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What’s in your water?
By Kathy Hare

Beryllium, cadmium, copper, nickel, and zinc are heavy metal contaminants that don’t belong in the water supply. Yet that’s exactly what the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found in two ponds on a vacant agricultural lot in Ellicott. On April 29, KKTV News reported the toxic materials were “left-over’s” from a pilot metals-recovery process conducted by Shaun MacMillan, a chemist for Diamond Materials Tech.

Only 200 yards downhill of the toxic ponds sits Cherokee Metro District’s Well #16. Its water is pumped from the Black Squirrel Creek Basin and piped into homes and businesses along Highway 24. Suffice it to say neither Kip Petersen, manager of CMD, nor Dave Doran, president of the Upper Black Squirrel Creek Ground Water Management District, were thrilled to hear someone’s “experiment” may have endangered the water supply.

More about the Ellicott ponds later – let’s move on to Pheasant Lane.

Shortly after the story broke, I heard a disturbing rumor – from more than one person. Rumors are something I usually ignore, but this one demanded an investigation. My sources said MacMillan first conducted his metals-recovery process at his home on Pheasant Lane in Falcon. Given the toxic nature of the waste in Ellicott, it’s imperative to find out if there’s any truth to this rumor. MacMillan isn’t doing a lot of talking since his television appearance. But I did manage to contact him by phone at DMT and asked the following two questions.

Hare: “Have you ever conducted your metals extraction process on any other site besides the one in Ellicott?”

 MacMillan: Pause. “Well at Diamond Wire of course.”

Hare: “Did you ever use the process at your home on Pheasant Lane, or on any other site in Falcon?”

MacMillan: Gasp, followed by a longer pause. “You are going to have to talk to our legal department.”

Technically, MacMillan didn’t answer the second question. Legally, a gasp is not an admission of guilt, but it sure wasn’t the response I wanted either. I wanted a firm denial. I wanted MacMillan to be outraged that I had the gall to ask such a question. He wasn’t. So I continued digging.

A resident living in the vicinity of MacMillan, who wishes to remain anonymous, said “About five years ago strange smells were coming from the property.” And MacMillan was “Running some kind of 24-hour operation out of his garage.” Even then, the rumor was that MacMillan was recycling metals.

Still, I had a non-denial and rumors. However, Charles Johnson, hazardous waste manager, and Wayne Smith, CDPHE’s coordinator for El Paso County, listened. And the CDPHE is investigating the allegation. That takes time. However, if Pheasant Lane residents can provide additional information, call Smith: 303-692-3373. That certainly could help to speed-up the investigation.

Reviewing the hurdles state officials had to overcome to investigate the Ellicott pollution complaints is mindboggling, and it’s a sad commentary on societal values. If a marijuana plant is growing on a property, law enforcement agencies can descend upon the land with impunity. Yet, even armed with photos and numerous complaints from people in the water business, state officials must first get the owner’s permission before entering a property. In lieu of that, they must obtain a court order.

I’m a big fan of private property rights. But waiting to get permission to enter a property containing illegal waste-ponds that could adversely affect the only water supply for at least 27,000 people seems rather stupid to me. Still, the CDPHE might have gotten onto the property faster with assistance from El Paso County.

Here’s how the “Ellicott Ponds” case unfolded. Dan Farmer, a pilot and former UBS Board member, first noticed the ponds when he was flying over his home in Ellicott last summer. The strangely colored blue-green water in the ponds on 8480 Bar 10 Road worried him. So he took pictures and notified Petersen at CMD.

Petersen said he quickly contacted the El Paso County Health Department and county attorneys, “and they did absolutely nothing!” Doran, UBS president, said he was also shocked “by the county’s lack of response.”  He became aware of the situation in September 2009, while speaking to CMD’s attorney. And UBS immediately contacted state officials at the CDPHE.

 By October 2009, the CDPHE replied stating: “The initial complaints either lacked specificity to justify solid waste authority or alleged the activity was potentially related to gold ore processing, which could be subjected to the regulatory authority of a different agency.”

That sounds like a lot of double-talk to most of us, but should a complaint make it to court the first thing the defendant’s attorney does is to make sure the proper procedures were followed.

But on November 30, 2009 the CDPHE received a “confidential complaint” alleging the impoundments were used to “manage wastewater from metal plating operations.” A check of El Paso County records showed no permits were issued to allow any form of metals processing on the site, so the investigation could go forward.

However, contacting property owner Wayne Cordova, who lives in Cripple Creek, was difficult because his phone was disconnected. Therefore, on Dec. 16, 2009 CDPHE inspectors received permission, from property owners living adjacent to the site, to enter their land in order to view the ponds. Based on what the CDPHE observed, an administrative search warrant was issued on January 21.

Cordova rented the property to MacMillan. Jeri Hellwig, spokesperson for DMT, said MacMillan was acting as an independent consultant, but had DMT’s approval to try his new process.  

Below is a table of the heavy metals the CDPHE found in liquids taken from the ponds at the Ellicott site. The liquid samples were tested based on milligrams per liter allowable for any contaminant, while still ensuring water is safe for human consumption.

 

Heavy Metal

Milligrams

Allowed

Highest

levels found

Percentage above

Safe drinking water

Beryllium

 .004

2.8

     700

Cadmium

 .005

.31

       62

Copper

1.000

410

     410

Nickel

.100

1600

16,000

Zinc

5.000

26

         5

CDPHE officials had the ponds pumped out and the liquid sent to a proper disposal site. In a phone interview, MacMillan told the CDPHE “the impoundments were constructed in the Spring and Summer of 2009.” Adding “between 10,000 and 100,000 gallons of liquid” was transferred from Diamond Materials Tech to the site on Bar 10 Road.

 A water test conducted on CMD’s Well #16 showed no contaminants – so far. Follow-up testing will be performed quarterly. Basin water users dodged a bullet at the Ellicott site because the heavy metals had not yet reached the aquifer. But what about the Pheasant Lane rumor?

When faced with protecting your water supply in Colorado, the best advice I can offer is: “Protect thyself.”

If I lived near MacMillan’s home in Falcon, I would rest easier if I had the well tested for the metals listed above. Geologist Julia Murphy, owner of Ground Water Investigations and consultant for Protect Our Wells, said she would also have the well tested for volatile organic compounds normally associated with metal recovery operations.

Go to www.coloradostatelab.us  and click on “water testing.” Well owners can have their wells tested for a comprehensive list of heavy metals and volatile compounds for $220. By the way, the “Annual Colorado Package,” a test for coliform bacteria and nitrates for $35, should be performed yearly on all wells.

Hopefully, your test results will all be within “drinking water standards.” Make sure to keep the results; water test comparisons often are the best clue to a source of pollution. But if heavy metals are found, act immediately! Call UBS (347-0704) and the state health department (303- 692-2000).

What’s in your water? Test to find out.

NOTE: Kathy Hare served on the UBSCGWMD board for five years.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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