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Nuclear Notes – 4 – Rocky Flats – Nuclear Stain on Colorado’s Front Range

July 3, 2018
2012 - 10 - 20 Kristen Iversen 5a

2012. Kristen Iversen, author of “Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats” talking about her then about-to-be-published book in a bookstore in Lakewood Colorado. As I recall, several former Rocky Flats employees were present who reacted positively to Iversen’s commentary.

Nuclear Notes – 4

Nuclear weapons and nuclear war manufacturing and planning have been a part of the Colorado landscape since the end of World War II and dawn of the nuclear weapons age. The 49 Minuteman III missiles on hair-trigger alert in Colorado’s northeast, the state is home – or was home – to other aspects of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. Just outside of Colorado Springs, 75 miles south of Denver, lies the Cheyenne Mountain Complex and Peterson Air Force Base, the latter now the headquarters of NORAD. Although not part of the nuclear weapons complex, at two lesser known sites on Colorado’s Western Slope, Rulison and Rio Blanco, underground nuclear blasts took place (Rulison-1969, Rio Blanco – 1973) Then there is the Air Force Academy, just north of Colorado Springs, that among other things, trains many of the pilots that will someday after graduation fly nuclear-weapons bearing bombers.

“Rocky Flats,” he told them, “is the largest unlicensed nuclear burial site in the United States.” – Jerry St. Piedro, former Rocky Flats employee, one of the few to see a map where much of the radioactive contaminated materials are buried at the site. (Quoted in “The Struggle To Remember the Nuclear West” by Hannah Nordhaus, High Country News. February 17, 2009)

Rocky Flats: Colorado’s Contribution to Environmental Pollution

And then there is the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, which despite unknown quantities of radioactive polluted material under the earth there, a considerable portion of which the federal government hopes to transform into a wildlife preserve. Gotta wonder about that one.

According to the Lakewood Sentinel the proposed reserve is home to

239 — migratory and resident wildlife species.

630 — plant species.

20 — miles of trail.

All well and good but….all that plutonium, uranium, americium, beryllium, dioxin, carbon tetra-chloride, and who knows what else lurking under the ground. True much of it is several feet and more deep in the ground, but then there is the danger of leakage into the water supply, and no assurances that some of the material, one way or another might find their way to the surface.

In spite of the unanswered looming questions concerning remaining radiation pollution at the plant site and in the surrounding neighborhood, in December 2006, the Department of Energy certified the cleanup as officially “complete.” The D.O.E. divided the 6,500-acre site into two parcels: 1,300 acres in the contaminated industrial center were to be retained by the DOE for long-term surveillance and maintenance, off-limits to visitors; the outer 4,000 acres, meanwhile, would become America’s newest federal wildlife refuge.

A highly toxic radioactive core at the center of death factory remains enclosed and off limits to the public, but a 5237 acre area outside this toxic circle was transferred from the Department of Energy to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in July 2007 with the intention, of all things, of turning the site into a wildlife reserve.

Standley Lake – Water Skiing Ok…But Don’t Walk In the Mud

Take for example what is referred to as Standley Lake – near which a number of good friends live. The source of drinking water for a number of suburbs west of Denver, including Westminster, Thornton and Northglenn, and the Great Western Reservoir, Broomfield’s former source of drinking water. Standley Lake is fed by Walnut Creek and Woman Creek feeder streams.

Upstream from Standley Lake, on the Rocky Flats facility, significant [plutonium] and [americium] contamination has been reported in surface soils along what is called the on Woman Creek drainage.  Furthermore, federal agencies have acknowledged that Standley Lake contains “low but measurable concentrations of contamination from 5-10 inches deep in the sediments,” this according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

Although the state agency has determined Standley Lake’s water safe for drinking, there are signs surrounding the lake warning boaters that while boating in Standley Lake’s waters is safe, people should avoid stepping in mud sediments below the surface. So better not fall off your boat – there is a fair amount of water skiing on the lake – and wind up having to walk in the radioactive polluted mud.

