- Rocky Flats Photography Department
- Crews excavate corroded barrels during the Rocky Flats cleanup effort in 1998.
IT WAS FEB. 25 AND BROOMFIELD City Council was done. It unanimously voted last month to withdraw from the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority (JPPHA), a proposed north-south toll road that would ostensibly help mitigate traffic congestion in the Northwest Metro Denver area. The route would have taken the road through the eastern edge of the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge, just south of the Boulder County line, bordering Arvada and Broomfield.
The council vote was influenced by preliminary soil samples taken by the JPPHA in July 2019, specifically one sample that showed plutonium levels more than five times higher than the acceptable standard (the rest of the samples taken at that time were within acceptable standards). Before its current existence as a wildlife refuge, Rocky Flats was the site of a nuclear weapons plant, which has caused concern about plutonium contamination in the area. Forty-eight subsequent samples taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, showed levels well below cleanup standards of 50 picocuries per gram.
The city council vote is the latest installment in the ongoing conflict between concerned residents and public officials, and Rocky Flats and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). For decades, residents and at least two directors of Jefferson County Public Health, have claimed that plutonium released from the plant is responsible for the high rate of cancers in the area. These claims have been consistently disputed by CDPHE and the Department of Energy (DOE).
During the public comment section of the hearing on Resolution 2020-82, “Giving Notice of Withdrawal from the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority,” a host of concerned citizens shared their worries with the council. “It’s noted that most of the comments are from people outside of Broomfield,” said Broomfield Mayor Patrick Quinn at the time.
Many like former Rocky Flats Plant safety representative Ted Zeigler and Harvey Nichols, University of Colorado at Boulder professor emeritus of biology, live outside Broomfield but have a long history of activism relating to Rocky Flats.
“There are trenches 30 feet deep on the plant site, of layer upon layer of toxic and hazardous materials,” claimed Zeigler during the Broomfield City Council meeting, “I had access to that info during my 13 years on the plant site. The Department of Energy [DOE] has been reluctant to provide soil sampling for all the years that the plant site operated and all these years hereafter.”
“What I found,” noted Nichols, “under a DOE contract beginning in 1974, was that the entire site, not just the industrial zone, but the entire refuge, was dusted — deliberately as part of their operations — with microscopic particles of plutonium, very suitable for being inhaled. That material has moved off-site, particularly to the east along Indiana [Street, the eastern border of Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge] where I did sampling also. That remains in the dust, and of course construction means dust being raised.”
While residents and community activists have long argued that contamination from the plant has led to a rise in cancer rates, the CDPHE sent a letter to residents following the discovery of the contaminated soil sample. The letter assured them that “based on the information we have so far, our state experts and toxicologists do not believe there is an immediate public health threat.”
Dr. Deborah Segaloff, a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, an activist group that, according to its website, “mobilizes physicians and health professionals to advocate for climate solutions and a nuclear weapons-free world,” also spoke up during the public comment period. She introduced herself as “a biomedical research scientist who recently retired from the University of Iowa Medical School as a professor of physiology and a member of our medical center’s cancer center,” and noted that “plutonium emits alpha radiation, which is the most dangerous form of radioactivity. The deadly effects of alpha radiation are insidious and can take years, even decades, to manifest. If inhaled, ingested or absorbed through a simple cut in the skin, even a single plutonium particle would remain in the person for their lifetime, continuously generating alpha radiation that would bombard thousands of surrounding cells, damaging the cells’ DNA, and thereby significantly increasing the individual’s risk of cancer development.”
City Councilor Stan Jezierski was the only councilor to express any kind of reservations about the decision, admitting that he was “maybe one of the few people here that’s really been conflicted about this issue for many months now. On the one hand I really love the idea of the Jefferson Parkway; I’ve been sold on it from the beginning. I think it would be a good economic boom. On the other hand, we have heard there have been a lot of serious concerns that have been raised about the Parkway. It’s prudent for us to withdraw.”
- Heidi Beedle
- Erected in 2015, this Cold War memorial horse was created by artist Jeff Gipe.
