Twenty years of environmental reporting

Two decades of digging through the dookie

Boulder Weekly Staff | Boulder Weekly

As early as 1994, it became clear that environmental reporting would be a priority for Boulder Weekly, and it was environmental stories that set the tone for the paper as one that would strive to protect our local environment. Editorial staff members of the Weekly have worked with whistleblowers to confirm contamination of groundwater and air quality violations, dug into difficult issues, such as hydraulic fracturing and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and undertaken lengthy investigations to identify risks to public health and the environment. Below are the details from a few of the stories that have set the bar for the environmental investigative work that the Weekly has done throughout its two decades in Boulder.

Cover up: Whistleblower claims Syntex Chemicals delayed reporting groundwater contamination by Joel Dyer, May 26, 1994

The Boulder-based pharmaceutical plant Syntex Chemicals ranked among the worst polluters in the state in 1994. The company confessed to the Environmental Protection Agency in 1988 that it had discovered groundwater contamination below the plant in 1986.

Because the company volunteered the disclosure, it wasn’t likely to be fined for the spill.

A letter from a former Syntex employee to the EPA claimed Syntex knew about the groundwater contamination as early as 1982, and that the company had tried to cover it up. The whistleblower, Richard Hughes, an environmental chemist, claimed he’d seen several leaks at the plant and subsequent groundwater tests had revealed the presence of toxic chemicals. He had recorded his findings in a laboratory notebook allegedly signed by his superiors — but that notebook had later vanished, along with documents that would have pinpointed when Syntex officials knew about the contamination.

Boulder Weekly’s story, written by current editor Joel Dyer, confirmed the source’s belief that the groundwater contamination was reaching Boulder Creek and that the spills leading to that contamination had not been properly reported to the EPA.

Deadly ground: Beech Aircraft toxins poison open space by Joel Dyer, Sept. 15, 1994

In 1988, the city and county of Boulder jointly purchased what was to be an addition to Open Space from Beech Aircraft. Buying the 1,200.5-acre chunk of land two miles north of Boulder on Highway 36 at $1.5 million was considered a bargain, according to city records, but the groundwater beneath the land had been contaminated with potentially cancercausing chemicals. That water had spilled into Left Hand Reservoir, an occasional drinking water source for homes in North Boulder, Longmont and Erie.

An investigation revealed that Beech officials were aware of the contamination before the sale, but, according to city of Boulder staff, the contamination was not disclosed to the city and county during the sales negotiation, though such disclosures are required by law.

An investigation by current editor Joel Dyer located a memo from 1976 that confirmed Beech was aware of the contamination, forcing the companies to pay for the cleanup. Dyer’s reporting also unearthed the ongoing national defense activities happening in Boulder — Beech had been fueling missiles for the U.S. Navy at that Highway 36 location for decades, and the volatile and carcinogenic compound hydrazine, used in rocket fuel, found at the location confirmed that the company was continuing those activities, despite the apparent closure of the Beech plant.

The story led to the installation of a groundwater-recovery system that captures contaminated water and a cleanup of the property.

Concrete evidence: Cement plant north of Boulder faces state penalties, federal inspectors and the wrath of a whistleblower by Pamela White, Nov. 20, 2003

In 2003, an employee of the Cemex plant near Lyons installed a video camera into a Thermos to record evidence of health and safety violations: piles of dust blocking walkways, including one waist-high that blocked a door; a dump truck dashboard with the gauges missing; a nearby ditch filled with green, oily water surrounded by oil filters; and oil buckets and rags tied around dripping oil leaks. After passing the videos off to former Boulder Weekly editor Pamela White, she set up a tour of the facility that showed none of those same problems and a plant manager admitted that, with the use of the code phrase “There are donuts in the front office,” plant workers were tipped off to clean up the plant because an important visitor had arrived.

Meanwhile, neighbors reported cement kiln dust blowing off the site regularly, an air quality violation. The dust aggravates asthma and other lung issues, and had even been linked to premature aging of the lungs. Cement dust in high enough concentrations can even cause chemical burns.

White assembled a list of the past violations at the plant based on county and state records, and the videos, given to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, spurred an unannounced inspection that uncovered several violations. The state health inspector was also conducting an inquiry, and the results were one of the largest fines that had been assessed to date.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) coverage Ongoing by BW staff since 2001

Genetically modified seeds and foods, the movement to label genetically engineered food products, and the monopolies in the food industry run by companies like Monsanto and DuPont have been on the Boulder Weekly radar since 2001.

