On April 22 — Earth Day — a van carrying Aurora Congressman Jason Crow turned onto a dusty road in east Aurora. The van parked on a small overpass above a marsh. Crow hopped out and, hands on hips, squinted at the bushes and reeds covering the creek bed.

Nothing from the scene indicated that the stream was squarely situated above a miles-long, underground rash of toxic waste.

Murphy Creek, which runs through the Murphy Creek neighborhood, is the subject of controversy, given its proximity to the Lowry Superfund site and current and future developments. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Crow and his staff peered at the wash, joined by some locals. The stream, Murphy Creek, which is only a stream when there’s occasionally water in it, zigzagged next to the nearby Murphy Creek Golf Course to the Lowry Landfill Superfund Site in the distance.

Bonnie Rader handed Crow a map and folder of documents. Rader has lived in the area since before the subdivisions and highways crowded the ranch houses and horse corrals, and even before the Superfund site was known as one of Colorado’s most polluted areas.

She’s perhaps best known in Aurora for helping stop a plan to build a racetrack on the eastern plains in the 1990s, a thorn in the side of developers and politicians. But for the last 50 years, her world has revolved around the Lowry Landfill.

Rader had Crow’s ear for the afternoon.

She explained that, for decades, the City of Denver allowed dozens of companies including Conoco, Coors and Hewlett Packard — and some metro-area cities —  to dump 138 million gallons of toxic waste on the land, enough to fill over 200 olympic-sized swimming pools, according to Environmental Protection Agency records.

At the Lowry Landfill’s biological treatment plant, bacteria latch onto plastic material and cleanse contaminated water. The water is pumped into the treatment facility, cleansed and released into regional waste water treatment sites. Photo by Ali C. M. Watkins/Sentinel Colorado

The pits were then covered with earth to contain the toxins, according to the landfill website.

Today, the site is a strange respite from suburbia that has gobbled up the plains plot-by-plot. New residents in the area are surprised to learn that the grassy 500-acre Superfund site even exists.

But evidence shows the site has leaked toxic chemicals above ground  and underground. Maps of the waste show a plume-shaped, subterranean spate spreading as far as three miles north from the Superfund site boundary into water far beneath the western edge of the Murphy Creek Golf Course.

The EPA, which oversees the site, recently said it needs more testing to ensure that shallow and deep, underground water sources are safe. The site sits above two important sources of drinking water, the Dawson and Denver aquifers.

While the rash has spread beneath the surface, the chemicals have also traveled through creeks on the prairie surface, according to a technical consultant hired by the Superfund citizen oversight group.

Unnamed creeks flow from the Superfund site into Murphy Creek, which bounds the nearby Murphy Creek Golf Course. Water in the dry creeks can seep into the earth and shallow underground water.

The polluters believe locals and golfers are at a minimal risk of becoming sick from exposure, citing EPA assessments.

Rader, a longtime local, is most worried that residents like her could someday pump contaminated water from their private wells. She estimates that about 175 residents in her neighborhood and others nearby draw their water from aquifers just miles away from the site.

Tests indicate that private wells are safe, and there’s no evidence of locals stricken with diseases because of exposure to the toxic waste, the EPA told Sentinel Colorado.

It’s a reality everyone, including Rader, agrees with.

But the spreading waste is hand-wringing for Rader and other local residents because a new development would put more residents closer than ever to the toxic waste and a major metro-area landfill.

The developer, Lennar Corporation, would build more than 800 housing units on the land, possibly becoming homes to thousands of new residents. Murphy Creek trickles down only a few hundred feet away.

Illustration by Robert Sausaman/Sentinel Colorado

Locals opposed to the scheme have the backing of a technical consultant that said the land could be dangerous and should be considered unfit for human habitation. But the new development of the region isn’t just limited to homes.

Rader and various city and Arapahoe County officials are also raising doubts about two industrial waste disposal wells that would occupy land about five miles away from the site boundary.

Unlike hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the injection wells flush fracking waste from oil and gas extraction deep into the earth.