City Councilor Guyleen Castriotta thanked commenters: “I wasn’t from Colorado, I didn’t know anything about this, and I’m grateful to all of you for your engagement and persistence.” More than half of Colorado’s population is, like Castriotta, an outof-state transplant, and even many native Coloradans don’t know the full story, due to the fact that much of the major news coverage about Rocky Flats occurred more than 30 years ago. This kind of collective memory loss can be a major problem when we’re dealing with contaminants that have a half-life of 24,000 years.
THE SOVIET UNION DETONATED ITS first atomic bomb on Aug. 29, 1949, setting off a nuclear arms race that became a defining feature of the Cold War. Three years later, Rocky Flats began production. The site northwest of Denver was chosen because it “satisfied a climatic criteria, was near a metropolitan city with its labor market and an area attractive enough to aid the recruiting of employees from other cities,” according to “Rocky Flats Site History,” written for the Department of Energy by Pat Buffer. The plant’s purpose was kept secret from the general public, hidden behind the shield of national security. It was vital to keep Soviet spies and intelligence agents away from our nuclear production centers. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) would not disclose that plutonium was handled at the plant until 1957, after the first of many accidents involving the radioactive element at Rocky Flats.
Plutonium is a pyrophoric element, which means it has a tendency to ignite when exposed to air. Once it does, it is difficult to extinguish, especially since using water to put out a plutonium fire means risking a criticality, basically an uncontrolled nuclear fission reaction.
The Sept. 11, 1957, fire at the Rocky Flats plant, operated at the time by Dow Chemical, was one of the first offsite releases of plutonium. According to a 1992 document prepared by ChemRisk, a scientific consulting firm, for the Colorado Department of Health, the fire was caused “when metallic plutonium casting residues spontaneously ignited in a glove box.” Dow’s accident investigation report, included in the ChemRisk document, noted that “attempts to fight the fire with carbon dioxide from hand extinguishers and a hundred pound cart proved to be ineffective; however when a water spray nozzle was brought in and used, it was effective, although there was considerable uncertainty as to the criticality problems which it might produce.” The fire burned through the filters, into the ventilation system and the main exhaust duct. “At about 10:39 p.m.,” the report notes, two minutes after spraying the burning plutonium with water, there was “an explosion in the exhaust system, probably due to accumulated unburned gases.”
If you find the use of vague adverbs like “probably” in a nuclear accident report unsettling, it should be reassuring to know that in 1989 an independent safety assessment team concluded that “no evidence could be found that would support allegations that an accidental criticality ever occurred at Rocky Flats.”
Whatever the cause, the explosion resulted in the second-largest release of plutonium into the environment from Rocky Flats (the largest was the 903 Pad leak; more on that later). The element spread as far as 30 miles, with no coverage from local news or government warnings to nearby residents. News of the 1957 fire wasn’t brought to public attention until another fire in 1969 prompted testing of off-site soil.
The 1957 and 1969 fires were the most prominent, and the two fires that released the most significant amounts of plutonium off-site, but a 2003 CDPHE report, titled “Report of Epidemiologic Analyses Performed for Rocky Flats Production Workers Employed Between 1952-1989,” notes that “hundreds of plutonium fires occurred,” and that “during one incident in 1965, 400 workers received radiation doses from plutonium as a result of a fire that started in a clogged drain.”
When these incidents did finally receive media attention, they were dismissed by both the CDPHE and the AEC. On June 5, 1969, The Broomfield Star ran the headline “No Radiation From Rocky Flats Fire, CDH Decides,” after initial soil tests failed to show any contamination. However, subsequent studies and documents released after the plant stopped production in 1989 have contradicted those initial claims, showing that contamination did, in fact, occur, both on- and off-site.
DUE IN NO SMALL PART TO WORKING conditions at the plant, union workers staged a 10-week walkout starting June 28, 1970. During the labor dispute, allegations emerged not just of unsafe conditions for workers, but of dangerous releases of plutonium that put the public at risk. On July 22, 1970, the Golden Transcript ran a front-page story about conditions at the plant. The union president of the Allied and Technical Workers, James Kelly, was quoted urging increased emissions testing at the plant.
