In the middle of nowhere south of Ellicott, amid prairie grass, yucca and abandoned mobile homes, up to 100,000 gallons of liquid laced with toxic heavy metals were dumped into two ponds for more than a year. Some of that liquid might have escaped into the ground through tattered and torn liners.
Given that there are more jackrabbits than people out there, who would care, right? But the 18,000 residents of the Cherokee Metropolitan District east of Colorado Springs should care plenty.
Well No. 16, which supplies 15 percent of their water, sits 200 yards downhill from the ponds, which were filled with liquid that contained cadmium, zinc, copper and nickel at levels thousands of times beyond what's acceptable under environmental laws, according to regulators. The metals can be poisonous in high doses, and a rancher lost two cows that drank from the ponds and later showed toxic zinc levels in their tissues, according to Dave Doran, president of Upper Black Squirrel Creek Ground Water Management District. The ponds sit on the south edge of the 530-square-mile district, which oversees underground water supplies in eastern El Paso County.
State authorities ordered the liquid hauled off last month and want the landowner and a chemist who dumped there to write a cleanup plan.
High time, say Doran and Cherokee Metro District general manager Kip Petersen, who are frustrated at the investigation's plodding pace. Says Doran: "I've been told this is pretty dangerous stuff."
Caught on camera
The ponds came to light when a farmer spotted them while flying over his land last summer. He sent pictures to Cherokee, which supplies water and wastewater service east of Powers Boulevard.
Petersen, who used to work for the city of Cripple Creek, thought it looked like a gold extraction setup. Last September, he reported the ponds to the county health and zoning departments. On Oct. 21, the county "kicked the can down the road" and referred the issue to the state, Doran says.
"This was never the county's issue," County Attorney Bill Louis says, adding that it took the county several weeks to get the state's attention.
The state lost a little time deciding which agency to put in charge and how to gain access through a locked gate with warning signs also labeling the land "Fort Wayne." But in January, search warrant in hand and with an El Paso County sheriff's deputy escort, inspector Jerry Henderson got a first-hand look.
Henderson, with the state's solid and hazardous waste program, saw 50-foot-square "distinctly blue-green" twin pools, hoses sticking out and black plastic lining torn in places, but anchored with railroad ties and concrete blocks. Some liquid had sloshed onto the ground, inspectors note in a report.
The state's probe, which involved Attorney General's Office investigators, led to Diamond Wire Material Technologies at 3505 N. Stone Ave., which uses metals to make components for solar energy devices.
Diamond Wire had hired its research and development chemist, Shaun MacMillan of Peyton, to dispose of the waste, state records show. The records indicate that MacMillan used the ponds in hopes that evaporation would concentrate the metals and allow him to recover them. He told regulators he dumped 10,000 to 100,000 gallons in the ponds since spring 2009.
The state's tests found nickel — tied to lung diseases in dogs and birth defects in rats and mice — at concentrations of up to 16,000 times the safe drinking water standard. Beryllium tested at 700 times the standard, copper at 410 times the standard, cadmium at 62 times the standard, and zinc at five times the standard. Soil samples adjacent to the ponds tested for nickel at 143 times a normal soil sample, and copper at 141 times.
Though the Independent found MacMillan's phone disconnected when attempting to interview him for this story, Henderson says the chemist has been cooperative. Landowner Wayne Cordova, however, hasn't been found; his phone in Cripple Creek has been disconnected.
The state says MacMillan and Cordova broke the law by having no certification for a solid-waste disposal operation. As ordered, MacMillan emptied the ponds last week by hauling the liquid to an approved disposal site, state officials say. By mid-June, MacMillan and Cordova must submit a plan to determine soil and groundwater impacts. Henderson says the state could still impose fines, which by law could be $10,000 per day.
Cherokee didn't wait to identify the metals. Petersen shut down Well No. 16 for 10 days while samples were tested. They proved safe, so the well was restarted, and it has been checked monthly since. But he still hopes the state will require the violators to install test wells to find out if the liquid has migrated toward the well.
"It's critical to find out if there's been a leak," he says.
Doran says he suspects there has been one, considering how the liners were tattered and that ponds' levels dropped three to four feet over a few months.
"The thing that bothers me is that these wells serve so many people — schools, Schriever Air Force Base, Falcon, Cimarron Hills," he says. "I thought they [the county and state] moved very slowly on it."
The state's Charles Johnson says the complicated case was of "great concern" to regulators, "which is why we put so much effort into it."
Meantime, Louis says that while the site clearly violates zoning laws, the county won't take enforcement action.
"I'm not sure there's a point to it," Louis says. "If we knew there were continuing operations, maybe. At this point, they've stopped doing it."