Radioactive waste and environmental racism in Denver, CO

This post was prompted by a post of Sharon Kelly’s in DeSmogBlog. The title says it all: “Western State Regulators Struggling to Keep up with Radioactive Fracking and Drilling Waste: New Report.”

The following is from Craig Collin’s TOXIC LOOPHOLES, Failures and Future Prospects for Environmental Law.  It paints a “somewhat disconcerting” picture of the Environmental Protection Agency. Yes, that is the selfsame agency that will oversee the #CleanPowerPlan.

The Shattuck Chemical Company, located in Denver’s working class neighborhood of Overland Park, had been listed as a superfund site since 1983. After years of pushing the EPA to remove the tons of radioactive waste located at the site, the EPA finally agreed that removal was the only remedy that would adequately ensure the health and safety of the community.

But suddenly, without explanation or consultation with the residents of Overland Park, the EPA reversed itself and announced a new plan. Labeled the “mound and cap” method, this plan consisted of piling half a million cubic yards of radioactive waste inside a concrete block and sealing it with a clay cap. The result would be a giant 17 foot high monolith filled with radioactive waste right in the middle of Overland Park.

Overland Park residents felt betrayed and outraged. The plan was angrily opposed by the neighborhood, the mayor of Denver, the Governor of Colorado and Republican Senator Wayne Allard. Allard encouraged citizens to contact the Ombudsman’s Office.
In 1999, Martin and Kaufman initiated their investigation and concluded that the “mound and cap” plan was faulty, dangerous and not the normal procedure for dealing with this type of problem. Then they launched an inquiry into why the EPA had abruptly reneged on its removal agreement.

They found that EPA’s reversal came after a series of secret meetings between high level EPA officials and the attorneys representing Shattuck Chemical Company, the party liable for cleaning the site. In addition, the ombudsman’s investigation forced EPA officials to concede that they purposely misled the public about the safety and stability of the concrete container that would degenerate and leak radioactive waste much sooner than they originally claimed. Public outrage prompted the agency to scrap the “mound and cap” plan and restore the removal policy.

Removing the radioactive soil and hauling it to a hazardous waste disposal site was a much more expensive remedy. So Shattuck Chemical and its parent company, Citigroup, pressured the EPA to reduce their cleanup liability and use taxpayer dollars to make up the difference. Before these negotiations were finalized, President Bush appointed Christie Todd Whitman to head up the EPA.

Citigroup was the very first firm listed on Whitman’s “Public Finance Disclosure Form.” She and her husband owned about $250,000 of Citigroup stock. In addition, Whitman’s husband, who worked for Citigroup for 15 years, had recently become managing partner in a venture capital firm (Sycamore Ventures) in which Citigroup was a principle investor. Clearly, any involvement by Whitman in the negotiations between EPA and Citigroup Shattuck would be a serious conflict of interest.

Reading this I wondered what this “working class neighborhood” looks like. So I consulted the EPA’s EJSCREEN: Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool

Bar graph of Demographic Indicators of neighborhood in Denver, CO

Bar graph of Demographic Indicators of neighborhood in Denver, CO

Here is the explanation of the percentiles listed in the bar graph.  Higher than the 50th percentile means that the community is over-represented for this index.

  1. A Demographic Index is based on the average of two demographic indicators; Percent Low-Income and Percent Minority.
  2. Percent Low-Income: The percent of a block group’s population in households where the household income is less than or equal to twice the federal “poverty level.”
  3. Percent Minority: The percent of individuals in a block group who list their racial status as a race other than white alone and/or list their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino. That is, all people other than non-Hispanic white-alone individuals. The word “alone” in this case indicates that the person is of a single race, not multiracial.
  4. Less than high school education: Percent of people age 25 or older in a block group whose education is short of a high school diploma.
  5. Linguistic isolation: Percent of people in a block group living in linguistically isolated households. A household in which all members age 14 years and over speak a non-English language and also speak English less than “very well” (have difficulty with English) is linguistically isolated.
  6. Individuals under age 5: Percent of people in a block group under the age of 5.
  7. Individuals over age 64: Percent of people in a block group over the age of 64.​ 
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