“Radioactive emissions have taken place, and a smear test will prove it,” said Kelly, who also “accused Dow of burying contaminated wastes on the plant site.” Kelly claimed that “unearthed burials of contaminated waste still remain at the plant, both within and without the security fence.”
Lloyd Joshel, Dow’s general manager, replied that such claims were “simply not true” and that “the Colorado Department of Health confirms our findings.” However, according to the 1992 ChemRisk document, the plant was actively dumping solvent in multiple places throughout the Rocky Flats area during the late 1960s and early 1970s, including an area called “Ryan’s Pit,” noting that “after radiation screening identified the solvents as nonradioactive, the solvents were intentionally dumped in the trench as a method of disposal. The solvents were disposed of in small quantities. Solvents that may have been dumped included perchloroethylene, trichloroethane, and possibly carbon tetrachloride, though not as likely.”
This means that Kelly was correct — waste, though not necessarily contaminated with plutonium, had indeed been dumped and left forgotten at the Rocky Flats site for decades, and it had undoubtedly contaminated soil and groundwater.
An Oct. 6, 1969, an internal report from Dow, titled “Possible ‘Areas of Concern’ Research at Rocky Flats” was circulated among Rocky Flats officials after, as the report claims, “neighboring ‘concerned scientists’ have questioned many Rocky Flats operating practices and limits related to our effect on our environment.”
The document analyzed contamination in the air, water, soil and people. It considered that “plutonium particles below about one micron in size which disperse more widely than the usual should be investigated” and noted that “the measurement of these particles poses extra problems.” For reference: The plutonium particle within the contaminated soil sample taken in 2019 was about 8.8 microns in size.
The report also noted that “continued efforts should be made to minimize the amount of plutonium being discarded in the waste. Waste limits are being reassessed.” So 1969 wasn’t just a bad year for fires; Dow was also forced to deal with this ongoing waste issue.
- Atomic Energy Commission
- Leaking barrels were stored at the 903 Pad from 1964 to 1967, at least.
OILS AND CHEMICALS USED IN processing plutonium become contaminated with the radioactive element, and their subsequent storage and disposal becomes a problem. Between 1957 and 1969, Dow stored 3,573 barrels of oil contaminated with plutonium, and 1,254 barrels of oil contaminated with uranium, in a field on the southeast corner of the plant’s grounds. According to a 1971 Dow report, “subsequently, some of the drums developed oil leaks and some plutonium contaminated oil was deposited on the soil. The area was later covered by an asphalt pad.”
This leak, at what was later referred to as the “903 Pad,” actually accounts for 99 percent of all the plutonium that was ever released off-site, according to a 1987 report by Christoph Hohenemser, a member of the Rocky Flats public oversight commission that described the plant as a “hazard management success.”
The plutonium that leaked into the soil was later carried off-site by wind and rain, according to multiple studies and documents released since the leak.
Although for a time Rocky Flats seemingly held onto its waste in the hope of extracting and processing unused plutonium, some subsequent waste was sent to a facility in Arco, Idaho, according to the 1969 internal report, stating, “The waste, in drums or boxes, is bulldozed into pits and covered.”
In the report, Dow noted there were still concerns about the waste in Idaho, saying, “it is in volcanic soil several hundred feet above water level in an area with only 5 in./yr. rainfall. However, we have seen pictures of our barrels floating in water in the pits. The water several hundred feet below the surface ultimately joins the Snake River, much of which is used for irrigation. This does not seem an ideal solution, but is presumably not our problem.”
It is very much our problem today.
Tritium, another radioactive substance, was also occasionally released from the plant, causing additional concerns. On Aug. 25, 1973, the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph reported that “radioactive hydrogen came from one of the buildings on the Rocky Flats grounds and from a landfill serving as a burial ground for radioactive materials.” The tritium from Rocky Flats found its way into Walnut Creek, which feeds into the Great Western Reservoir, which was Broomfield’s main source of drinking water prior to 1997.
In 1974, Dow compiled a comprehensive environmental inventory, which attempted to assess and account for all of the releases since the plant began operations in 1952. The inventory notes that many of the buildings’ “foundations, footings, pilings, and associated drainages must be considered both radioactively and chemically infiltrated by leaks, spills, weather actions, etc.” Many of the leaks occurred during the course of normal operations, but some of the leaks are the result of decisions made by Dow.