Injection wells are known to trigger earthquakes, geologists say, although there’s no definitive evidence that wells at this location could or couldn’t precipitate a temblor.

Some Arapahoe County and Aurora officials say the drills could destabilize the sensitive earth underneath the Lowry Landfill and contaminate the water supply, if it isn’t already. The injection wells would also be several miles from the Aurora Reservoir.

Rader bombarded Crow with this and other information that April day in a methodical monotone. Locals including some Murphy Creek neighborhood leaders looked on, worried.

Rader wanted Crow, with his oversight power, to pressure the EPA and responsible groups to not only keep the waste in the Superfund site but to attempt to clean it up for good.

Months after, a representative for Crow recently said he will tour the site with the EPA to learn more. He has not sent a letter of concern to the EPA, as Rader was hoping.

But Crow’s interest is a welcome development for some city officials and community advocates who are worried about the city and heavy industry growing into the area. With the exception of one sympathetic city official, her concerns have largely fallen on deaf ears.

As the city expands closer and closer to the Superfund site, the public concern about the waste and its risk may be more pressing than the actual danger of people becoming sick. The concerns are becoming part of efforts to limit development on Aurora’s eastern flank.

“It is a Superfund site,” said Polly Page, a long-time east Aurora resident and former local and state government official. “It will always have stigma.”

A car drives along the southern perimeter of the Lowry Landfill Superfund site on East Quincy Avenue. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

High plains, high stress

Rader brought her family to east Aurora in 1974, only it wasn’t east Aurora then.

She said she moved into the eighth house in Gun Club Estates, an area in then-unincorporated Arapahoe County off of South Gun Club Road and far south of Interstate 70.

Rader describes an idyllic life: raising her children, enjoying the big sky and plains and riding horses. She loves the rolling hills, meadowlarks and cottonwoods.

But a decade earlier, dozens of heavy industry companies had begun to dump industrial waste in unlined pits about five miles south from Rader’s home. The land — just 15 miles from downtown Denver —  was formerly part of a 100-square mile World War II bombing range. An abandoned intercontinental missile silo also looms near the dumping ground.

Rader said she knew when the companies were dumping because of the unmistakable smells: dirty diapers, salt, exhaust, and the bitter, almond-like scent of cyanide.

Rader said that, some nights, she and her family would wake up in the middle of the night and try to run out of the house for fresh air to no avail, falling to the floor before they reached the door.

Other families also told her they began having health issues.  They blamed the dumping.

“We could never prove that it was the issue,” she said of the toxic waste.

Rader set out to learn about the dumping just as industrial waste became a widespread fear for Americans all over the country.

Illustration by Robert Sausaman/Sentinel Colorado

In the late 1970s, the Love Canal disaster began grabbing headlines. The booming town of Niagara, New York had expanded into a former industrial waste disposal site. Later, scientists found that astoundingly large portions of the residents were afflicted with chromosomal damage and complications leading to leukemia.

It was a catalyst for the environmental movement in the U.S. After the disaster, Congress passed the Superfund law directing the EPA to identify and clean up toxic waste sites across the country.

Rather than move away, Rader began clamoring to have the Lowry Landfill designated as one of the most toxic areas of the U.S.

Nicole Johnston, an Aurora City Council member who now represents the area, said Rader’s early advocacy was crucial.

“There wouldn’t even be a Superfund site without her,” she said.

Rader describes her early tactics as “spouting off in the newspapers,” including Sentinel Colorado.

The EPA added the site to the Superfund’s list of toxic areas in 1984. It began facilitating the construction of a boundary wall on the zone’s north end the same year to prevent the waste from leaking out.

But other, early attempts to clean up the site now seem bizarre. Landfill officials piled somewhere from 6 to 12 million tires and mountains of household trash onto the waste to soak up the sludge, according to the EPA and a Denver official.

The ploy didn’t work, but it did introduce Rader — then struggling with her first marriage —  to her future husband.

Richard Rader, came to town in the early 1980s, drawn to the site. He thought his experience in oil production and other industries would be useful to remove the tires.

