More than 30 years ago, Helene Orr was spending every second of spare time reading documents on chemical waste. Often she would be up until 2 or 3 in the morning trying to make sense of legal papers …
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More than 30 years ago, Helene Orr was spending every second of spare time reading documents on chemical waste. Often she would be up until 2 or 3 in the morning trying to make sense of legal papers dealing with the Shattuck Chemical Company — which planned, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to leave nearly 6 acres of unsafe waste near her home in Overland Park.
Before the boom of Denver brought new developments to the southern part of the city, residents of Overland Park were fighting a battle to remove decades’ worth of chemical waste from their quiet neighborhood. Over the years Shattuck Chemical had worked with several materials in its factory nearby — leaving behind waste from lead, radium, uranium and more — before being shut down in 1984. But by then, the site had caught the attention of the EPA.
Many people were drawn to the issue when parts of Shattuck, like the smokestack, began to be torn down.
“They just demolished it and all kinds of radioactive dust went everywhere,” Orr said.
Shattuck first opened in 1918. The company processed chemicals for more than six decades. Both neighborhood residents as well as Denver city officials joined together in the 1990s to fight for clean soil and groundwater and to remove solid waste materials from Shattuck — a project which wasn’t completed until 2006. Now, a new development project is being built on the site.
Although the legal battles of what to do with the waste have been settled for years now, the long-term impact has taken a toll on the community.
‘A remarkable fight’
In late 1982, the EPA began investigating the Shattuck land as part of a larger Superfund site connected to hazardous chemicals throughout Denver. Superfund sites allow the EPA to work with state governments to either clean the sites or have the responsible companies reimburse the government for cleanups led by the agency. The law was first put into place by Congress in 1980, and is called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).
Shortly after the agency’s investigation, the Denver Radium Site, which included Shattuck, was put on the National Priorities List in 1983.
Orr lived a few blocks from the Shattuck buildings, which operated at 1805 S. Bannock St., just north of Jewell Avenue. Once the EPA put the Shattuck site on a list of national Superfund locations, Orr and several other residents began to take action, going door-to-door alerting neighbors to a brewing problem. “It really was a remarkable fight,” Orr said of their efforts to get the EPA to remove waste materials from the neighborhood.
After several years of struggling against both the state and federal governments, Orr said she is trying to move forward. She got rid of all the documents related to Shattuck, putting it out of sight and out of mind.
“It was a big chunk of our lives. You kind of just want to forget about it at some point,” she said. “It’s all I lived for six or seven years.”
A murky history
When Shattuck first opened a century ago, it was part of the radium industry, extracting uranium materials and working with other chemicals like molybdenum. Radium was frequently prescribed as a medical treatment by doctors after World War I. In the 1950s, Shattuck transitioned into fully working to process uranium ore.
At the time, Shattuck was one of the main producers of uranium in the world, said Shaun Sullivan. Sullivan was the assistant city attorney of Denver when the EPA and state government first came to clean up the Shattuck site in the 1990s. He worked in environmental law. In April, he became the city and county attorney of Broomfield.
Uranium had been discovered in western Colorado, and ore was brought to Denver to be processed. The problem with uranium production, Sullivan said, is that it takes a lot of ore to extract a very small amount of uranium, leaving lots of waste materials. After the industry shifted to production in Belgium, Shattuck started going through less uranium until it closed in the 1980s.
“The industry started to die and people started to forget about the sites in Colorado,” Sullivan said — until the EPA put the site on the National Priorities List.
Shattuck was the eighth location included in the Denver Radium Superfund site in 1983. While the EPA got to work cleaning up the other locations, it started reaching out to the Overland neighborhood as well as city and state officials to decide what to do with waste materials from the chemical company.
In 1992 the EPA opted to keep the material on-site in a record of decision document released in January. Saloman Inc., which owned Shattuck, was required by law to pay for the cleanup. The company paid $26 million to mix clean soil and gravel with the contaminated materials, which was then piled into the center of the site into a tower structure and covered in concrete to prevent leakage.
“It didn’t make sense to dig it all up,” said Fonda Apostolopoulos, a project manager for the state Department of Public Health and Environment who works on the Shattuck site.
He added that the concrete later was what was typically done in the 1990s to clean up similar sites.
But the city of Denver had concerns about the solution, Sullivan said. That was 6 acres of land that could never be used by the city for hundreds, even thousands of years.
“We thought it was an inappropriate remedy for that location,” Sullivan said.
Residents also worried that leaving hazardous materials would have negative impacts on their health. Orr said several of the residents in the area have had some type of cancer, including a woman who lived almost directly next door to Shattuck and died of breast cancer.
“Cancer of course is extremely prevalent and it’s really hard to prove causation,” she said. “But (the rates) still seemed really high.”
It wasn’t until 2000 that the EPA reversed the decision — a first for agency, Sullivan said — and decided to move the waste offsite after it was found some of the material had leaked into the groundwater.
By 2006 the waste material had been removed.
Moving into the future
Every five years, the state Department of Public Health and Environment performs surveys on the Shattuck land to make sure the groundwater leaks remain at safe levels. The results can be found on the EPA’s website, with the exception of a test that was done in September, Apostolopoulos said. The results from that survey will likely be done being processed in December, he added.
Now that a new apartment complex is being built on the land, Apostolopoulos said he has helped the developers do additional tests to ensure the safety of the land. Dallas-based Encore Enterprises is building 226 units for the project.
Apostolopoulos added that the developer added a radon gauge on the building as an extra precaution. Encore Enterprises did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s a great success story,” Apostolopoulos said. “Here’s a property that was basically worthless and now it’s productive.”
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