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Plutonium in the Playground?

Widefield schools stop use of "toxic sludge" as fertilizer



Is your child playing in a schoolyard fertilized with toxic sludge from Denver's sewers sludge that may even contain radioactive waste from Rocky Flats?

If your child attends Widefield School District 3, the answer could be yes, according to a group of environmental advocates.

After meeting with the environmentalists in February, school district officials recently decided to return 13 tons of fertilizer, known as MetroGro, to the place where they'd bought it -- Denver's sewage treatment plant, operated by the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District. The reason: MetroGro is made from sludge left over from the treatment of Denver's sewage, which contains heavy metals and, some critics believe, plutonium from Rocky Flats, the now-mothballed nuclear-weapons factory near Golden.

Metro Wastewater officials say there's no detectable presence of radionuclides or other toxins in MetroGro, which is mainly used to fertilize farm fields in eastern Colorado. Still, the school district just wanted to be on the safe side, said James Drew, a district spokesman.

"We don't know whether it's safe or not safe," Drew said. "It was a conservative decision."

"Plutonium pancakes"

Problem is, the school district had already applied 9 tons of its latest batch of MetroGro on grassy areas around schools. And before that, the district had been using MetroGro for at least eight years, Drew estimated.

That's no small concern to Aubrey Fennewald, a Colorado Springs native who attended school in Widefield and now teaches third and fourth grade at Globe Charter School. While attending the University of Colorado Boulder in the 1990s, Fennewald was part of a group of student environmentalists who uncovered documents suggesting the government was about to pump plutonium-laced groundwater from a Denver Superfund site into the city's sewer system.

Fennewald and others obtained a 1991 memorandum stating that a federally licensed laboratory had found high levels of plutonium at the former Lowry Landfill, a toxic dump used by corporate polluters in the 1960s and '70s, which is now being cleaned up under the federal Superfund program. The document identified Rocky Flats as the likely source of the plutonium, and at least two witnesses have since told media outlets that waste used to be trucked from the Flats to Lowry decades ago.

The discovery was particularly troubling given that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had approved a plan to treat groundwater from Lowry by pumping it into the sewers. Critics feared plutonium would end up in MetroGro, which would then be used to fertilize farm fields where crops such as wheat are grown for human consumption. The result, they said, could be people eating "plutonium pancakes."

But local, state and federal regulators have steadfastly denied the allegations of radioactive contamination, insisting that the laboratory tests that showed high plutonium levels have since been proven incorrect. In 2000, the Lowry groundwater treatment plan went into operation. Steve Pearlman, a spokesman for the Wastewater District, said the water leaving the site has been extensively monitored. "We cannot detect, at any reasonable detection levels, any plutonium in there," Pearlman said.

The flow was shut down temporarily when instruments detected a "spike" of radioactivity last summer, he acknowledged but subsequent testing found the spike was not due to plutonium, and it has not reoccurred. The readings were still far within safe levels, Pearlman said.

No action planned

Regardless of the nuclear-waste concerns at Lowry, the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer, now common across the country, remains controversial. The sewage-treatment industry says the sludge is safe and nutrient-rich with no significant levels of contaminants. Critics -- including a former EPA chief investigator, Hugh Kaufman -- say it's an easy way to get rid of toxic waste by simply diluting it, and they worry that even the smallest traces of heavy metals are unsafe, especially when they end up in the food chain.

Earlier this year, the Student Environmental Action Coalition at CU-Boulder obtained documents showing that in addition to farm fields, MetroGro was also being used at Widefield schools. The coalition got in touch with Fennewald, a former member, and they arranged a meeting with school district officials, in which they persuaded the district to stop using MetroGro.

"We were very thrilled," Fennewald said. She called the decision "a huge step for the national campaign against toxic sludge."

Although the school district was concerned enough to stop using MetroGro, Drew said there's probably no reason for parents to be alarmed, since regulatory agencies have said the fertilizer is safe. The school is not considering digging up soil where the fertilizer has already been applied, he said. "We're probably not gonna do anything."

Donna Hull, Metro Wastewater's distribution coordinator for MetroGro, said the product isn't sold to any other customers in the Springs area.

-- Terje Langeland

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