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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rocky Flats History

Air Date: Week of

Reporting from Denver, Scott Schlegel reviews the history of environmental problems at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.


CURWOOD: Reporter Scott Schlegel has been following the unfolding story of the Justice Department's handling of Rocky Flats for Living On Earth. We asked him this week to look back at the history of the contaminated nuclear weapons plant, and the challenges ahead. He filed this report from Denver.

SCHLEGEL: Since 1953, Job One at Rocky Flats has been the manufacture of grapefruit-sized pits of highly radioactive plutonium for nuclear weapons triggers. Between 1953 and 1989, when the handling of plutonium was stopped for safety reasons, at least 800 grams of plutonium escaped into ventilation ducts attached to gloveboxes where plutonium is purified. Plutonium also mixed with other hazardous materials and must now be separated, and some plutonium is simply missing. A ball of plutonium the size of a marble can cause an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. The government says it no longer needs to build nuclear bombs at Rocky Flats. But in order to clean up the plutonium contamination, workers have to start handling plutonium again.

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During a recent Defense Department safety review board hearing, Jim Zane, the Rocky Flats plant manager for contractor EG&G Incorporated, said the plant is ready to resume plutonium operations.

ZANE: We believe that our management systems, our training programs, qualifications, safety equipment, et cetera, are ready, we've done everything we said we would do and it is ready to operate.

SCHLEGEL: However, several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund, don't want the plutonium clean-up to begin yet, because they say plant management hasn't been sufficiently reformed to prevent future accidents. The dispute over re-starting plutonium handling here is just the latest in a long list of Rocky Flats controversies, which began in September 1957. That's when, under Dow Chemical Corporation's management, a major fire spread unknown quantities of radioactive material over heavily populated areas of Metro Denver. No emergency actions were taken to protect the public, and smokestack monitors reactivated a week later measured emissions sixteen thousand times acceptable standards. It's believed the fire was caused by air leaks in plutonium processing gloveboxes, similar to those now shut down because of contamination and safety problems. Dozens of similar fires during the 1960's spread even more radioactive material over Rocky Flats, as well as Metro Denver. But radioactive materials aren't the only hazard at Rocky Flats.

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SCHLEGEL: Most of the Rocky Flats facility is open prairie, but the surface hides a cauldron of toxic waste. There are no official records of chemicals used at Rocky Flats during its first 22 years of operation. Yet, under the managements of Dow Chemical and its successor, Rockwell International, unknown quantities of toxic waste contaminated with plutonium were dumped into the ground at Rocky Flats.

BAUGHMAN: We know that there are groundwaters that are contaminated to a level that would pose risks to people if in fact those were used for domestic purposes. We know that there are soils that are contaminated at levels that could pose risks to people if they're allowed to go out and have direct exposure to those soils.

SCHLEGEL: Gary Baughman heads the Colorado Health Department's Hazardous Waste Facilities section. He says the state has taken temporary steps to protect the public. But how much hazardous material found its way into ground water at more than 170 different sites is unknown. Fred Dowsett is in charge of hazardous waste monitoring and enforcement for the Colorado Health Department.

DOWSETT: From the evaluations that the Department's Radiation Control people have looked at, is that they don't believe that there is a significant risk to the public. I think a more obvious risk is the potential risk to people who are workers at the plant and that in remediating it, great care has to be taken that that material does not cause undue exposure to the workers who are doing it.

SCHLEGEL: It was information from plant workers, as well as infrared satellite photos, that led to a June 1989 raid of Rocky Flats by more than 100 Federal agents.

PITTS: They were going into peoples' offices and kicking out managers and confiscating paperwork and moving around, taking readings off of things. They were everywhere.

SCHLEGEL: Karen Pitts, who worked at Rocky Flats for seven years, was there when the FBI stormed the plant. Pitts and coworker Jackie Brever cooperated with the FBI investigation and for that, the women say, they as well as other whistle-blowers were threatened by Rockwell managers, union leaders, and coworkers. They say they were intentionally exposed to dangerous levels of radiation on the job, and that gunshots were fired at their homes and cars. Jackie Brever.

BREVER: Once I had been in there and learned the ropes that I realized that some of these things I don't think we should be doing, and I started bringing this to management's attention and the more I brought it to their attention the more trouble it brought me. It is my, my experience that it has always been production over safety, yes.

SCHLEGEL: Three and a half million pages of documents seized by FBI agents contained evidence that Rockwell knowingly violated Federal hazardous waste disposal laws in the process of building nuclear bombs. Last spring, Rockwell pled guilty to ten violations of Federal hazardous waste laws and paid a record $18.5 million dollar fine. Some members of a special grand jury, meanwhile, allege that even more serious crimes took place at Rocky Flats, a charge the Justice Department rejects. In response to public outrage over Rockwell's criminal conduct, former Energy Secretary Admiral James Watkins promised big changes at Rocky Flats. Rockwell was fired and another firm, EG&G Incorporated, was hired to manage the plant. State officials say EG&G, as well as the Department of Energy, are beginning to solve systematic plant safety problems. But Rocky Flats still is in violation of Federal environmental laws, and state hazardous waste officials say the nuclear weapons plant is still poorly managed. These problems frustrate people like Eugene DeMayo, who heads the Sierra Club's Rocky Flats Committee and lives just eight miles from the plant.

DEMAYO: There are some changes going on out there, for the better, very minimal, but they are changing and we're seeing for instance a greater openness in the Department of Energy and EG&G, Rocky Flats' information flow, we're seeing more information come out.

SCHLEGEL: Still, DeMayo says the cleanup is moving too slowly, and new Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary says the cleanup at all of the nation's nuclear weapons plants is costing too much, and she's considering cutting its budget. DOE officials at Rocky Flats say the cleanup is well-managed. But management also says it won't start tackling the plutonium problem at Rocky Flats until it's sure it has the public's confidence -- confidence it has yet to fully earn. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Schlegel in Denver.



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