ROCKY FLATS, Colo. ― Plutonium, named for the Roman god of the underworld and the dwarf planet at the edge of the solar system, is one of the world’s most dangerous elements. Inhaling just one particle will bombard internal organs, particularly the lungs and liver, with harmful alpha radiation for decades. For the most part, it isn’t naturally occurring. But until just over a decade ago, it was plentiful in this 5,000-acre patch of rolling hills and grasslands.
From 1952 to 1989, this picturesque sanctuary was home to a factory that produced plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons ― a lot of them. Nearly all of the approximately 70,000 nuclear weapons produced in the United States include a part made at Rocky Flats.
It was designated as a Superfund site in the early 1990s, and the radioactive materials have been removed. It’s scheduled to open to the public for the first time next summer.
But rather than welcoming the prospect of thousands of new acres for recreation, some Coloradans are suing to stop it.
Five environmental groups and community organizations filed a lawsuit in May to prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from moving forward with plans to build a visitors center, hiking trails and other recreational infrastructure on the site, saying the government hasn’t scrutinized the property closely enough to begin construction. The suit argues that it’s difficult to prove a site is “clean enough” after removing 40 years’ worth of nuclear waste ― and, what’s more, that USFWS hasn’t met its legal obligation in demonstrating that cleanliness to the public.
“You have highly contaminated plutonium-laced soil that’s down deep that is going to eventually migrate to the surface and be blown into the region. It’s a concern,” said Randall Weiner, a Boulder-based lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the case. “At a minimum the agency should be looking at issues like that... before they open the refuge to the public.”
Rocky Flats’ rocky environmental road
The Rocky Flats Plant had a long record of environmental blunders, aided by a Cold War-era government eager for more nuclear weapons at any cost.
“Things were blatantly unsafe. There were blatant violations of procedure,” Jacque Brever, a nuclear technician at the plant, recalled for a book on Rocky Flats published in 2004. “It was the height of the nuclear weapons production era... Everything was compromised for the sake of nuclear weapons production.”
Brever had approached the FBI as a whistleblower on the plant’s violations. She said her fellow workers thanked her by contaminating her protective equipment with radioactive material. She ultimately developed thyroid cancer and died in 2015.
In 1957 and 1969, out-of-control fires at the factory nearly resulted in catastrophe. Both fires sent plumes of radioactive waste into the air, contaminating miles of land downwind. Officials never notified the public of the first fire ― only acknowledging it more than a decade after the fact, when scientists from the nearby University of Colorado tested land near Rocky Flats and noted that the plutonium contamination was “the highest ever measured near an urban area, including the city of Nagasaki.”
A fire at the Dow Chemical Co. Rocky Flats plant Sunday released a small amount of radioactive plutonium contamination, a plant spokesman said. He said the fire broke out in a production building. The cause of the blaze was not known.
The plant was particularly prone to fires ― more than 200 occurred over the course of 40 years ― as weapons-grade plutonium can spontaneously combust. Those fires, along with inadequate storage procedures and regular day-to-day operations, also released uranium, beryllium, tritium and carbon tetrachloride, a carcinogenic cleaning solvent, into the area.
And not in trace amounts, either. Under the oversight of Dow Chemical and, later, Rockwell International, plant operators lost track of more than 2,600 pounds of plutonium and other radioactive material, as documented in later lawsuits and a Government Accountability Office assessment. In 1990, a full 62 pounds’ worth of plutonium was found distributed in the vents and piping of one building at the plant ― reportedly enough to manufacture six or seven nuclear bombs. Dow and Rockwell argued that just because they couldn’t find the unaccounted-for material didn’t mean they’d disposed of it improperly.
The facility left behind more than 8,000 different chemicals, many of which leached into the soil. One outdoor area alone housed around 5,000 30- and 50-gallon steel drums of plutonium and uranium-contaminated waste. These corroding drums leaked an estimated 5,000 gallons of contaminated waste oil.
On the morning of June 6, 1989, more than 70 armed agents from the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice stormed Rocky Flats as part of “Operation Desert Glow.”
Jon Lipsky, a retired FBI agent who led the raid, told HuffPost they used a ruse to get inside the highly secured facility.
“A week before, the ‘Earth First’ environmental group tried to take down a nuclear power plant in Arizona,” Lipsky recalled. “So we used that to call for a security briefing.”
Once inside, the FBI revealed there was no briefing. Instead, they said, a federal judge in Denver had signed a warrant that morning to allow them to search the complex. It was the first time in U.S. history that one federal agency raided another.
Lipsky’s primary target was Building 771.
One of 800 structures on the site, Building 771 was built in the early 1950s as a plutonium foundry, for metallurgical research and recovering plutonium from other scrap metal. Work there occurred around the clock, three shifts a day, for nearly four decades, processing as much as 1,100 pounds of plutonium per month.