For instance, the Service Laboratory Facility, which began operation in 1968, was built with Pyrex process waste lines under the building. Pyrex is not just the material of choice for baking at home — the boron-infused glass was seen as a solution to the plant’s persistent corrosion problem. However, it is still just glass, and predictably the inventory notes that “operations and natural settling of the building have resulted in several breaks in this glass line.”
DESPITE THE VEIL OF SECRECY, OPERATIONS (and accidents) at the plant inevitably drew public notice. The effects of off-site releases of plutonium from the 1957 and 1969 fires and the 903 Pad leak caught the attention of local health officials. Despite repeated assurances from state health representatives, the local health department began to look into the higher-than-expected instances of cancer in Jefferson County.
In 1973, Dr. Carl Johnson became the director of Jefferson County Public Health and began questioning claims made by officials at Rocky Flats and the Colorado Department of Public Health.
Johnson was concerned about the instances of cancers in Jefferson County and questioned the official measurements of plutonium in the soils around Rocky Flats, finding in his own testing that plutonium levels in the soil were 44 times higher than reported by the Department of Public Health. Johnson grew increasingly concerned about an increase in cancer deaths in Jefferson County, and in a paper published in 1981, noted that a rise in certain kinds of cancers Johnson was seeing in Jefferson County, such as leukemia, “supports the hypothesis that exposure of general populations to small concentrations of plutonium and other radionuclides may have an effect on cancer incidence.” Johnson noted that “plutonium concentrations in the air at the Rocky Flats plant are consistently the highest (1970-1977) in the US DOE monitoring network,” based on his studies of the DOE’s own data. He also asserted that the DOE’s measurements were likely an underestimation.
Almost 40 years later, and the current head of the Jefferson County Public Health Department, Dr. Mark Johnson (no relation) has come to the same conclusion. In 2018 he spoke outagainst opening the wildlife refuge to the public, and he thinks the recent discovery of plutonium near the proposed parkway site should give people reason to reconsider. “Yes, I believe there is a health concern,” he says, “but I would add the caveat I don’t know how bad that concern is or how big that concern is.”
Fears about the health risks associated with exposure to the historic releases of plutonium from Rocky Flats have galvanized community organizers like Tiffany Hansen, who founded Rocky Flats Downwinders in 2017. A “downwinder” is a colloquialism for someone who lives near a nuclear facility.
“I was born in Arvada, 3.75 miles downwind from Rocky Flats,” explains Hansen. “I lived there during the time the plant was live. My dad was a contractor out there. I could see the lights of the plant through my bedroom window.”
- This graph, prepared by ChemRisk, outlines historical releases of plutonium from Rocky Flats.
In 2014, she, like a number of Arvada residents, began to develop health problems, and was ultimately diagnosed with a rare ovarian tumor. “I reached out to some people I went to school with,” she recalls, “an ex-boyfriend who was recovering from stage 4 thyroid cancer, and he felt that Rocky Flats was to blame. I reached out to another woman who had terminal ovarian cancer who also felt strongly that Rocky Flats caused her illness. Everybody that I’m talking to seems to know about Rocky Flats.”
This anecdotal evidence convinced Hansen to partner with Metro State University of Denver, and together they launched the first Rocky Flats Health Survey. Preliminary findings of the 2016 study found that “within the 1,745 completed surveys for the 64-year period, there were 848 cases of cancer with 414 of those cases being cancers designated as ‘rare’ (fewer than 15/100,000 people). These rare cancers account for 48.8 percent of the total cancer cases for these survey results as compared to the U.S. rate for ‘rare’ cancers, which is 25 percent.”
While the study did not find a direct connection to Rocky Flats, it did note that “the identified patterns warrant further investigation.” Unfortunately, the study was discontinued when the principal investigator retired from Metro State.
Those study results should be taken with a grain of salt, according to Mark Johnson. “Just asking people ‘how many cancers?’ is not the best way to find out how many cancers there are and whether people have died from them,” notes the current Jefferson County Public Health director. “I think the data is very difficult to get and very difficult to interpret. I think someone who really has the expertise and the time to study all of the studies and all of the data that is out there is what is needed.”
On April 19, 1978, the Gazette-Telegraph reported that “the EPA had proposed that the builders of two Jefferson County subdivisions be required to tell their customers that the soil is contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and that a large radioactive release could occur at the plant.” But the article goes on to state that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had decided not to issue warnings to potential homebuyers.
Today, the land near Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge is surrounded by subdivisions offering homes “in the low $500s” less than a mile from the boundary of the plant’s buffer zone. “Where they’re putting the Candelas neighborhood and these other newer developments,” says Hansen, “there’s maps. If you do the overlay of those communities, they’re in known off-site contaminated areas from those fires and the 903 Pad.”
“There are clear studies that have shown there is an increased risk or rate of plutonium in the dirt there,” agrees Mark Johnson. “I have concerns already about the digging around with the subdivisions and the commercial enterprises that have gone into that area that were basically kicking up a lot of stuff — and we don’t know what is there.”
Carl Johnson was fired in 1981 for his persistent, outspoken criticism of the plant, but won a subsequent whistleblower lawsuit. Partly due to Johnson’s criticism, the FBI and the EPA began looking into operations at the Rocky Flats Plant starting in 1987. The investigation was aided by Jim Stone, an employee at the plant who also became a whistleblower over what he saw as grave safety violations.
In 1988, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to thenU.S. Congressman David Skaggs, “two plant employees were exposed to contamination in building 771 when they walked through a contaminated area without respirators. This incident occurred because the sign warning that respirators are required was apparently hidden from view by waste drums and a tool box.” The GAO report also cited dangers from aging buildings and equipment.
As a result, the DOE ordered Building 771, which housed the plant’s plutonium incinerator, shut down. The FBI and the EPA began aerial, infrared surveillance that indicated that the plant was still burning waste in violation of the DOE order. The FBI secured a search warrant and executed it June 6, 1989. As a result of the raid, the company managing the plant, Rockwell International, and the Department of Energy were involved in a grand jury trial, but the findings remain sealed. What we do know is that Rockwell was fined $18.5 million dollars and operations at the plant were handed over to EG&G, one of the contractors who took over after Rockwell in 1990 (see sidebar), to begin the massive cleanup operation.
Rocky Flats Downwinders is currently a party to a lawsuit to unseal the grand jury documents, and is being represented by attorney Pat Mellen. Hansen hopes the documents will reveal new information about the cleanup, which has long been a source of contention for concerned residents.
“What I have been calling for is two things,” says Mark Johnson, “I’ve been calling for an independent organization to go back and review all of the studies we have on Rocky Flats — which would be a major undertaking — and the other I have been asking for is the unsealing of all the documents that were used for the grand jury study. Those documents were sealed. What do they know that we don’t know, and why has it been sealed so we can’t find it?”
The debate about the grand jury documents has been going on since the report was sealed in 1992. A federal judge released a redacted version in 1993, but calls for the unsealing of unredacted documents increased following the 2004 publication of the book Ambushed Grand Jury. This book was written and self-published by Wes McKinley, the grand jury foreman and a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives, and attorney Caron Balkany.
In 2004, then-U.S. Attorney (and current Colorado Springs mayor) John Suthers, wrote to Congressman Mark Udall in response to inquiries about the grand jury documents, noting “no one in our office believes that there is any evidence of contamination at Rocky Flats contained in Justice Department files which is not otherwise known to the multiple agencies that have been responsible for the clean-up. Nevertheless, we would be willing to have agents of the Department of Energy, the EPA and the State of Colorado Department of Health and Environment review the 65 boxes of documents to determine if any information would be useful to them in the continuing clean-up process.”
THOUGH EXHAUSTIVE DOCUMENTATION of waste sites and deposits exists, questions remain as to the effectiveness of the now-completed cleanup. Jon Lipsky, a former FBI agent who led the raid on Rocky Flats in 1989, criticized the decision to open the refuge to the public in 2016, and has claimed there is still work to be done. Originally, the DOE estimated it would take 65 years and $37 billion to clean up the site. It was completed in 2005 for $7 billion.