Claiming there is no longer of a danger, the Department of Energy is currently planning to breach a dam sitting between the Rocky Flats facility and Standley Lake, a move that is opposed, among others, by Alan King, director of public works for the City and County of Broomfield who, in 2010, claimed in a letter to the D.O.E. that… “the breach would ‘clearly increase the potential for uncontrolled releases of contaminated surface water off-site that would negatively impact downstream watersheds and expose downstream communities to additional risks.’”

One should also keep in mind the that government studies claiming Rocky Flats safe for hiking, etc changed the format for what determined safety (outlined in the Multi-Agency Radiation Survey and Site Investigation Manual, or MARSSIM). Nor were independent assessments made as would be typical of a scientific project of this magnitude.

As Josh Schlossberg noted in a May 17, article in Boulder Weekly entitled “Buried in the Past,” it is not a question so much if pollutants exist on refuge lands but if they have accumulated in such levels as to be a danger to the public. Schlossberg continues:

Much of North American soil already has background levels of plutonium from nuclear bomb tests conducted in the 1950s and early ’60s. However, due to high winds, erosion, surface water runoff and possibly even routine operations at Rocky Flats, additional plutonium and other contaminants have found their way onto Refuge lands and beyond. Some scientists think fires at the plant in 1957 and 1969 spread pollutants as far as Denver, 16 miles away.

There is evidence that radioactive contaminants

The transformation of Rocky Flats into a wild life preserve has been mired down in secrecy. Iversen noted,

“Legislation that would have required additional signage informing visitors of what happened here, and why it might still be dangerous, has twice been defeated.”

Then in March of this year (2018),  the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that, this summer, a wildlife refuge will open to the the public, Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. A suit filed by a number of advocacy groups to halt the opening claiming the land is still unsafe as a result of plutonium contamination was dismissed a month later. The groups, including Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center, Candelas Glows and Rocky Flats Right to Know, followed up with a motion for preliminary injunction against any construction at the site two weeks later.

Their continued efforts to halt the wildlife preserve from opening have been continually thrown out of court, although, citing long term threats to the public interest and claiming the federal government’s studies are not extensive enough, they persist. According to a January, 2017 study done by the Colorado Department of Health which analyzed ten types of cancer, the cancer levels for communities around Rocky Flats were no different than those of surrounding Denver metropolitan areas. However, Harvey Nichols, a local biologist countered that the government’s sampling was unlikely to have identified hot spots in surface soils; nor did the safety standards account for the risk of ingesting plutonium, which could cause exposure to organs.

2012 - 10 - 07 Standley Lake 2a

The waters of streams running through Rocky Flats, Woman and Walnut Creek empty into Standley Lake, the sediments of (mud) are acknowledged to be contaminated with radioactive pollutants. But its waters have been deemed safe to drink. It is recommend though that people shouldn’t walk barefoot in the lake itself. Weird.

Some brief historical considerations.

Denver, the metropolitan area of which has experienced unprecedented development and population growth, lies 17 miles southeast – and downwind – of the facility. The (not-so) short version of a long story is as follows. The plant manufactured what are referred to as “plutonium triggers,” or “pits.” As I understand it, in order to create a nuclear explosion, a smaller one – “a trigger” needs to be detonated that sets off the larger blast. Two ka-booms, first the plutonium trigger and it ignites, so to speak, the greater blast. Virtually all the plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons were produced at the plant.

From 1952 to 1989, Rocky Flats produced “the approximately 70,000 nuclear weapons produced in the United States include Rocky Flats manufactured plutonium triggers. At first kept secret from the general public after two major plutonium fires, one in 1957, the second in 1969, given that Rocky Flats sits close to Colorado’s major metropolitan areas (Denver, Boulder, Jefferson County, etc) it was impossible keep the facility’s purpose – making plutonium triggers – secret from the public.