Soon, he hatched his own scheme to haul the tires off of the site with heavy machinery and sell them to a Cañon City coal plant for energy production.

Former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm had appointed Bonnie as a citizen advisor on his Lowry Landfill monitoring committee. A state staffer connected the two.

“She ain’t so bad looking for an environmental chick,” Richard remembers thinking.

Richard’s plan never hatched, but the Lowry Landfill had brought him to Bonnie.

She divorced her first husband in 1985 and married Richard the next year. The two moved into a new house in Thunderbird Estates, a bit farther away from the Lowry Landfill — now one of the country’s first Superfund sites.

At the same time, the EPA began undertaking years of tests to find out how widely the polluters had sullied the land.

Early tests found that the soil and groundwater were contaminated with hazardous and carcinogenic substances industrial solvents including volatile organic compounds.

Concentrations of widely-used chemicals such as aluminum, benzene, acetone, chloroform, cyanide and nickel were found in deep groundwater far beneath the site.

The EPA and consultants hired by the polluters tested the damage until the mid-1990s. In 1994, the agency forced the about three dozen companies and governments to pay into a trust fund and fix the site.

Three entities — the City and County of Denver, Waste Management of Colorado and Chemical Waste Management — stepped up to manage the site for all of the groups, known as the Work Settling Defendants.

An employee of the Lowry Landfill checks on an extractor near a well at the superfund site.
Photo by Ali C.M. Watkins/Sentinel Colorado

The plan aimed to contain the waste and thereby protect the environment and humans from exposure via inhalation, ingestion or absorption through the skin.  Barrier walls above and below ground were built, along with a cap between the contaminated groundwater and what the polluters describe as clean creek water.

They understood early on that shallow groundwater was contaminated and now monitor water movement 365 days a year, according to the WSD-funded Lowry Landfill Info website.

Scientists also drilled hundreds of testing wells and inferred the size and shape of the underground chemical plume.

The polluters routed contaminated water to a treatment site and released it into the Murphy Creek wash until the early 2000s. Later, it became known that a cancer-causing chemical was in that water.

The plan did not include removing or otherwise cleaning up the waste.

Suburbia crawls east

While the polluters and various government agencies worked to contain the waste, the population of Aurora skyrocketed. The city grew east to the Superfund site.

In the late 1970s, about 75,000 people lived in Aurora. By 2000, about 220,000 residents called Aurora home, according to city data. These days, Aurora is pushing toward 400,000.

The city had annexed much of the rural land to the north and west of the Lowry Landfill in the years immediately after it was declared a Superfund site.

To protect the public, development and groundwater use is banned on three sides of the site within a half-mile. The north side, where the waste is leaking from, is protected by a quarter-mile buffer zone but has an unnatural buffer: the Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site, a metro landfill containing over 2 million tons of refuse.

Beyond the buffer zones, the land has largely been fair game.

In the 1990s, builders drew up a vision of an idyllic, rustic subdivision they dubbed Murphy Creek. It would have a world-class golf course crossing the actual Murphy Creek, bordering the DADS landfill and about a mile from the Lowry Landfill.

DADS is a dumping ground for household refuse, but also asbestos and oil industry waste.

When city council considered the plan in 1995, Bonnie Rader sounded off about the hazards of housing people and building a golf course near the site and the metro-area landfill.

The same year, former Aurora Mayor Paul Tauer said the Superfund site was not an issue for the development.

“The information we’ve received is that there’s no migration off the landfill site into this particular area,” he told the Colorado Real Estate Journal article. He also proposed moving the Superfund site. “That is right in the middle of some prime development area,” he said. “The pressure will be so great to move, that somehow it will be done.”

Developers and their city supporters beat out the Raders to build Murphy Creek. While the subdivision was finalized in the early 2000s, researchers found the waste was leaking underground from the Superfund site toward the new golf course.

Today, the development is a suburban neighborhood of white fences, green lawns and cul-de-sacs with a school, surrounded by the golf course.

Murphy Creek trickles with water several hundred feet away from the houses.