At the heart of the building was an incinerator. The FBI believed Rocky Flats’ corporate manager at the time, Rockwell International, was using this incinerator to illegally burn hazardous waste ― and that the Department of Energy, which ultimately oversaw operations at the plant, was ignoring it.
A report commissioned in 1992 to help guide cleanup efforts attempted to track down and document every recorded safety incident in the building’s history. The resulting paper is 32 pages long and includes everything from the mundane (“Employee playing volleyball. Sprained ankle”) to the alarming (“Flowmeter ruptured, operator sprayed with contaminated caustic and steam”).
Decades later, cleanup crews would nickname the most radioactive section of Building 771 the “infinity room,” because the radiation there exceeded their Geiger counters’ ability to measure it ― causing them to warn instead of an “infinite” amount of radiation.
A 1994 ABC News investigation declared Building 771 “the most dangerous building in America.”
Ultimately, the raid led to a four-year federal grand jury hearing, which indicted Rockwell and eight individuals for their environmental crimes. Then-U.S. Attorney Michael Norton refused to sign the indictment, however, instead negotiating a plea agreement in which Rockwell settled with the DOJ for $18.5 million and no individuals were held accountable.
Curiously, prosecutors also withdrew charges related to the illegal incinerating, claiming that Allen Divers, the military analyst who initially examined the evidence, later changed his mind and found it inconclusive. When The Associated Press reached Divers for comment in 2004, however, he disputed that claim.
On Sept. 28, 1989, the EPA added Rocky Flats to its list of highly polluted sites in need of extensive, federally funded cleanup. The “Superfund” list ― and the cash that accompanies the designation ― is reserved for the worst offenders, typically sites that pose an immediate threat to human health.
The cleanup of Rocky Flats, the largest Superfund effort completed to date, began in earnest in 1995. The “infinity room” area was coated with lead paint to block radiation. Potential sources of tainted groundwater were redirected to holding ponds and kept from flowing any farther downstream.
Over the course of 10 years, workers removed more than 21 tons of radioactive, weapons-grade nuclear material from the site. That would be enough to fill every rail car on a train 90 miles long, The Denver Post noted in 2005. The cleanup cost $7 billion.
The contamination extended far beyond the plant itself.
At one point in Building 771’s history, a drain line flowed directly out of one of the most contaminated rooms and into nearby Walnut Creek. Just over a mile downstream, Walnut Creek then emptied directly into Great Western Reservoir, which until 1997 was the primary water source for the city of Broomfield, population 50,000. Nearby Standley Lake, which provided water for an additional three cities, was also contaminated.
In addition to environmental destruction, there was a human cost. Many of the roughly 4,500 people who worked at Rocky Flats were exposed to significant amounts of radiation and contracted life-threatening illnesses as a result.
The effects also extended downwind. A decades-long study by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released in 2017 found that populations as far as 16 miles downwind of Rocky Flats experienced higher-than-expected rates of lung, esophagus, colorectal, and prostate cancer. There wasn’t clear evidence that Rocky Flats was to blame for the health problems, but a class action suit related to property damage has recently resulted in more than 10,000 claims; homeowners could see the first settlement checks arrive as soon as this fall.
Building 771 is expected to remain closed to the public indefinitely, along with some 1,300 acres at the heart of the refuge.
However, the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment stand by the safety of the rest of the property. U.S. Fish and Wildlife has offered free public tours of the site on a regular basis since last summer, proudly touting the deer and elk populations that call it home, as well as the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse ― an endangered species that inhabits the refuge.
“We are confident in the results,” David Lucas, who manages the refuge for USFWS, told a crowd of concerned citizens in May. “If we determined that it was not safe, we wouldn’t have our employees out there.”
By law, the EPA has to conduct an environmental review of the property every five years to ensure the land is still safe. The next review should be completed by late summer.
The site has been “thoroughly characterized, remediated, and sampled after remediation to confirm any remaining residual levels were below levels of concern,” EPA communications manager Richard Mylott told HuffPost in an email.
Mylott said the land included in the refuge is part of a security buffer zone around the facility added in the 1970s, and thus “was unaffected by hazardous wastes” and is now “suitable for all uses, with no restriction.”
The EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment say they have millions of data points, including from soil samples and surface water runoff tests, indicating that the land used for the new refuge is safe.
Mylott said the main risks at the site are “natural hazards” like “rattlesnakes, lightning, falls, etc.”
Carl Spreng, the Rocky Flats project manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, agreed with that assessment, emphasizing the sheer amount of data that supports their argument. A comprehensive evaluation of the area’s air, soil, groundwater, and surface water was compiled in a 23-volume study in 2006, he said, and conditions have only improved since then as the area has regrown vegetation.
Spreng said that CDPHE considered both drinking groundwater and ingesting dirt as potential “exposure scenarios,” and determined they only carry a low risk of “residual contamination.”
