Before Piece Of Rocky Mountain Arsenal Can Be Developed, Congress Must Lift Restrictions

Jun 7, 2016

Would you live on a former Superfund site? Commerce City is hoping to develop about 1,000 acres of land that was once part of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. The Denver Business Journal reports the development already has a name that harkens back to its WWII past – Victory Crossing – and will include homes, office space and retail.

But is the arsenal, where more than 600 chemicals including mustard and sarin gasses and later pesticides manufactured and tested for decades, safe for people to live on?

U.S. Senators Cory Gardner (R-Colorado), Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) and U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Golden) want to find out. They are among the sponsors of an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2017 fiscal year that would lift restrictions the Environmental Protection Agency put on the property after the Superfund cleanup was completed in 1996.

The Rocky Mountain Arsenal came into existence when the U.S. government acquired the land in 1942 and began manufacturing chemical warfare agents and other munitions for use in WWII. Private companies were encouraged to lease facilities in the mid-1940s in order to help maintain the arsenal. Shell Oil Co. leased property and manufactured agricultural pesticides from 1952 through 1982.

According the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment:

Manufacturing and waste disposal practices used during these years resulted in extensive soil, surface water, sediment, groundwater and structures contamination, damage to trees and vegetation, and death to wildlife. Solid and liquid chemical hazardous wastes were disposed of in trenches, burn pits and pooled in open basins covering wide areas. Spills occurred in the central processing areas, storage areas, and out of chemical sewers that existed underground.

The contamination wasn’t discovered until nearby livestock were affected and crop damage was noticed by farms to the north. Attempts were made to contain the waste with asphalt lined basins, and deep injection wells, though according to the EPA, it “wasn’t successful.”

Rocky Mountain Arsenal South Plant, from the east, circa 1970.
Credit Library of Congress

After Shell Oil Co. stopped manufacturing in 1982, the arsenal was placed on a priorities list of Superfund sites in 1987.

The EPA and Colorado investigated and tested the site in 1996. Their remedies included removing the top 10 feet of soil over much of the area and containment structures below ground to keep waste contained. The use of the land was also restricted. The EPA stated that [.pdf]:

...the agreed-upon remedy directs that the entire area is subject to restrictions on land use in perpetuity, including residential development, agricultural use, any potable use of the groundwater, and any consumption of fish or game from the Arsenal. These restrictions must remain in place unless future sampling and scientific investigation determines they can be safely removed.

The property that may be developed is not part of the wildlife refuge that most of the arsenal was turned into after the Superfund cleanup. The parcel in question is owned by Commerce City, and Ed Perlmutter, who helped pass the amendment in the House, thinks what happens to the land should be up to them.

“The purpose [of the amendment] is to allow, after further testing, but to allow Commerce City to develop for residential and industrial use this property… and that’s you know, what’s important for this city, each city can make its own determinations as to its future,” Perlmutter said.

Contaminated soils cleanup was completed in 2010, with air monitoring both during and after the cleanup process. None of the chemicals exceeded acceptable levels. Birth defects and cancer rates around the arsenal were also monitored, and neither were found to be linked to their proximity to the former chemical testing and manufacturing ground. Still, the history of the site may make people wary.

“What I say to them is that it will be tested to confirm that it’s safe. And we know that back in 2002, 450 samples were taken in this area and it was determined to be clean in terms of environmental standards,” Perlmutter said. “So I would just say it will be tested before the restriction is actually released, but we’re changing the law to allow for the restriction to be released if the property is clean.”

Colorado’s ongoing need for affordable housing may make the proposed development attractive to homebuyers. But will they be told about the site’s extensive past?

“…if Commerce City sells this property, as part of the sales contract they can disclose that it was formerly part of the Arsenal. If somebody is doing a title search they will see that it was formerly owned by the Department of the Army and its manager, Shell, so there will be title that will show that it was part of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.”

The amendment has passed the U.S. House, it now awaits a vote in the U.S. Senate.