Rocky Flats Will Remain Radioactive

By Michael de Yoanna

DENVER, Colorado, October 3, 2002 (ENS) – The Department of Energy is warning that even after the Rocky Flats Superfund Site is converted to a wildlife refuge, contamination from plutonium, uranium and americium will persist.

The acknowledgment comes as the Department of Energy (DOE) proposes alterations in amendments to the Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement of 1996.

Working under the watch of the Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado health department, the DOE says the alterations represent a vast improvement for public health compared with the current agreement for the cleanup of the 6,500 acre former nuclear weapons manufacturing plant located 15 miles northwest of downtown Denver.

“There will be at least 10 times more protection,” said Joe Legare, an assistant environmental manager with the DOE.

Rocky Flats

Rocky Flats (Photo courtesy Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board)
Currently, 651 picocuries of contamination per gram of soil are allowed to remain in the surface soil of the rocky terrain that is home to a diverse ecology, including the endangered Prebles meadow jumping mouse. Under what is proposed, 50 picocuries of contamination per gram of soil would be acceptable on the surface.

The proposed levels of cleanup are based on the fact that a full time U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife ranger will be employed at Rocky Flats when it is turned into a wildlife refuge in 2006.

The proposed changes will be formally released sometime next month and are subject to a 60 day public comment period. The changes follow several years’ of dialogue between various federal, state and local groups and citizens.

Recognizing the limitations of the final $4 billion budget allocation that was in 2000 set aside by Congress for the site’s cleanup, the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments in a September 9 letter voiced support for the proposed changes.

The coalition represents seven local governments, including the city of Westminster, which lies down-water from Rocky Flats, and the city of Boulder, where 100,000 people reside.

Rocky Flats

The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge covers 6,000 acres of the former nuclear weapons production facility (Photo courtesy National Wildlife Federation)
The Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board, a citizen’s group, has yet to reach consensus on the issue. However, the board is asking critical questions regarding the level of involvement the federal government ought to retain at Rocky Flats beyond 2006 and what is being done to ensure the safety of people who visit the future wildlife refuge.

Legare said that is why the DOE is pushing for a proper cleanup now. “We want to do this once,” he said.

It is likely, however, that the DOE will maintain some kind of presence even after a record of decision closes the Superfund site, according to Pat Etchart, a spokesman for the DOE at Rocky Flats. The DOE would monitor water for contamination, he said.

Victor Holm, a member of the citizens advisory board, said the “potential exists to get a less than optimum cleanup.” That’s because given the proposed changes, deeper soils – some soils lying as close to the surface as six feet – will be left untouched and contaminated.

At least one area should be dug up, Holm said. “The pipelines that carried a high concentration of material should be taken out,” he said.

Those pipes, used for everything from the manufacture of plutonium triggers to water for laundering clothes, are largely concentrated in a 70 acre portion of Rocky Flats’ 400 acre industrial area.

“I’d like to see more detail in the plan,” Holm said. “We should really get into it.” Holm however does not go as far as others on the citizens’ board who recommend that the entire site be brought to “background” radiation levels – the small amount of radiation that naturally occurs.

Tom Marshall, a researcher for the Boulder based Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, wants to see that kind of cleanup. The peace center has monitored issues at Rocky Flats and been actively engaged in all aspects of public participation since the organization's founding in 1983.


Rocky Flats has long been controversial. In this newspaper photo from the early 1980s, people circle the facility in protest. (Photo courtesy Department of History University of Colorado)
Etchart said the cleanup levels supported by the peace center would be impossible to attain given current funding.

Marshall countered that the proposed changes lack long term stewardship and appear to give the DOE the chance to shirk its responsibilities while posing a grave risk to future generations. In a position paper, the peace center warns that plutonium that will be left behind “remains dangerously radioactive for a quarter-of-a-million years."

“An alpha emitter, plutonium can prove harmful if taken into the body by inhalation, ingestion, or through an open wound," the peace center paper states. "Once in the body, it may lodge in the lungs or migrate to the liver or to the surface or marrow of bone. For as long as it resides in the body, and this could be for the rest of the person's life, it continues to bombard surrounding tissue with radiation.”

The DOE and Colorado state health department note that the plutonium moves slowly and that the movement of contaminated soils can be monitored by taking samples from groundwater wells.

Until December 1989, the Rocky Flats plant made components for nuclear weapons using various radioactive and hazardous materials such as plutonium, uranium and beryllium. Nearly 40 years of nuclear weapons production left behind contaminated soils and groundwater. A cleanup effort began in 1995.

The Rocky Flats Closure Project is online at:

The Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board is found at:

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center is at: