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MINDING THE STORE

THEY DON'T MAKE BOMBS ANYMORE AT ROCKY FLATS. BUT THE PLANT IS AS DANGEROUS AS EVER.

The days should be getting sunnier for anyone living downwind of Rocky Flats. The Department of Energy facility is officially out of the nuclear-weapons business. Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary has promised the plant's dark secrets will be dragged into the light. And the federal government seems serious about cleaning up four decades of environmental misadventures at the plant site sixteen miles northwest of Denver.

But there's a cloud where the silver lining should be: Rocky Flats workers allege that mismanagement by their employer, plant operator EG&G Inc., has made the facility more dangerous today than it was in the Cold War years, when safety was subordinated to the production of nuclear-bomb triggers. Those allegations are bolstered by internal company documents that detail alarmingly deteriorated conditions in buildings containing plutonium, the deadly radioactive element used to make nuclear weapons.

Officials at EG&G and DOE deny that there are "imminent" safety problems in any of the plant's 22 production and storage buildings. However, reports written by troubleshooters hired by EG&G specifically for their expertise in nuclear safety and technology warn that neglected maintenance has compromised safety procedures and systems--and in the case of one building that handled the bulk of plutonium processing throughout the plant's history, has created "a significant health, safety, and economic hazard!"

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Harry Mann, EG&G's general manager for Rocky Flats, touts the "mentor program," which he describes as a model for DOE facilities around the country. Under the mentor project, the company recruits nuclear experts from the U.S. Navy and the nuclear-power industry to consult on plant operations. Yet Mann discounts at least two critical reports written by those experts, claiming that the "mentors" are applying overly rigorous standards to conditions at the plant. "Frankly, we have not matured to that level," says Mann.

Safety recommendations made by staff outside the mentor program have fared little better. Improperly stored radioactive materials described as "ticking timebombs" in an infamous report by one building manager a year and a half ago--bomb parts and liquid plutonium waste, among other items--are apparently still being kept in conditions that don't meet DOE safety rules.

Making matters worse, the safety concerns are set against a backdrop of continuing labor unrest at the plant. The United Steelworkers of America, which represents 1,800 EG&G hourly workers, charges that the company is bent on busting the union. As evidence, the union points to EG&G's practice of subcontracting out work and transferring hourly workers to nonunion salaried positions.

Those actions are reducing plant safety, union officials claim, by circumventing a labor agreement that permits workers to refuse work that they believe is dangerous or violates safety procedures. The union charges appear to be supported by company reports detailing safety violations by subcontractors engaged in environmental cleanup work--including one firm whose employees were written up repeatedly for failing to wear proper protective clothing. Though EG&G has recently taken action at DOE's direction to improve compliance, union officials say some subcontractors continue to ignore safety rules.

The energy department itself has cited numerous problems with EG&G's safety program. According to the government's site manager, Mark Silverman, the company has failed to properly emphasize safety to its managers and work force, and has been lax about taking precautions to avoid "criticality incidents"--potentially fatal but localized releases of radiation caused by the improper clustering of nuclear materials.

In an unconventional critique sent to EG&G senior vice-president Jim Zane last March, Silverman found the company wanting in nearly every facet of the plant's operation. Citing a pattern of failure and neglect, his letter said EG&G had made "little improvement" since December, when DOE withheld the company's performance bonus--an action unprecedented in the plant's 41-year history, which has been characterized by chummy relations between the government and plant operators.

An experienced DOE manager who spent five years as second-in-command at the agency's large Savannah River facility in South Carolina, Silverman says he considers himself from "the green side" of DOE. He spent much of his career administrating renewable energy programs for the government, and sounds genuinely excited by the task of cleaning up the toxic remnants of America's nuclear-weapons program. "I feel my whole career has been building to this job," he says.

Oddly enough, EG&G executives sounded equally buoyant this spring after receiving Silverman's memo. They thanked him for his openness and candor, spoke energetically of "reviewing and identifying improvements" and promised to "meet or exceed [his] expectations."

EG&G's first action in response to Silverman's criticism was swift, if predictable. As was the case in the fall of 1990, the helter-skelter first year of its contract at Rocky Flats, the company dispatched Jim Zane to the scene. A forceful personality, Zane reviewed Silverman's claims of inefficiency, incompetence, waste and inertia. In a written response, he pronounced about half of them valid, but branded the rest as "subjective" or "not entirely factual." More important, he concluded that there were no "system wide" problems at Rocky Flats--a direct contradiction of Silverman's findings.

Harry Mann responded only slightly less defensively. Though Silverman's March memo reiterated charges he'd made in December about EG&G's boondoggling ways with government money, Mann countered that such inefficiencies were largely history. "We initiated action plans to address specifically the deficiencies he identified in his letter of December," Mann tells Westword, adding that rather than wasting taxpayer funds, his staff has actually saved DOE $60 million over the past eighteen months.

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