Former workers for the Denver Water utility company have admitted that they dumped hazardous waste, including asbestos, near a planned housing community during the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the workers involved in the dumping scheme called the area a “toxic burial ground”. The worker, Joe Pacheco, said that he and his crews buried cement shards containing asbestos fibers near a water treatment plant in suburban Denver.
Mr. Pacheco said that his crews were given dust masks and operated backhoes to break up the cement and bury it near the Foothills Water Treatment Facility. He also alleges that the crews worked to hide the hazardous waste under the orders of then-Denver Water Manager Chips Barry. Work crews from the burial site have reported suffering from varying illnesses, which they blame on the times they handled friable asbestos and other dangerous materials.
Mr. Pacheco and other workers allege that they did not use proper asbestos disposal methods, such as wetting down the asbestos-laced cement or separating any asbestos-containing material from the rest of the debris. Instead, they claim that they used backhoes to crush and break up the asbestos-cement pipes, spread the pulverized material over a vacant lot and covered the debris with dirt.
Barbara Sherock, a resident of one of the nearby housing developments, stated that she had heard the digging operations going on through the night. She expressed outrage and shock about the utility company’s failure to inform any of the area residents about the hazardous waste burial site. She also mentioned that a drain that carries groundwater from the contaminated site empties near the campus of an area middle school.
A spokesperson with Denver Water issued a statement saying that burying cement-asbestos pipe “may have occurred”, but that the practice was the accepted standard when the events occurred. The company did not deny or confirm the reports from the former workers, but reiterated that they place a “high priority” on the safety of both their workers and their customers. Denver Water Board President Penfield Tate said that he was aware of the allegations and that the company is “taking (them) seriously”.
A local television station revealed that they had obtained a memo from Mr. Barry that mentions an emergency asbestos remediation effort at the Foothills facility conducted late last year, costing the company over $576,000. According to the document, the project targets two critical areas of the water treatment plant and described the work as “labor-intensive” and that it would last for nearly two months.
Denver Water responded by saying that the news story created “unnecessary fear and concern” for area homeowners and their families. The incident could lead to an investigation by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Although the agency has not carried out any tests at the Foothills site, government officials said that they would consider looking into the issue.
The water company maintained that the asbestos-laced pipes are safe, since the dangerous asbestos fibers bond to the cement. When asbestos fibers are airborne, they can cause severe lung diseases, including asbestosis and mesothelioma, when inhaled. They also said that, since asbestos is not water-soluble, that any asbestos buried near groundwater sources would not contaminate local water supplies.
The Colorado Dept of Public Health and Environment has a fact sheet on the situation (PDF format).
Sources: Denver Water, KDVR
Follow-up: Denver Water publishes a response to Fox News story of claims about airborne toxic materials.