Deadly ground

Beech Aircraft toxins poison open space | by Joel Dyer, Sept. 15, 1994

Boulder Weekly Staff | Boulder Weekly

Sometimes you get more than you bargained for. In 1988, the city and county of Boulder jointly purchased 1,200.5 acres of land from Beech Aircraft under the impression it would be a great addition to Open Space. The land, about two miles north of Boulder on Highway 36, cost $1.5 million and, according to city records, was considered a bargain by city and county officials. The purchase was hailed as a smart move.

What the public didn’t know was that the groundwater beneath the land had been contaminated with potentially cancer-causing chemicals — vinyl chloride, trichloroethylene, 1,1,1-Trichlorethane, Irl- Dichloroethylene, Cis 1,2-Dichloroethylene and Trans 1,2-Dichloroethylene. The contaminated water, so dirty it was discolored, poured out of the ground and over open space lands before spilling into Left Hand Reservoir, which intermittently supplies drinking water to homes in North Boulder, Longmont and Erie.

Boulder Weekly’s investigation discovered that Beech officials knew of the likely contamination long before the 1988 sale to the city. Jim Crain, director of open space and real estate, said the information about contamination was never disclosed to the city and county during sales negotiations despite laws that required sellers to come clean about any potential pollution on their land.

“I spent months pouring over thousands of pages of health department records and finally found my smoking gun — a single 1976 memo that confirmed that Beech had known that the property was contaminated years before it sold the lands to Boulder open space,” says Dyer. “By finding the proof,” he adds, “it gave the citizens of Boulder a way to force Beech to clean up the mess at its expense instead of ours. It’s the kind of thing good investigative journalism can do for a community.”

Another aspect of this investigation that rocked Boulder residents and city officials alike was the discovery that national defense activities, widely believed to have ceased decades earlier at the site, were still occurring and were potentially putting the community at great risk.

When Beech Aircraft was sold to Raytheon Corporation, a major U.S. defense contractor, everyone thought that the company’s Boulder operations had been packed up and moved to Raytheon’s central Kansas facility, leaving the Boulder location vacant for the most part. But they were wrong.

For decades, Beech had been quietly fueling missiles for the U.S. Navy at its Highway 36 location. While Dyer was investigating the groundwater contamination at the site, he came across evidence of hydrazine contamination. Hydrazine is used in rocket fuel, but more importantly, it is extremely volatile and, once in the environment, can quickly break down into a number of extremely hazardous carcinogens. That’s why it is considered one of the most dangerous substances on the planet when it escapes into the air or water. The Weekly discovered that the rocket fueling operation had never stopped even though the plant had seemingly closed years earlier.

“The Navy was still transporting missiles to the Boulder property periodically at night and fueling them out of sight behind a dirt berm built to obstruct the view of the operation from Highway 36 below,” says Dyer.

As to why the fueling operation hadn’t been moved to Kansas along with everything else, it turns out that hydrazine rocket fuel is considered so dangerous to the public in case of a spill or air-born release that many states in the U.S. and most countries of the world forbid its use or storage. Because the hydrazine fuel had been used at Beech’s Boulder facility since the Vietnam era, it was grandfathered in as a legal operation at the site. Kansas doesn’t even allow the deadly substance within the state’s borders, so the fueling operation couldn’t be moved.

“I was shocked that hydrazine rocket fuel was still being used and stored just a few miles north of town,” says Dyer. “It’s so hazardous the military has designed a computer model just to analyze how many people would die downwind of an accidental hydrazine release into the air. Some of the old timers who had worked at the Beech plant during the Vietnam War told me how red clouds of the fuel would sometimes go floating away on the wind towards the east. So I knew accidents had happened and could happen again.

“When I realized in 1994 that there were dozens of drums of hydrazine just sitting at the back of the Beech property, I was shocked. I hiked around to the west above the property and then right down to the drums and stood there without anybody stopping me. I realized that a kid with a .22 rifle on the hill above Beech could wipe out half the population of Boulder if he decided to take target practice on those drums and the wind was blowing the right direction towards town.”

“Deadly ground” was one of those shocking stories that you could never have imagined stumbling upon in Boulder County. Yet there it was and nobody knew what was actually going on, at least nobody knew until the Weekly ran the story.

After that, a groundwater-recovery system was installed to capture contaminated water, and the contaminated open space lands to the east were temporarily closed to the public to protect human health until conditions could be fully determined and the contamination cleaned up.

It was becoming clear even as early as 1994 that investigative environmental reporting was going to be a priority for Boulder Weekly, and that has held true for the past two decades.