The 1957 and 1969 fires might have been the most damaging in terms of leaked radiation, but over the course its existence there were more than 200 fires there as plutonium. Weapons’ grade plutonium can spontaneously ignite. Getting public information as to the extent of the pollution has been close to impossible. As a news story in the High Country News noted:

To this day, it is illegal to mention the weight, circumference, mass or specific composition of the products that were made at Rocky Flats. In addition, the vast majority of the site’s “artifacts” were so saturated with 40 years of radiological pollutants that it required thousands of workers to painstakingly dismantle and ship them to highly secured nuclear-waste disposal sites.

The same article goes on to point out the problem with evaluating how much pollution was produced by the plant noting that when production at Rocky Flats ended the site housed 13 metric tons of plutoniumsome of it in liquid form, and stored in deteriorating storage bins. It’s not just plutonium waste but other “stuff” too that includes some of the most toxic materials in existence – “uranium, americium, beryllium, dioxin, along with carbon tetrachloride and a number of other acids used to dissolve plutonium.”

Concerning the levels of radioactivity at the plant during the period that nuclear triggers were manufactured, Kristen Iversen, author of Full Body Bu Growing Up In the Shadow of Rocky Flats,  noted in a 2102 interview in the Atlantic

Following the Mother’s Day fire in 1969, an independent group of scientists conducted off-site testing and found plutonium contamination in areas near Rocky Flats to be 400 to 1,500 times higher than normal (i.e., average background concentrations from global fallout). A biochemist at the University of Colorado noted, “That is the highest ever measured near an urban area, including the city of Nagasaki.” The Atomic Energy Commission then conducted its own off-site study, and that study confirmed plutonium contamination as far as thirty miles from the plant.

At that point, officials were forced to admit to off-site plutonium contamination as well as the fact that they had been aware of it for years, although local residents had not been informed or warned. The biggest surprise, however, was the admission that the contamination did not come from the 1969 fire, as had been assumed, but primarily from the devastating 1957 fire. Another source of long-term contamination was the 903 Pad, where more than 5,000 barrels stood out in the open for 11 years and leaked radioactive material into the soil and groundwater.

Closed in 1989 after a raid by two federal agencies, the FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency, revealing serious environmental hazards, Rocky Flats was designated as a Superfund site that year, with a clean up of radioactive materials begun in 1992, ending in 2006. The government claims that the Rocky Flats clean up was “represented the largest and most complex nuclear site remediation in history.” This might be true but this fact loses some of its punch when it is considered that the estimated cost  given prior to the clean up was set at $50 billion.

Much radioactive material was removed and 800 buildings were demolished, but what remains? At that time, the property remained closed to the public due to concerns of remaining contaminants, especially, plutonium, the half life of which is 24,000 years and then some. By the time Rocky Flats closed, there was an estimated 1.2 tons of plutonium that could not be accounted for.

Continued Concerns Despite Federal Assurances Rocky Flats Is Safe for Hiking

The clean up concentrated on the immediate area where the plutonium triggers were manufactured, but the surrounding areas within the plant’s perimeter and nearby have not have had the same rigorous testing. In a letter as a part of the lawsuit to try to prevent the place from opening as a wild life preserve,  Dr. Mark Johnson, the executive director of Jefferson County Public Health noted

“I believe there was/is contamination on Rocky Flats and that some of it has escaped from Rocky Flats into the surrounding neighborhoods, but how much there is/was and what the health consequences of it are/were are not clear to me,” Johnson wrote to the court. “I honestly do not know how dangerous it is to live in its shadow. I believe we have the data to tell us the truth, but I do not believe all of it has been analyzed by truly independent sources.”

Just how much toxic radioactive material is left in the area is, frankly, unknown. There are a number of – to put it mildly – disturbing issues remaining. While public pressure forced the Department of Energy to reduce what it defines as “acceptable” levels of surface radiation from 651 to 50 picocuries still, that 50 picocurie level is higher than at other D.O.E. clean up sites. There are further concerns, detailed by Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice founder and long time Rocky Flats (and nuclear) scholar LeRoy Moore.