It’s an area of Aurora defined by strange contradictions. Beyond the Superfund site and DADS landfill, oil and gas wells dot the vast land of rolling plains, cottonwoods, subdivisions and new highways.

The Murphy Creek neighborhood near Murphy Creek. A superfund site near the area has created controversy as more homes are planned for development.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

A war of words

For two decades, hydrogeologist Lee Pivonka has monitored toxic waste at and around the Superfund site for Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

He’s one of the most prominent voices in the state calling for more scrutiny of the site.

Pivonka told Sentinel Colorado that pollution testing wells — not private wells for drinking — north of the Superfund site boundary were found to have unacceptably high levels of contamination as far back as 1995, when city councillors gave Murphy Creek the green light. Chemicals in many wells have never returned to acceptable levels, he said.

In 2002, EPA became concerned with a chemical called 1,4 dioxane. The stuff is widely found in trace amounts in  household products such as detergents and shampoos. It is probably a carcinogen if ingested in high-enough concentrations through drinking contaminated water, the EPA says, but most people will not be exposed to it that way in their lifetimes. The New York state legislature recently passed a ban on products with more than trace amounts of 1,4 dioxane. The bill is pending Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature.

For Murphy Creek golfers teeing off and residents,  the danger is low, the WSDs said.

Further to their point, it’s unheard of for golfers to drink the creek water. The course itself, like the Murphy Creek neighborhood, is irrigated with clean City of Aurora water.

But scientists have also monitored 1,4 dioxane because it moves quickly in water. They believe that tracking the chemical could indicate other toxic waste following it.

Councilwoman Nicole Johnston has voiced concern for current and future developments near a superfund site near Murphy Creek.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

As the state government’s lead researcher for the site, Pivonka has watched for the last 20 years and conducted more evidence about the leaking waste. In 2015, he co-authored a lengthy analysis to try and spur new fixes.

That paper mapped underground chemicals spreading down the Murphy Creek wash past East Jewell Avenue, below the edge of the Murphy Creek Golf Course and the community itself.

The paper estimated that 425.6 million gallons of contaminated water has leaked from the site in the plume, according to data from about a decade earlier. It’s a worrisome prospect for homes near the plume and on well water, such as the Raders’.

In the paper, Pivonka recommended that the EPA and the polluters try something new. The EPA recently heeded his suggestion that EPA stop injecting huge amounts of treated water north of the site.

Water was treated for various chemicals except for 1,4 dioxane, and pumped north of the site until the early 2000s. The WSDs then began treating water for 1,4 dioxane and injecting that north of the site until October 2018.

But while Pivonka and others conduct their own studies, the EPA and polluters have relied on separate studies and often come to separate conclusions. The debate over how and when the pollution has spread is rooted in a parallel universe of research at the EPA.

That agency’s conclusions, however, are often based on research commissioned by the WSDs.

The WSDs told Sentinel Colorado that, based on their information and EPA conclusions, the plan for containing the waste is currently protecting the public.

Karen Crummy of public relations firm BluePrint Strategies responded to Sentinel Colorado as the WSD spokeswoman. Crummy is routinely a spokesperson for oil and gas industry political causes.

The group believes the plume exists but is shrinking, pointing to data from a commissioned 2018 study indicating decreases in 1,4 dioxane levels at various locations north of the site.

Dave Wilmoth, a City and County of Denver official and environmental engineer, recently toured the site. He is a site expert representing Denver in the WSD group.

Coincidentally, Wilmoth also met his future wife over a decade ago because of the Lowry Landfill. She was an environmental attorney advising him on the site.

Wilmoth said the plan in place is working effectively. The contamination north of the site is little more than trace amounts of 1,4 dioxane, he said, blaming the outdated practice of dumping water contaminated with the stuff beyond the site’s northern barrier wall.

“No regulations,” he said of 1,4 dioxane. “No one knew.”

But that was almost two decades ago.

EPA spokesperson Rich Mylott said the containment plan is “working effectively to prevent off-site exposure to contaminants.”

