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Rocky Mountain Arsenal: once “the most contaminated square mile on earth”

Rocky Mountain Arsenal, National Wildlife Refuge


The Rocky Mountain Arsenal (RMA), 27 square miles of toxic horror located some six miles northeast of downtown Denver, has the dubious reputation of being the most polluted piece of ground in America" (from a 1994 paper by Matthew Greene quoting a 1988 article in the Denver Post).

When owned by the Army, RMA produced over 60% of the countries deadly chemical weapons.  After an abbreviated EPA cleanup, only wildlife are allowed to live in what was the birthplace of deadly Sarin gas
"Protective" suited man and a rabbit check for toxic gas leaks

ONLY AFTER a recent trip to the highly acclaimed Rocky Mountain Arsenal wildlife refuge, did I decide to do some research. I should have done it before going, but I had been to other animal sanctuaries in the area, and assumed it would be similar…and just as benign. I suppose my excuses for not researching it prior to taking out of town guests there were twofold. First, I had been literally dazzled by a multi-page full color spread in a Denver magazine with spectacular photos of bison, coyotes, foxes and eagles in the foreground with Denver silhouetted in the background, and it looked like a photographer’s paradise! RMA promised to be a perfect place to show my visitors the bison that had been so elusive on the I-70 “Buffalo Herd Overlook”. Second, since I have only lived in Colorado for three years, I had no way of knowing about the Arsenal’s scandalous and toxic past. I thought it was just another wonderful Colorado conservationist attraction!

Our visit there could be described as “creepy” and “unproductive” even BEFORE I knew what lay BELOW the ground. It was very barren, and there appeared to be nothing for miles other than the small visitor’s center. Inside was an odd collection of Americana throughout the years, including the advent of space travel and computers. I could not figure out how this related to a wildlife refuge, but later discovered it was an attempt to glorify the Arsenal’s “contribution” to America’s war efforts—and beyond. More pertinently, there were life-sized stuffed animals (as in "dead"), a bison, deer, coyote, and an eagle. At the time, we had no idea that these might be the only animals we would see with any clarity during our visit. We were the only visitors there, and the ranger on duty mechanically showed us the driving route on a visitor’s map. When I asked where we were likely to see bison, he replied that we would likely not see any bison, as they were grazing in another pasture not visible from the road.

This prediction proved to be accurate during the first two times we drove the surprisingly short and uninteresting driving route, with the exception of prairie dogs (abundant), red ants (abundant), and a single young deer with a pronounced limp. Determined to make more of this so far useless trip (we have prairie dogs and deer near our house), we opted for a third and final drive around the short driving loop. This area is supposed to be 15,000 acres, but what we could see from the road was very limited. As we prepared to give up and leave for home, we gazed out on the expansive prairie, only occasionally punctuated by a few bushes, trenches and trees. Just by chance, we looked at the expanse of “nothingness” through a long-range camera lens. Some of the very distant dark “lumps” that we assumed were bushes appeared to move. We theorized they could possibly be bison; but, even with a very long lens, could not be sure. We decided to drive around the corner to see if the “lumps” came that way.

A very long wait later, they did amble that way, and were finally identifiable (through a long lens) as a herd of bison. Since there was a tall chain link fence some distance from the road, I first tried to get a better vantage point for photographing them by defacing the console of my car while precariously balancing on it, then standing up through the sunroof. The alleged bison were still too far away, so I braved the thigh high brambles and prickly weeds between the car and fence and got a slightly better vantage point, and possibly permanent prickly things in my jeans. Even so, the pictures had to be dramatically enlarged and cropped to show a recognizable creature. They soon left and so did we. We couldn’t shake the creepy feeling of the barren plains, with little noticeable wildlife and a gimpy deer.

We knew we would not return, in spite of the rave reviews we had read of this wildlife refuge. For us, it was a long trip for very little. The barrenness of its vast prairie lands made me curious. I knew it had once been an army arsenal (hence the name), but when? And what happened there? I began researching and, wow, was I in for a nasty surprise! Colorado’s shameful secrets came to light.

Currently, the RMA boasts about 8 miles of walking trails, lakes for fishing, and a new $7.4 million visitor's center, visited by an estimated 50,000-75,000 people a year, including children's groups. However, according to a Newsweek article, written less than a year ago, the area on which we had just spent at least 3 hours was once considered the “most toxic piece of land in the US” or even the world! And, it was the birthplace of lethal Sarin gas—the gas Syria’s dictator used to exterminate his people! The Rocky Mountain Arsenal (RMA) is an area about the size of Manhattan. In 1942 it was chosen for the US Army’s deadly chemical weapons stockpile and manufacturing. This large stretch of former Plains Indian land was purchased right after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the US Army because it was located in a land-locked state far from both coasts, so it would likely not be vulnerable to air or sea attacks. It was also well-irrigated, as it was about 6 miles from downtown Denver—the ideal "safe" place to make huge stores of deadly chemical agents.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, RMA was “the free world’s primary producer of Sarin during the 1950s”. It became filled with manufacturing buildings, the more important of which produced the Sarin, and was therefore constructed to withstand a nuclear attack—or so they thought. Their idea of protection from the deadly gasses was to send a man in “protective gear” into the Sarin plant with a rabbit in a cage to “detect leaks”. Army records indicate that other nerve agents, such as mustard gas, were likewise manufactured there, as well as deadly “button bombs” and napalm for the Vietnam War. Records also indicate that these deadly chemicals were “disposed of” on the RMA grounds.