For years, the story was a debate on whether genetically engineered sugar beets should be grown on county open space. Former Boulder Weekly editor Pamela White broke a story in 2009 on paid consultants from the biotech industry attending public meetings to make misleading statements about the

safety and value of GMO crops. Then, in 2011, current editors Jefferson Dodge and Joel Dyer uncovered a similar effort by Monsanto, the Farm Bureau, Corn Growers Association and Syngenta to plant pro- GMO people from all over the state at a final county commissioners’ meeting on considering GMOs on Boulder County open space.

The Weekly has also explored how the consolidation of the seed industry means that even if farmers want to plan non-GMO crops, they struggle to find traditional seeds available, since those seeds have been phased out by big-ag companies as they purchase smaller seed companies and eliminate non-GE seeds. Mainstay crops such as corn, soy and sugar beets are now dangerously homogenous.

Ghosts of Valmont Butte: A 10-part series on a contaminated property bought by the city of Boulder by Joel Dyer, Jefferson Dodge and Elizabeth Miller, January to June 2012

The announcement of a cleanup settlement between the Department of Justice on behalf of the EPA and the City of Boulder, Honeywell International and Tusco Inc. raised more questions than it answered for Weekly staff, and they started on an investigation that would unearth potential mismanagement and an ongoing risk to public health at the now city-owned property of Valmont Butte.

Unable to stomach the costs of cleaning up the property to meet the requirements to use it as a site for training fire fighters, the stated reason for purchasing it in the first place, the city elected to split costs with the one-time owner of the property, Honeywell, to install a cap and leave the site as open space — and a permanent home to tons of toxic and radioactive waste. A problematic classification and handling of the site by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Environmental Protection Agency and the City of Boulder led to the site narrowly missing qualification for Superfund status and federal funding for the cleanup.

The cleanup plan focused on preventing burrowing animals from unearthing toxic waste, but included virtually no provisions for preventing groundwater contamination and migration. City officials insisted there was no groundwater on the site, though neighboring homes have reported contaminated wells for decades.

City staff overseeing the cleanup were also apparently unsure of the location of 150 truckloads of radium-contaminated soil dumped at the property in the 1970s. After reviewing records from the city of Boulder, Boulder County, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency; examining dozens of photographs and maps; interviewing people whose families lived in the area and relatives were buried in the adjacent cemetery, the Weekly identified the likely spot where the contamination was buried.

The ongoing cleanup is past deadline and over budget. This story isn’t finished yet.

Fracking in Boulder County Ongoing coverage since October 2011

For the last few years, providing comprehensive and understandable coverage of hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) operations near Boulder County and throughout the world has been a priority for the Weekly’s editorial staff. In October 2011, Jefferson Dodge first delved into the issue with a story about Longmont city officials in discussions with oil and gas officials interested in accessing the Wattenberg oil field next to and under Union Reservoir — and environmentalists were concerned that the chemicals used in the process could contaminate groundwater or the reservoir itself.

In other stories on fracking, BW published satellite photos that show what some activists say are patterns formed by the dumping of fracking waste, and covered the David-versus- Goliath battle of Longmont environmentalists campaigning to pass a fracking ban for the city, as well as covering the ongoing lawsuit that followed passage of the ban.

The Weekly has reported on the historic origins of fracking here in Boulder, the pressure academics face when they publish anti-fracking findings and the ways the debate has split communities like the one in Pavillion, Wyo.

Boulder Weekly editor Joel Dyer has reported that the method of disposing of toxic waste, including fracking fluid laden with 500 chemicals, in deep wells has been shown to have negative side effects, including earthquakes and groundwater contamination, but because fracking is exempt from the Clean Water Act, the wells those fluids are disposed in are infrequently checked.

Recently, Dyer has reported that many of the 15.3 Americans living within a mile of a hydraulically fractured well drilled since 2000 may see the value of their homes drop by more than 15 percent. He’s also looked into the loopholes that lie ahead for oil and gas companies because of international trade agreements, which means those companies may be able to force their way into local communities, whether they have a fracking ban or not.

BW has consistently brought stories about fracking from around the world back to Boulder County with the cautionary note that this could happen here.