However, the EPA is not sure that shallow and deep groundwater is safe from contamination, and directed the WSDs to commission their own studies of possible contamination. Two years ago, the agency declined to say in a multi-year study and report whether the site was adequately protecting the public.

The possible contamination of aquifers is a huge concern for Pivonka and Rader.

A sign at the perimeter of the Lowry Landfill Superfund site warns of possible risk of entering the site.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Two aquifers, the Denver and Dawson, overlap just north of the site where the plume is contaminating surface waters. The Dawson formation lies above the Denver, a 3,000-square mile table of water, separated by a leaky barrier of earth.

Both are important sources of drinking water for the dry Front Range. Serious contamination would threaten a key resource that scientists believe will become more scarce in the decades to come.

The EPA also acknowledges the existence of the surface water plume in the review but said the WSDs need to conduct more studies before it creates a plan.

In the years since, the polluters’ group has been doing just that. They say they are working to get the additional data EPA needs to again find the site remedy “effective and protective.”

The WSDs said it could also consider new solutions, such as drilling new monitoring wells — in addition to the 500 that already exist — changing how they monitor the groundwater, and studying the impact of injecting water north of the site.

The prospect of polluters running their own studies for the EPA worries Bonnie Rader, who is now chairing the site Community Advisory Group.

The group has long received funds from the EPA to hire out its own, independent contractors to study the pollution.

She doesn’t trust the polluters nor the EPA to reach their own conclusions.

The CAG consultant, McGinnis and Associates, reviewed a polluter-funded study of the site in 2013. Rader sent the review to a lead scientist at the EPA, who analyzed the study line-by-line, finding inaccuracies and omissions. The errors include misrepresenting levels of 1,4 dioxane in test wells.

McGinnis also believes the plume is growing, not shrinking.

It’s emblematic of an information gap that strains relationships between the various consultants and agencies.

Different studies come to different conclusions, frustrating all parties involved. Technical disagreements can turn sharky in tone.

Generally, the EPA and polluters believe they should stay the course, while CDPHE and the citizen-hired McGinnis and Associates think more should be done to contain and clean up the waste.

The EPA and polluters can press ahead with their own plans, but area residents and their consultants are extremely concerned about the leaking waste and continue to pressure them.

In the 2017 review, EPA staffers conducted interviews with locals. “All private citizens interviewed are concerned about groundwater contamination and the use of private residential wells,” the report says.

The gulf between the parties has also widened because of little trust and bad communication.

Four years after his paper’s findings, Pivonka said the EPA and polluters “have not been receptive to the recommendations, and continue the same approach to the site.”

Rader is disillusioned with the WSDs and their studies. She said she’s been hearing the same old reassurances for the last 30 years while the waste spreads north, closer to her home.

The polluters’ trust disagrees with the notion that they have not listened to residents, Crummy said. She said WSD representatives regularly attend meetings with locals.

The mass of evidence, varying conclusions and convictions on all sides leaves residents with vague concerns at best but nightmares at worse about the situation actually harming people.

It’s a dynamic Bonnie understands well.

“There is no certain proof of what we’re saying, there is no proof of what they’re saying,” she said. “It’s the only reason that Murphy Creek people aren’t rebelling.”

But the mere possibility of pollution has encouraged new, suburban residents to forge an alliance with Rader and other environmental crusaders.  While a subdivision lies close to the spreading plume, they are vehemently opposed to a new plan to house thousands of new residents on its doorstep, for reasons of their own.

Susy Waterbury stands in the back yard of her Murphy Creek neighborhood home with two of her three children, Mabel, 4, and Simon, 2, June 25.
Portrait by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Closer than ever before

Susy Waterbury recently moved her family to Murphy Creek from Denver’s Virginia Village neighborhood. Bizarrely, that area, too, was sullied by toxic waste leaching from a Superfund site.

Waterbury, 37, didn’t know about the waste in Virginia Village, just as she didn’t know about the Lowry Landfill when she moved east with her husband and three kids.

