Controversy puts focus on water-plant sludge

Is Englewood's drinking water treatment plant poisoning employees? The answer depends on who you ask. From the Englewood Herald.

City, employee disagree on danger of byproduct

August 1, 2016

Englewood's drinking water plant is at the heart of two starkly different stories. According to lead plant operator Ken Kloewer, improperly stored piles of radioactive sediment at the plant are the source of his cancer. City officials, however, assert that the sediment piles, often referred to as sludge, have been properly handled and have never posed a danger to plant employees or neighbors of the Charles Allen Water Filtration Plant, adjacent to Belleview Park at Windermere Street and Layton Avenue. “For 25 years we had meetings about our radioactive sludge,” said Kloewer, 54, who has worked at the plant for 30 years. “Everyone thought it was funny. The city doesn't give a damn about us.” Englewood City Manager Eric Keck said he's as invested as anyone in the safety of materials at the plant. “I live in that neighborhood,” Keck said. “I run in that area. I'm down at the dog park. I ride my bike on the Dry Creek Trail.” Keck recently sent a letter to neighbors of the plant citing a report by epidemiologist Herman Gibb, who studied air-quality tests dating back to 2001 and concluded that the sludge “does not indicate any evidence of an increased risk of cancer to workers or the community.” Kloewer was suspended from his job on July 11 after he says he challenged a colleague to stand up to the city against improper practices. Kloewer alleges that several plant employees have died from cancer in recent years, which he attributes to the sludge. Sludge is byproduct Sludge, also called alum residuals, is a byproduct of the drinking water filtration process. Raw water is pumped into the filtration system from three sources: Bear Creek, near the River Point shopping center; City Ditch, which flows from Chatfield Reservoir; and a pump station on the South Platte River at Union Avenue, a few hundred feet below the river's confluence with Big Dry Creek — the stream that runs through Belleview Park. Upon entering the filtration plant, the raw water enters flocculation and sedimentation basins, in which alum — essentially clay — is added to bind to sediment floating in the water. The accumulated sediment then goes to a wash water lagoon, after which a filter press squeezes out remaining water. The sludge is then laid in open-air drying and storage beds on the east side of the facility. According to a disposal permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, which regulates water filtration processes, the sludge should then be allowed to dry for one year before being hauled away. The sediment contains naturally occurring radionuclides, including radium, uranium and chromium. CDPHE classifies the sludge as Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials, or TENORMs, and requires disposal in special landfills. Englewood has been producing sludge at the Allen plant since 1995. Until 2003, dried sludge was used to build berms at Broken Tee Golf Course, and also was sold to a fertilizer company. From there, the timelines diverge, depending on who's talking. Differing accounts According to Keck, in 2003 the golf course no longer had room for additional berms, so the city approached CDPHE to develop a new disposal strategy. The following year, the state approved three landfills to accept the sludge. Kloewer, however, said sludge could no longer be used for berms because it had grown increasingly radioactive after the drought of 2002. Drought years cause the flow of the South Platte River to drop, meaning more of the water flowing into the Union Avenue pump station is coming from Big Dry Creek, just a stone's throw upstream. “Big Dry Creek is where the radioactivity comes from,” said Englewood Utilities Director Tom Brennan. “It's terrible water.” Kloewer said plans have been in the works for years to divert Big Dry Creek's final stretch so that it enters the South Platte below the city's pump station, “but it takes so long. There's so much complacency. Nothing gets done.” CDPHE enacted a permit — currently still in draft form — in 2007 that further spelled out the disposal method for TENORMs, requiring yearly disposals of dried sludge. The city says sludge was shipped off annually to three landfills from 2004 through 2011. In 2012, CDPHE prohibited two of the landfills from receiving sludge, and no sludge was shipped from Englewood. According to a letter from CDPHE provided by Kloewer, dated March 28, 2012, state officials denied approval for the disposal of Englewood's sludge in any landfill based on a spike in radium levels beyond those used to establish the 2007 permit. According to the letter, radium-226 had increased fivefold, while radium-228 had increased tenfold. The letter requested additional test data to ensure that members of the public or landfill employees would not be exposed to high doses of radiation. Brennan, the utilities manager, said two of the landfills had fallen out of compliance with state standards, and that Englewood is continuing to work with the state to “bring the landfills into compliance.” Brennan said that due to the state's limitations on the two landfills, the city did not dispose of any residuals in 2012 or 2013 while working on the landfill compliance issue. “There were some years a disposal didn't happen,” Keck said. “People are saying we violated our permit, and in theory, that's an accurate statement.” Disposals resumed in 2014, when the city sent much of the onsite sludge at the Allen plant to the Clean Harbors Deer Trail landfill near the town of Last Chance, on Colorado's eastern plains. Workers' comp denied Kloewer was first diagnosed with cancer in 2013. He filed a workers' compensation claim, alleging that exposure to the sludge had caused the disease, which he says caused him to undergo 600 hours of chemotherapy and lose 10 inches of his colon to remove 16 lymph nodes. The workers' compensation claim was denied. Though his cancer retreated, it returned with a vengeance last December, when doctors discovered a tumor in Kloewer's neck. Kloewer approached local news media, and CBS4 aired a story on the Allen plant's sludge in early June. On June 19, Kloewer hand-delivered a six-page pamphlet he prepared, outlining his version of events and allegations, to the neighborhood around the plant. The city hauled off a load of dried sludge on June 27. Brennan said the sludge still on site is being allowed to dry, and will be hauled off in 2017 following analytical testing. On July 7, Keck sent a letter to neighbors of the plant containing a report from epidemiologist Herman Gibb, which read in part that “radiation measurements at the Allen plant are actually below the average indoor radiation measurement for the United States as a whole and well below the predicted indoor radiation measurement for Arapahoe County.” On July 8, Kloewer was told that cancer had returned to his colon and had migrated to his lungs. He said he will soon resume chemotherapy in an effort to shrink the tumor in his neck so that it can be removed surgically. “I'm going to beat this because of my faith in God, and because I have a 13-year-old daughter,” Kloewer said. “I still have 250 pounds of fighting weight in me. I'm going to use every tool I have.” A report from the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency, or CIRSA, posted to the Allen filtration plant's website on July 26, concluded that air sample tests from the plant performed in early July showed that airborne levels of hazardous materials were below federal exposure limits. Keck said the city is planning on hosting a “town hall” meeting at the plant in late August, and will have engineers and scientists on hand to answer questions. “It's sad about Ken,” said Brennan, the utilities director. “He's a good operator. What he's saying, it's not for me to judge. We just want to put this behind us, and get the science out in front of us.”