“The final remedy decision was based on millions of data points collected from the air, surface and sub-surface soil, surface water and groundwater,” Spreng said. “The majority of the site is now on the verge of becoming a new asset that can be enjoyed by the people of Colorado.”
But no matter how much data officials present, Lipsky says he’ll remain skeptical unless it’s independently verified. He now works for an activist organization called the Rocky Flats Technical Group, helping sift through the Rocky Flats documents archived at the University of Colorado to surface anything relevant.
He says the government misled the public about Rocky Flats for decades, and he has serious doubts about the quality of the data itself and the government’s methodology. A 2006 Government Accountability Office report seems to support Lipsky here, but only partially: While the GAO doesn’t directly challenge the data itself, it does criticize the Department of Energy for failing to independently verify any of it during the cleanup process.
The GAO also called out the DOE for reducing the size and scope of the site survey for radioactive particles from “a 100 percent verification strategy,” in which every area likely to be contaminated was surveyed, to a “90 percent confidence level,” in which at least 90 percent of the contamination was remediated.
At least five Colorado-based environmental groups and community organizations agree with Lipsky’s assessment. In May, they filed suit, seeking to halt the construction of trails at Rocky Flats under the National Environmental Policy Act. As one of the nation’s first environmental laws, NEPA requires government agencies to assess the likely impact of their activities before starting most major construction projects. The plaintiffs in last month’s suit argue that Fish and Wildlife didn’t conduct an adequate evaluation under this law. They contend that the agency needs to start over, beginning with an environmental review.
Lawyers for USFWS were expected to respond to the suit last Friday. The agency directed HuffPost’s questions about the suit to the DOJ, which didn’t immediately provide a response.
“You need to do an environmental analysis before you put in bike trails or a visitors center,” Weiner, the Boulder lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told HuffPost. “You need to do this even if it was perfectly pristine ground, but it’s especially important at a place like Rocky Flats, where some people have concerns about lingering plutonium.”
A Fish and Wildlife spokesperson declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing lawsuit. A source with knowledge of the matter said USFWS doesn’t have any immediate plans to begin construction of trails at Rocky Flats, and that the public will be notified when they do.
Wes McKinley, a rancher from southeast Colorado who served as the foreman on the grand jury that voted to indict Rockwell International in 1992, also has concerns about lingering plutonium contamination at the site.
He published a book in 2004 about his experience on the grand jury, breaking a court order that jurists were under not to reveal evidence they reviewed in the course of the trial.
McKinley pushed environmentalists to collect their own samples at the site in 2010. The samples were shipped to a lab in Boston, where two of them ― one from soil near Rocky Flats, and one from a crawl space in a nearby home ― tested positive for what McKinley identified as “breathable particles of plutonium.”
“I suggested these citizen tests because after the grand jury reviewed a lot of damaging data about Rocky Flats, it got sealed in the grand jury vault and I’m not allowed to tell people about it,” McKinley told Westword, a local news outlet, at the time. “Since [the Department of Energy] is hiding its damaging data, I figured we’d just collect data ourselves.”
In 2004, a consortium of academics from Denver-area colleges conducted a more rigorous sampling of soil at 28 locations in a wider range around the site. They concluded the land to the immediate east of the plant showed “10-100 times higher” concentrations of plutonium than normal.
Though plutonium concentrations dropped off sharply farther away from the plant, inhaling just one radioactive particle has been linked to a dramatically increased risk of cancer and other debilitating ailments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And soil in the area around Rocky Flats can travel long distances, hurried along by what are known locally as “Chinook” winds known to reach hurricane strength.
Two feet of concrete should be poured over the 6,000 acres, and we should post someone to pray there 24 hours a day. Wes McKinley
Lipsky also points out that there are still 2,600 pounds of plutonium and other radioactive material unaccounted for at the site.
“It’s still missing, so where is it?” he asked. “Is it powdered all over the plant site still? We don’t know. Is it in a railcar or a semitruck in one of the tunnels out there? I don’t know.”
McKinley has proposed a solution to what he describes as both an environmental and ethical failure: “Two feet of concrete should be poured over the 6,000 acres, and we should post someone to pray there 24 hours a day.”
“My grandfather homesteaded at this very place where I now live,” McKinley wrote to his lawyer in 1997, explaining why he felt compelled to risk a possible prison sentence and speak out about his time on the grand jury.
“He came here with a fine mule, a good milch cow and a worn out wagon. The air was clear, the water was pure and a desirable woman soon joined him,” he wrote. “Women, mules, and milch cows are just as good or better today than they were then. But the air and water are killing us.”
Lipsky has his own idea about how to make Rocky Flats an appropriate place for a refuge, and it doesn’t involve as much concrete ― though he says he’ll never go out there no matter what they do.
“If they want to open this place up,” he said, “then clean it up with independent verification. Make everybody happy.”