They now live in an olive green, single family house with a manicured lawn and several shady trees in front of the house. The home is affordable, with good neighbors and a big backyard littered with toys. Her husband, Marc, is a commercial airline pilot. She’s now a stay-at-home mom.

Susy wishes the previous owners or neighborhood homeowners association would have told her about the Lowry Landfill.

She recently learned about the site and the leaking waste and was worried. But she doesn’t know anyone else in Murphy Creek who also knows, she said.

However, Susy is more worried about the possible contamination of her northern neighbor’s water wells than her own family becoming sick. She’s never seen a child play in Murphy Creek across busy South Gun Club Road.If anything would become sick, she said, it would probably be the herds of antelope she enjoys seeing graze.

Even so, the knowledge of the Superfund site might have swayed her decision to move to Murphy Creek, she said.

Susy shies away from HOA squabbles and local politics, but she couldn’t help but notice a flurry of activity on the neighborhood Facebook page. Residents came out of the woodwork this spring opposing a new housing development slated for just south of Murphy Creek, across East Jewell Avenue. It would be called Murphy Creek East.

A sign at the perimeter of the Lowry Superfund Site warns of possible risk of entering the site. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

The development would be close to where scientists think the plume has spread, but not within its boundaries.

It’s a high-profile project wedding some of the region top subdivision builders in the region and nation. The developer, the Florida-based Lennar Corporation, is one of the largest real estate developers in the country and a builder all over the Front Range. The corporation lists the Adonea development, just east of Murphy Creek, as a Lennar property. According to city records, the proposed building land is owned by local mega-developer Harvey Alpert, who has built a sea of homes in Highlands Ranch and Green Valley Ranch in his half-century career.

Both parties often market their homes as luxurious but rustic.

The city originally approved Lennar’s development plan in 2002. The real estate development giant first planned to build almost 900 housing units bordering the DADS landfill on the south and the Murphy Creek Golf Course on the east.

This spring, Lennar tried to change its plans to build not just single-family homes but also townhomes and so-called motor courts, or homes arranged around a single driveway.

Murphy Creek residents were incensed. They say the nascent neighborhood doesn’t even have a grocery store, and South Gun Club Road is becoming increasingly dangerous with new residents crowding the region. More development would be irresponsible.

But some are also concerned about the type of people that would live in the new neighborhood. Rumors spread that Lennar planned to build “three-story walk-ups,” housing that some residents associated with lower-income residents.

One Murphy Creek local, Doug Shriner, submitted a letter to the Aurora City Council, along with dozens of others, opposing the plans.

“I object to turning our premier community into a suburban slum!” Shriner wrote.

Less audible were concerns about the toxic plume and living directly next to the DADS landfill, which has room for another 7.4 billion cubic feet of waste, according to its website.

The environmental concerns came from Bonnie and Richard Rader as well as some other area residents, who attended meetings with Murphy Creek residents concerned that their quality of life would be downgraded if the plan went forward.

“It’s right in the path of the plume, and we keep trying to tell these developers, ‘Hey, slow down, we don’t really know what is going to happen,’” Bonnie said of the development. “It’s a pretty callous world down there.”

To address environmental concerns, Lennar commissioned a consultant to spearhead an environmental assessment.

The group, CTL Thompson, drilled holes in the proposed area and claimed there would be no health risk to residents. Even so, Lennar planned to institute venting technology to protect residents from possible chemicals leaching into their basements.

The citizen-hired consultant, Dietrick McGinnis of McGinnis and Associates, disagreed. He said the test disregarded “decades of data to the contrary.”

He said the Lennar solution of venting the homes could actually make chemicals degrade faster, posing a worse risk to residents.

He added, “Vapor barriers will not protect the children playing in Murphy Creek.”

The WSDs also weighed in on the perceived dangers of the creek and golf course.

“No one is ingesting the water or is at risk of ingesting the water, and anyone who may wade or play in nearby Murphy Creek or incidentally ingest some water are not in any danger, according to the EPA,” the trust said.

