF)   Beware, the document is long and it is absolutely horrifying. I’ll summarize the salient points for you below.

The Pratt property off of County roads 5 and 6 has been in the family since 1912. The Pratt’s deemed it unsuitable for farming, so instead partnered with John Neuhauser to form Erie Landfill in 1964. (Neuhauser had previously been in charge of another dump site in Boulder County. The county closed that dump however because it had contaminated the local groundwater). Erie Landfill initially only received solid waste from local communities. Then from 1965 to 1969, IBM partnered with Erie Landfill for waste disposal. By IBM’s admission, they disposed of “84,000 gallons of chemical waste (organics, inorganics, solvents, acids, and bases) contained within 1,500 55 gallon drums” at Erie Landfill. During this time, Sundstrand Aviation was also permitted to deposit chemical waste at the landfill. One of the chemical waste products they reportedly delivered via tanker trucks was torpedo propellant. Now here’s where the report gets even more crazy: the propellant was dumped into a pit at the landfill, and routinely set on fire as a method of disposal.

Documentation relating to activities at the landfill is scant, and much of the information within the EPA document was gathered through personal interviews of previous landfill employees. Documentation for Erie Landfill is absent completely between the years of 1969 to 1973. One can only speculate about what other hazardous waste may have found its way into the landfill during that time frame.

During the mid to late 1970’s, the Colorado Department of Health investigated numerous complaints about fires at the landfill. On February 7, 1978, the Dacono Fire Chief issued a letter to the Weld County Commissioners, indicating that he was fed up with the number of fires to which his fire department had to respond. If nothing else, it was a colossal waste of water. Here’s his letter:ColumbineLandfillLetter

Colorado Landfill, Inc. purchased the Weld County Landfills’ contract in 1979. The company opened Columbine Landfill, adjacent to the Erie Landfill. Colorado Landfill, Inc. was not interested in operating Erie Landfill, thus it sat abandoned and uncovered from 1979 to 1983. Without proper closure procedures, it literally sat open during those years. Columbine Landfill also ended up with its share of problems; black discharge with a pH of 5.8 was found in a nearby pond. Sand trap waste was found to contain cyanide and toxic levels of metals.

Western Disposal purchased the Columbine Landfill in 1985; they devised a plan to finally close the Erie Landfill.   Yet it is not clear that closure happened under Western Disposal’s ownership.  Laidlaw Waste Systems, Inc. purchased Columbine Landfill in 1988, again proposing a closure and post-closure plan for Erie Landfill. It appears from this paper trail, that closure finally reached the Erie Landfill under the ownership of Laidlaw Waste.

The EPA 1970 study intended to evaluate ongoing environmental threats from the Erie and Columbine landfills. Here is one assessment from the document:

“4.3 Air Pathway

The site does not pose a significant threat to human populations or the environment based on potential migration of contaminants via the air pathway. Onsite waste sources available to the air route are limited to landfill gas migration through the daily, intermediate and final cover. The landfill gases may contain volatile halogenated organics, methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. There are six residences, one business and approximately 43 10individuals located within a one mile radius of the site.”

The problem with the statement above given our current situation is that it assumes that refuse at the landfill will remain covered. We know from our recent history with Encana’s Pratt site that digging/uncovering has already occurred. Furthermore, the local landscape has markedly changed since the 1990 report. The subdivisions of Vista Ridge and Vista Pointe both lie within a 1 mile radius of the former Erie Landfill.

The EPA study did find evidence of ground water contamination, which threatens nearby aquifers.  It states, “the potential for release of contaminants to the ground water from the site to the alluvial 12 and shallow bedrock perched aquifers is high.” (emphasis added)  As if we are supposed to feel better, the author also points out that by Erie ordinance, “residences may not use groundwater for drinking purposes.” So in essence, it’s okay to contaminate the ground water if we get our drinking water elsewhere.

Here is the conclusion of the EPA study:

“The old Erie Landfill located on the Pratt property has documented disposal of halogenated organics and torpedo propellant in addition to other liquid and solid wastes between 1965 and 1979. Between 1979 and 1983, the site sat open and allowed precipitation to infiltrate the landfill creating the potential of leaching and ground water contamination. The Columbine Landfill which opened in 1979 accepted municipal solid wastes, sand and oil/grease trap wastes. The Laidlaw North Landfill which opened in 1985 accepted municipal solid waste only.

Alluvial ground water contamination is documented in wells 103A & 103B at Laidlaw North. The shallow bedrock wells appear to show degradation of ground water quality. The south draw shows stressed vegetation around a pond and spring which indicates possible contamination to either the pond or the spring which feeds it. The major pathway of concern is the ground water pathway with contamination to the alluvial aquifer, the shallow bedrock aquifer and a nearby spring.”

So to reiterate, the EPA assessment did in fact find ground water contamination that is likely to threaten two nearby aquifers.   Yet they did not classify the “Columbine site” (which groups the Columbine and Erie landfills together) as a “National Priority” – meaning it did not qualify for a “Superfund” clean-up.   The algorithm for determining whether a site qualifies for clean up depends upon the degree of contamination, as well as estimated health impacts on a population.   site_assessment_info_sheet (PDF) Consequently, the size of the population that may be impacted by the contamination matters. The problem is Erie’s population has exploded in the last 15 years, which is something that the EPA could not have known (and clearly did not predict) back in 1990.

And that leads us back to today. Encana’s drilling and digging at the Pratt well site has uncovered parts of the Erie Landfill. I cannot believe that the EPA considered this as a possibility in determining that the hazardous chemicals contained within the landfill would not pose a threat to the surrounding community.

So what can we expect when a landfill closes? There are federal guidelines concerning landfill closure, and post-closure protocols. On the EPA website, post-closure maintenance is listed as “30 years from site closure, but this can be shortened or extended by the director of an approved state program as necessary to ensure protection of human health and the environment.” Furthermore, during the 30 years, the waste containment is not to be compromised:  “Any use of the land during this period must not disturb the integrity or operation of any of the waste containment systems or the monitoring systems.”

Let’s for a moment assume that the Erie Landfill actually closed in 1985 (although there is evidence to suggest it did not actually close until Laidlaw took over in 1988).  Given that it is 2015 we are at exactly the 30 year benchmark.  Drilling at the Pratt site began in 2014, just shy of the 30 year term.  And for the sake of argument, why is 30 the magic number?  Do we really think that the EPA intended that it would be okay to dig up landfills when we reach 30 years?  I doubt it.

But I’m doing more than just sitting back and speculating.  I’ve already left a voicemail message for the EPA Columbine Site Manager.  I want to know what land use options are considered acceptable for sites of previous landfills that are known to be filled with hazardous waste.

The true irony here, is that 2 years ago, I read a book entitled “Full Body Burden: Growing up in the nuclear shadow of Rocky Flats” by Kristen Iversen.  If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.  It’s excellent.  I remember comfortably sitting on my couch, devouring each page of the book, enraged at the crimes the government committed against the environment and the people of Colorado in the name of national security.  At the same time, I was grateful that I live in Erie, 20 miles away from the majority of the plutonium contamination.

Silly me.  We have our own toxic wasteland right here in Erie.





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