In a paper published in September, 2016, Moore gives twelve reasons why the Rocky Mountain National Wildlife Preserve should be closed to the public. Among them Moore notes:

  • Long-term danger of plutonium Plutonium 239, the contaminant of principal concern at Rocky Flats, has a half-life of 24,110 years. It remains dangerously radioactive for more than a quarter-million years. quantity left in the environment poses an essentially permanent danger.
  • Fires, accidents, routine operations, and random dumping during production years released plutonium particles to the environment. The prevailing wind heads east and southeast, but it blows in all directions some of the time. Hence, plutonium was scattered across the whole of the nearly 10 square-mile site. No one knows the full extent of the contamination because this was not determined. The methods used to locate plutonium could have missed hot spots.

(For the entire list see link just above)

Looks Like the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge will open

Despite all these concerns, protests, suits to prevent it, from all appearances, it appears that Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge will open to the public. It could sometime in the next few months in fact. This might be the case, but it will be a very qualified christening of the new facility. Six school districts have already announced that the refuge will be off limits to all school trips. That includes some 300,000 students that will be forbidden to visit the place.  They include Denver Public Schools, Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley School Districts, Adams 12 Five Star, Adams 14, Westminster Public Schools and Jefferson County Public Schools. All have issued directives forbidding field trips to Rocky Flats.

Noting that Rocky Flats is a nuclear Superfund site, Lisa Flores, member of the DPS School Board noted:

“We live in the state of Colorado, where there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors,” said Lisa Flores, a member of DPS’s school board, which Thursday brought forward a resolution forbidding its nearly 100,000 students from taking field trips to the 6,200-acre site, which sits 16 miles northwest of Denver. “This is a site we can take off that list.”

Final Personal Note.

Just before retiring from teaching in 2014 or 2015, can’t recall exactly, I took a group of Chinese students from the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies where I taught to visit Rocky Flats. We stopped at the Rocky Flats Museum in downtown Arvada, at the south side of Standley Lake on 86 Ave west of Kipling and then up the east side of Rocky Flats Nuclear Facility on Indiana St and back down Highway 93 on the west side.

They were, very appreciative. Several hope to become environmental scientists in China after graduation and were curious about the kind of environmental problems exist here. And of course, in typical fashion, they were very appreciative that I would organize this little  tour. But what stands out from that day is their response to seeing Standley Lake. The view of the lake, with the mountains in the background, took their breath away. That is my response to the view also and I’ve taken many photos from the place where we stood looking north across the lake to the Rockies. But they couldn’t not believe the place is polluted. Their experience with pollution is a kind of “in-your-face” stuff they all seemed to know from China.

I told them that it would easy to document the levels of plutonium contamination in the sediments (mud) below the lake where the contaminants concentrate, how supposedly boating, water skiing on the lake is permitted, but that people should beware of stepping in the mud below. They were startled. I do believe they believed me and anyway I gave them the citations to back up the allegations. But the important point – the real lesson for them – has to do with the nature of radioactive contamination, that it is invisible, can only be detected with scientific instrumentation, and that it is deadly, or can be over the long term.

It also led to a broader discussion of climate change, global warming, other dangers to life on earth that are not necessarily apparent from first glance. Fine day.


Series Links:

Nuclear Notes 1 – Chernobyl Fires Then and Now – 1

Nuclear Notes 2 – Chernobyl Fires Then and Now – 2 – The Silent Summer

Nuclear Notes 3 – Colorado’s 49 Nuclear Weapons on Hair Trigger Alert and a Drunken Air Force General in Charge of 450 Land-based ICBMs


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill conklin permalink
    July 3, 2018 5:19 pm

    Hi Rob: nice article I read Kristen’s book a couple of years ago. It was quite scary. Not to mention the fact that both you and I live in walking distance from Rocky Flats. Bill


  1. Nuclear Notes – 5 – More Accidents of Radioactive Waste – Rocky Flats Nuclear Pollution Lives On In Idaho, New Mexico | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog

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