Lennar also asked the WSDs for information about the leaking waste. The trust sent them evidence from a 2012 EPA paper, not the 2017 EPA study that called for more testing and downgraded the protectiveness level of the site.

On May 20, months of neighborhood advocacy came to a head. Aurora City Council reviewed all of their comments and letters and met for their scheduled meeting.

In a vote, the body killed the proposed changes to Lennar’s plan. Mayor Pro Tem Bob Roth, stepping in for the absent Mayor Bob LeGare, cast the lone “no” vote.

Opponents heralded the decision as a victory, but were quick to note that Lennar could still develop the land under its original plan.

Lennar did not respond to several requests for comment.  City Planning Supervisor Heather Lamboy said Lennar still has some required paperwork to go through before the building begins, but the city is holding open meetings with locals.

City council is also slated to reconsider the development plan amendments on Aug. 19. Council member Francoise Bergan has said she has new information about the development that warrants taking another look. It’s unclear what that information is, or why only Bergan has publicly said it exists.

In the May 20 vote, Nicole Johnston was the only council member to specifically raise concerns about the toxic waste, while the others focused on administrative or building issues.

The Superfund site and its leaking waste was not news to Johnston, who represents the eastern frontier region of the city. She actually became involved in the CAG herself before running for city council, and was interviewed in the EPA’s 2017 review study that downgraded the protectiveness of the site.

She said that 1,4 dioxane may not even be her biggest concern, compared to other chemicals dumped in the Superfund site.

“They put some really, really bad things in there,” she said. “Those other, really bad chemicals could be right behind it.”

Johnston met with Rep. Jason Crow that April afternoon when he visited the plume.

She said that, although the plume concerns her very much, the possibility of two injection wells about five miles from the site could dramatically change the area’s geology.

“We could have a bigger problem,” she said. “(The plume) could pale in comparison to the issues of seismic activity near 138 million gallons of toxic chemicals underground. That would be a much grander scale.”

The wells, proposed by Wyoming- and Denver-based Expedition Water Solutions, would flush mostly saltwater and other by-products from oil and gas extraction more than 10,000 feet below the surface.

Injection wells are known to cause earthquakes in some circumstances, according to the United States Geological Survey.

But the science that the Superfund site geology could be disrupted is far from certain.

Zach Neal, a spokesperson for EWS, said the proposed location was the only possible place for the injection wells because of county zoning restrictions.

A sign at the perimeter of the Lowry Superfund Site warns of possible risk of entering the site.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

He added that the wells would be safely built and regulated. EWS would inject the waste far deeper below the surface than the Denver and Dawson aquifers.

Arapahoe County officials told Sentinel Colorado that staff are still reviewing the applications, and the state government agency charged with reviewing proposals has not taken action since EWS filed its paperwork in February.

Arapahoe County Commissioner Jeff Baker represents the Superfund site area and the residents that live in the unincorporated county. He said he’s also worried about the injection well permits and will be scrutinizing them, he said.

But Baker said he is also open to considering whether the solution to keeping residents safe from the Lowry Landfill should still be trying to contain the waste. He’s open to discussing a plan to clean up the waste, once and for all.

It’s an idea that Bonnie Rader has clamored for during the last 50 years.

Flowing forward

Consultants hired by the polluters’ trust are testing the groundwaters below the Lowry Landfill superfund site this year. The EPA said it will likely announce whether the site is sufficiently protecting the public and environment before 2020.

Even if the waste is contained, the EPA and WSDs will have to treat the migrating chemicals for what they say is forever.

“The treatment plan will have to be in place into perpetuity,” Dave Wilmoth said.

In the meantime, developers and new residents continue to eye the prairie frontier of Aurora as a place to make their mark.

It seems that more and more cars fill South Gun Club Road every day, residents say. It’s rare not to see a parade of golfers on the Murphy Creek Golf Course on a sunny, summer morning. In the suburban neighborhood, parents jog with their children in strollers, and farther north, taps and showers spout clean water drawn from private wells below.

Murphy Creek, filled with summer rains, flows gently from the Superfund site into the distance.