Rocky Mountain Arsenal ready for its post-Superfund life
September 18, 2010
After 23 years and $2.1 billion, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal is ready to be removed from the nation’s Superfund list of environmental disasters.
Environmental Protection Agency officials are transferring a final 2,500 acres at the 27-square-mile site to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This clears the way for the arsenal’s new incarnation as a national wildlife refuge.
U.S. taxpayers paid for the bulk of the cleanup – done by the Army and Shell Oil under a legal settlement.
For half a century, the arsenal at Denver’s northeast edge loomed as a secretive complex of more than 250 buildings with signs around it warning “Use of Deadly Force Authorized.” There, the Army made chemical weapons and later, Shell made pesticides.
Residential and commercial development gradually encroached on the site. Today, 47 bison roam, raptors circle and badgers burrow on recovering short-grass prairie 10 miles from downtown Denver.
“We’ve transformed a very highly contaminated site into a beautiful prairie landscape,” said Carol Campbell, the EPA’s assistant regional administrator handling Superfund cleanups and other officials. “Because it is something that people now can go to and enjoy, it is different from other Superfund cleanup sites.”
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The Army still will be responsible for 725 acres of fenced-off land where toxic materials were consolidated and buried. Devices called lysimeters, about 6 feet beneath the clay and dirt, are supposed to verify that surface water isn’t reaching the waste.
In addition, monitoring of the already-contaminated groundwater at the arsenal must continue to ensure that lethal chemicals don’t spread farther toward the South Platte River.
“We feel that those remedies are protective of human health and the environment,” EPA project spokeswoman Jennifer Chergo said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with running the wildlife refuge, with a $7.4 million visitor center under construction.
Nearly 25,000 people a year visit the site. With marketing and eventually a new entrance north of Interstate 70, off Quebec Street, federal officials say they expect visitation to at least quadruple.
Plans call for carrying visitors around the refuge’s lakes and ponds in open-air buses. About 8 miles of walking trails have been cut.
Wildlife already is thriving, including dozens of coyotes, about 30 bald eagles, hundreds of deer, hefty large-mouth bass and waterfowl such as egrets and herons.
Much of the refuge eventually will be devoted to bison with a herd of up to 250, fenced off from people, refuge manager Steve Berendzen said.
Friday, Army and Shell officials inspected the cleanup and met with Xcel officials about burying power lines.
“Shell is real proud of the end result,” Shell’s site manager, Roger Shakely, said. “We’ve met the budget, and we are one year ahead of schedule.”
Army leaders see this as a model for cleanups, the Army’s arsenal program manager, Charlie Scharmann, said. “So many good things came out of this project.”
Once, homesteading farmers and ranchers lived here. In 1942, the Army established the arsenal to make mustard gas and blister agent to deter Japan and Germany. Then, during the Cold War, factory workers in body suits and gas masks produced thousands of tons of napalm and sarin nerve gas, which was stuffed into bomblets that were placed in Honest John rocket warheads.
Army leaders later leased the site to private companies, including Shell, which arrived in 1952 and for three decades produced chemical pesticides, such as dieldrin, that Shell sold worldwide for agriculture.
The liquid waste was dumped in evaporation ponds. Solid waste was dumped into trenches. More than 600 lethal chemicals spread through the soil into groundwater.
Ernie Maurer, 88, whose Swiss immigrant family lived on a farm here, recalled how Army officials “gave us 30 days notice” to leave. The Army told them that “because Germany was making that mustard gas, we needed to do it here,” he said.
“We were disappointed. The thing we didn’t like about it was that they treated us like foreigners, you know?”
Now Maurer works as a volunteer tour guide at the refuge, delighted that the cleanup finally appears to be done.
“I like it to be the way it was,” he said. “Denver’s growing too big for me. I like the prairie out here.”