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Big Dry Creek project will help mitigate 'sludge' issue

Diversion plan will reroute water and lessen hardness, radioactivity


Complaints from residents about water hardness led the Englewood City Council to approve construction that will divert water from Big Dry Creek so that it will no longer be part of the mix that provides drinking water to the city.

The diversion will mean the creek water will enter the South Platte River downstream from the location of Englewood's intake for water going to the city's water treatment plant.

The ordinance passed July 3, but City Manager Eric Keck said the plan has been in the works since at least 2014, when the city received a settlement from Denver Water after court proceedings between the two entities ended. That $600,000 amount will allow the city to resolve the hardness issues, according to a city document. Water hardness is a quality of water that runs through certain kinds of rock and can cause scum buildup and other problems for home appliances.

But a secondary effect of the plan will be a reduction in the amount of “sludge” — or low-level radioactive byproduct — that's left over when water gets filtered at the Allen Water Treatment Plant at West Layton Avenue near Windermere Street.

Englewood residents have filed multiple notices of claim so far against the city related to the sludge, at least one of which alleges that it causes cancer, according to the city. The sludge is technically called residuals. Radioactivity in unfiltered water is common in cities in the area because they draw from surface waters, Keck said.

Notices of claim are one step toward filing a lawsuit, and the potential cases would be heard in Arapahoe County District Court if the residents take that action.

The city said that “considerably fewer” residuals would be produced as a result of the project, which will create a pipeline to change the path of Big Dry Creek's water to go around a key intake spot near West Union Avenue along the South Platte. That will allow the plant to take in less radioactive water.

How much less, the city cannot say.

Roots of controversy

The sludge has been at the center of controversy since at least 2013, when former Allen plant employee Ken Kloewer alleged on a worker's compensation claim that it caused him to develop cancer.

In September, a resident brought a legal claim that the sludge is a health risk. Kloewer has also signed onto another health-related claim along with other residents, the city said.

At the heart of the issue are two pieces of the history behind the sludge: how it was disposed of and how radioactive it actually is.

A disposal permit from the state says the sludge should be allowed to dry for one year before being removed from the site.

But in 2012, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment denied approval for the city to dispose of the sludge in two out of the three landfills it could use because its radioactivity was found to be higher than in past years. That resulted in Englewood not removing the then-current residuals for about two years.

The city council in June 2016 approved the removal of the 2013 and 2014 sludge after being told another landfill could accept it. The residents who brought and signed onto the legal claim against the city argue that, in the years the sludge was not disposed of on its normal schedule, its radiation was higher than previously thought and therefore was a health risk.

Kloewer said he developed cancer in 2013, and resident accounts have said four plant workers total developed cancer in a similar time frame.

Report says levels acceptable

The city has said that sample air tests from the plant performed in July 2016 showed that airborne hazardous material levels were below federal exposure limits, based on a report by the Colorado Intergovermental Risk Sharing Agency. A test at the plant by that agency in August 2013 found similar results of being “well below a level of health concern.”

On June 26 at a city council study session, a new report by three outside companies said that “all risk is within acceptable levels” of the EPA Acceptable Incremental Cancer Risk Range.

The state's 2012 letter of denial regarding landfills did not say for sure that the radioactivity exceeded a limit that would make it a health risk.

But it did say more documentation was needed to make sure workers or residents would not be exposed to more radiation within a one-year period than a limit the state specified.

Kathleen Bailey, an Englewood resident who has spoken frequently to city council about the sludge, gave a statement to city officials and city council in 2016 that appeared to argue that the city had not run what she says is the appropriate test, which is called a RESRAD (residual radiation) risk assessment.

Bailey said in September that records show an increase in the sludge's radioactive level in 2010. Bailey said she had asked for and received sludge assessments for 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Bailey filed a legal claim against the city in February arguing that Englewood was unresponsive to a Colorado Open Records Act request she made for 2010 documents, Keck said.

Keck said the city did an “exhaustive search” for the records but said the outside company that was supposed to have the data said it didn't find it until Bailey and an attorney went to the company directly.

Bailey did not respond to two requests by the Englewood Herald for comment on the diversion project, including one request for the 2010 documents she received. A question she did not answer is whether the rises in radioactivity she points to put the sludge over the government-specified limits.

The city did not respond to several questions by the Englewood Herald because of its policy regarding what may become a matter of litigation. It did not answer the question of whether government limits for contaminants related to the sludge may be too relaxed.


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