The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment’s website states (pertaining to the cleanup):

  • “potential human exposure pathways include ingestion, skin absorption and inhalation from contaminated soils, groundwater and air.” But that “potential exposure is greatly reduced through site access and institutional controls, an alternate drinking water supply for neighboring residents, whose wells have been affected by arsenal contaminants, and careful planning of the cleanup project.”
  • They go on to say that “Contamination was detected in soil, ditches, stream and lakebed sediments, sewers, ground water, surface water, wildlife and structures.” “The portion of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal cleanup that will require the movement and disturbance of contaminated material is nearly complete…and contaminated soils cleanup phase of the process is expect be be complete by early 2008.”
  • Part of the cleanup process was to “Excavate and dispose of more than 1 million cubic yards of contaminated soil from various location on the arsenal into the landfill.” Also they would “install soil covers for the Army Complex and Shell disposal trenches and the Lime Basins WHERE CONTAMINATION WILL BE LEFT IN PLACE”. They would demolish the toxic structures and “dispose of demolition debris with significant contamination…in the on-post hazardous waste landfuill.”

They further state that “The 1992 Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Act and the Federal Facility Agreement restrict future land use and prohibit certain activities such as agriculture, residential development, us of groundwater as a drinking source, and consumption of fish and game taken at the arsenal.” “The Army will retain areas where hazardous wastes are managed, such as the landfill and soil covers.” The Army retains 725 fenced off acres of RMA where they have reburied and consolidated as many of their toxic dumps as they know about.

A Newsweek article called RMA “the birthplace of American poison”. Most of this was kept in the Army’s North Plant compound; specifically in Building 1501. One of the chemical weapons produced by the Army at RMA included wheat rust, the purpose of which was mass destruction of crops. Shell Oil manufactured toxic pesticides there during the 1950s, much of which has since been banned as too dangerous. They were thought to have contaminated the ground and air with their waste products. But even prior to the Army allowing Shell’s toxic manufacturing, farmers many miles away began noticing illness and stunted growth of livestock, damage to crops and foliage, as well as finding many people who mysteriously fell ill.

By the 60s, the Army realized they needed to better dispose of the toxic and dangerous substances than just dumping them. Their solution was a deep injection well, not even sealed all the way down. After it was thought to cause numerous earthquakes in Denver, the well was simply “capped”. These areas are part of what the Army did not turn over to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1992 through an act of congress and signed by President H.W. Bush, after bald eagles were found on the grounds. To them, the “proof of wildlife” meant that the area could and should be redeemed for the animals. However, the reason that animals found their way there could actually be that Rocky Mountain Arsenal’s 27 square miles are some of the only prairie left near Denver. Or, a more sinister, engineered reason. The animals may have had no choice other than to live on a hazardous chemical waste dump.

It was estimated that decontaminating the area would take decades if not centuries, and would cost at least $20 Billion. They identified over 600 chemicals that contaminated the area and leached through the soil to the groundwater. Solid toxic waste went into trenches, while liquid waste was often dumped in evaporation ponds. There was great concern that these chemicals could still continue to seep out, as early waste containment efforts were crude or non-existent. By 2003, the EPA had removed RMA from its National Priorities list. Yet, the EPA acknowledges that levels of a chemical that can migrate in ground water (1,4 Dioxane) are quite high, but deny any threat to nearby residents. It should also be noted that an Atomic Energy Commission site where nuclear weapon plutonium triggers were made, Rocky Flats, was located close to RMA.

RMA hit the news nationally in 2000 when cleanup efforts uncovered 6-10 small bombs, each containing as much as 1.3 pounds of deadly Sarin liquid. ONE DROP is deadly to humans, so this discovery was a nasty reminder of what lies beneath RMA. For 40 years deadly chemical waste was improperly dumped by the feds and Shell. Because these unlined dump sites leaked, nearby drinking water and soil were contaminated. As the dumping of chemical weapons was poorly monitored and haphazard in nature, no one really knows what other surprises will be unearthed at this deadly site, now filled with visitors and animals. In 1996, Colorado made a deal with the devil for the land. The pact did not require total decontamination, only that the worst known dumps be dug up and reburied elsewhere in the RMA. Colorado tried, but was out-maneuvered by the government, Shell and the Army so that the estimated $20 Billion required to completely decontaminate the area was never funded. Rather, a comparatively paltry, and likely inadequate $2 Billion was allocated to an EPA superfund for the so-called cleanup, as congress would not approve the full amount needed for true decontamination.