During the process, there were still surprises to be found. In 1993, when taking routine soil samples, EG&G found deposits of non-aqueous phase liquids, liquid solution contaminants that do not dissolve in or easily mix with water — like oil, gasoline and petroleum products.
A memo from EG&G’s N.M. Hutchins, acting associate general manager, environmental restoration management, reported the discovery of this liquid, which turned out to be a solvent called tetrachloroethene. Long-term exposure has been associated with several types of cancer, specifically bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.
After the cleanup, the site was given to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and renamed the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge. A number of former nuclear and chemical weapons sites across the country have been rehabilitated and opened to the public as wildlife refuges, including the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a site in northeast Denver where the Army manufactured chemical weapons.
Studies were conducted to determine if there was a danger to wildlife from the contamination at the Rocky Flats plant. One, published in the Journal of Environmental Quality in 1980, concluded that “concern over short-term biological and ecological effects of Pu [plutonium] on the vegetation and small animals at Rocky Flats seems unwarranted at present. Vegetation, arthropods, and small mammals had Pu concentrations much lower than those which produced biological effects in laboratory dogs and rodents.”
“The reason I started RFD [Rocky Flats Downwinders] is because there needs to be more studies and more health data collected from the people who live near Rocky Flats,” says Hansen. “It’s insane that they haven’t already done it before they’ve started to do so much development in the area. They’re building neighborhoods in known contaminated areas. There are neighborhoods out there where children are playing, bordering the wildlife refuge.”
“I would like to have somebody who can really dig into the data that we have and the expertise that we really need and give us a neutral picture,” says Mark Johnson. “The problem is it would be very difficult to find a neutral organization, at least in this country, because anyone who is doing any sort of nuclear teaching or research is funded by the DOE, so you’d have to go out of the country to find someone who is neutral.”
- John Prieto/The Denver Post, Courtesy Jeff Gipe
- Poet Allen Ginsberg is arresed in 1978 while protesting the work being done at Rocky Flats.
WHILE BROOMFIELD’S DECISION TO remove itself from the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority has stalled the project, it could still continue.
Bill Ray, the executive director of the JPPHA commented, “It is disappointing that Broomfield made this decision without the benefit of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s analysis of the extensive soils testing that is expected in April [CDPHE has acknowledged that follow-up tests of the soil may be necessary, though the Indy was unable to confirm by press time that the testing would go forward in April]. CDPHE has long been the lead agency monitoring public health and safety around Rocky Flats. Jefferson County and Arvada will separately consider the next steps for the Parkway.”
The JPPHA isn’t the only project that has been proposed near the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge. In 2018 the Highlands Natural Resources Corp. applied to drill fracking wells near the former nuclear site. The plans were abandoned after an outcry from residents of nearby Superior.
“I’ve read as much as I could about Rocky Flats and I’ve spoken with people who have worked out at Rocky Flats and you end up with two stories,” laments Mark Johnson. “You end up with those that feel that everything was done great and everything was done well, and you end up with those that tell you they know they buried things that were off the map and that nobody knows they’re there."
“I don’t trust the DOE,” he says. “At the beginning I think they were truly trying to be patriotic, but at the end I think they were trying to cover their own tail. I think CDPHE was sort of bought into the DOE story by all of the funding they got. They truly haven’t taken the time to look at the data. I think this is another case where living out in the West we have been hoodwinked by powers in the East and that we really need to figure out what’s going on up there before we have too many more people building houses.”
The questions of the lasting effects from the operations at Rocky Flats may never be answered to the satisfaction of residents like Hansen, who are dealing with serious health issues. Jeff Gipe, the artist behind the Cold War Horse memorial that was erected in 2015, is currently working on a documentary about the plant, Half-Life of Memory, which may draw more attention to the issue.
President Donald Trump, who has a good shot at re-election, has reduced the effectiveness of agencies like the EPA while also advocating for an increase in nuclear arms development.
In 2019, the federal government proposed a new plutonium pit production facility near Aiken, South Carolina. But that is presumably not our problem.