The act of congress only required the US Army and Shell to dig up and relocate (on the Arsenal property), the most obvious and well-known toxic dumps. There was no order to actually decontaminate the area. Accordingly, the Army dug up some of its toxic materials and reburied them elsewhere on the grounds of the arsenal. Presumably this is why the Army retains two plots of the Arsenal property, as they relocated their deadly Sarin, napalm, mustard gas and the like to “their” area of the Arsenal.

Yet, if Colorado didn't finally cave in and accept the government’s terms, RMA’s toxic sludge basins would still be leaking and polluting nearby water supplies. But these problems have simply been moved to another area of RMA, and no one knows when other areas will be discovered with potentially deadly effects. While it is thought that some of the chemicals can become less toxic in as little as a decade, others are known to be impervious to decontamination for as long as 100 years, if even then. The potential pollution and contamination dangers will likely exist for generations. US taxpayers, by way of the Army and Shell, ended up paying the bill for the "cleanup" of the Army's and Shell's irresponsible toxic waste contamination.

One group, Colorado People's Environmental and Economic Network (COPEEN), actually gives “Toxic Tours” of Colorado which they call a beautiful state with an “unimaginable toxic burden”. Since 1990, COPEEN has been not only giving "toxic tours," but also working for environmental justice in Colorado. The RMA is included in this tour. During the “decontamination”, one of their members who was on the RMA Subcommittee disputed the idea that the area was really being decontaminated. She felt that the area was not being cleaned up, only remediated, stressing that the “cleanup” had less to do with public health and more to do with cost containment. And, when some bald eagles were discovered in the toxic area, turning it into a wildlife refuge was a way of saving more money by not having to comply to human habitation requirements. She went on to say that it was Shell’s idea to turn the area into an animal refuge to reduce their mandated costs. It is thought that Shell actually baited and contained the eagles there to win its refuge status, thus reducing the strictness of the cleanup requirements.

Shell brazenly built a visitor’s center there during the cleanup, and even began organizing tours of school children to visit. The Sierra Club had to send letters to the schools and parents warning them of the dangers and asking that they halt the tours. Shell has been notorious for continuing to create toxic pesticides shown to cause cancers, liver and intestinal diseases, infertility and impotence. When these were declared illegal by one country, Shell would simply move production to other countries until banned there.

Soon after declaring the area a wildlife refuge, it was removed from the EPA’s superfund (national priorities list). “Cleanup” of what the EPA described as 60% of the country’s former chemical weapons manufacturing capacity was hastened, and despite unlined toxic dumps, seepage into soil and water supplies, and over 600 identified chemicals on the site, most of the work was finished in 2003. This included “capping” the only partly shielded injection wells blamed for the Denver earthquakes. More recently, flooding that broke a dam reached a height of 15 feet, causing the evacuation of properties bordering the RMA. This again renewed fears of what lay beneath the soil-covered dumps. Concerns that yet more Sarin bombs will be uncovered and toxic chemicals could still seep through the landfills and flare up again when a disaster threatens the area.

Colorado locals consider this their own “Area 51”, a total mystery, and cause of so many problems. Many can remember a trainload of the toxic waste transferred to Utah for toxic relocation. At the time, there was great concern about the train route and how well the materials were protected during transit. Anyone who believes the area was indeed detoxified only has to look back to 2000 when the Sarin bombs were found on the grounds. And these were not even the known dumps that were scheduled to be relocated on the grounds. How many more toxic surprises are there out there?

In spite of the fact that it is “just for animals”, there is concern for those animals as well as the children on school outings still organized there. Eagles can fly in and out and are only there for part of the year. For the animals that must live and find their food on the grounds, there is concern from organizations like the Sierra Club. On our recent visit, we picked up a newsletter from the visitor’s center packed with “family-friendly” and children’s activities, such as "Nature Drawing for Kids", "Summer Hike ‘n’ Bird", and the worrisome "Incredible Edibles!". They additionally offer "2014 Fishing season" and "Self-Guided Nature Walks" with the convenience of extended summer and holiday hours. Even though the fishing is catch and release—you still come in contact with the potentially contaminated water and fish.

It is also significant to realize that the animals in the RMA are virtually trapped there, as there is no other place they can go. While much of the world today is horrified by Syria’s use of chemical weapons on its own people and is demanding the destruction of its Sarin stockpile, we had, and likely still have, our own here in Colorado. Another little known fact is that RMA also housed a POW camp for German soldiers called Rose Hill.

That is why enthusiastic reviews of visitors and children’s groups extolling the pleasures of the flora and fauna on this hazardous waste dumpsite seem inappropriate, and just downright creepy. Had I known its dark and dangerous past, I never would have gone there. Perhaps a quote from an EPA official while gazing at RMA says it all: "We think we can conquer nature. That’s an absolute joke”.

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