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HOT PROPERTY

WITH DEVELOPERS RUSHING IN, ROCKY FLATS ISN'T GROUND ZERO ANYMORE.

Marj Rust enjoys the view from her home on a ridge west of Rocky Flats. She can take in a rolling expanse of rangeland running east from the hogback to Standley Lake, a vista interrupted only by the jumble of buildings at the U.S. Department of Energy facility. But these days she feels uneasy as she surveys the open space spread before her.

Rocky Flats has been out of the nuclear-bomb business since 1989. But the area around it is heading for a boom.

The land Rust can see from her living room has remained largely undeveloped because of Rocky Flats, notorious for four decades of polluting land, air and water with radioactive effluent and toxic chemicals. The state health department has quietly discouraged growth within four miles of the plant's center since the 1970s, not due to contamination, it says, but for "logistics" in the event of a catastrophic accident. And market forces have thwarted development even in the thousands of empty acres that extend beyond that official buffer zone. Few homeowners or businesses, after all, have been willing to locate next to one of the world's largest stockpiles of plutonium.

But with out-of-staters streaming into Colorado, demand is high for undeveloped land--even land near a sprawling Superfund site plagued with dicey cleanup problems, some of them still without solutions. Residential subdivisions are springing up ever closer to the buffer zone. And today the City of Arvada and controversial real-estate developer Howard Lacy, who was the chief electrical engineer at Rocky Flats during its construction in the early 1950s, want to put a sprawling complex of office buildings, light industry and homes up against it. That project, dubbed Jefferson Center, would create an 18,000-acre planned community in the shadow of no-man's-land. Says Marj Rust, who dreads urban sprawl more than she fears plutonium, "That scares me."

After years as a sinkhole of bad news, Rocky Flats may be rising in the public's estimation. And with a cleanup figured to last at least a quarter of a century under way, the public-relations office at the newly renamed Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site has some positive news to circulate for a change.

DOE insists that on-site nuclear materials will be stabilized and properly stored as soon as possible. That prospect inspired new contractor Kaiser-Hill--due to take over from EG&G July 1--to float the idea of opening about 4,000 acres of the facility's 6,000-acre buffer zone to the public. DOE officials coughed nervously and cautioned that such talk was premature, given the tons of unstable bomb materials on hand. But they didn't rule out the idea of letting people hike, bike and ride horses on land fenced off in the 1970s when areas to the east of the facility were found to be contaminated with concentrations of plutonium 1,500 times higher than background fallout levels.

State health officials, buoyed by years of sampling, say concentrations of plutonium in the buffer zone have dissipated to levels below the state safety standard--though just where the radioactive material has gone remains a question mark. To a public weary of dreading Rocky Flats, the time seems ripe to let the neighborhood Boo Radley make friends.

Most trusting are communities near the plant. The tiny town of Superior, left with little room to grow after aggressive open-space acquisitions by the City and County of Boulder bottled up nearly all the plant's northern border, is pressing for eighty acres in the northeast corner of the buffer zone for commercial development. A consortium of area chambers of commerce is working to secure right-of-way for the proposed Northwest Parkway, a scaled-down and partially rerouted version of the W-470 freeway rejected by voters five years ago. Billed as a needed link between C-470 and Denver International Airport, the highway would skirt the west and north sides of Rocky Flats and cut across the northwest corner of the buffer zone (the eastern edge of the buffer zone is dominated by dedicated open space and municipal reservoirs for the cities of Broomfield and Westminster).

South of that proposed corner cut, a private gravel-mining operation that lies in part on buffer-zone acreage has been approved for expansion that will chew farther south along the outskirts of the plant. Oil and gas extraction is also likely for buffer land. Before the plant's construction in 1951, nearby terrain saw extensive coal mining, as well as some clay and radium extraction. Since DOE acquired mineral rights to less than a tenth of its buffer-zone parcels, such activity like will continue regardless of what the agency prefers.

For city officials in Arvada, home to many workers at the plant, the problem with Rocky Flats has always been one of "perception." That attitude has been reinforced by the findings of an ongoing state health department study. Even if there once was extensive plutonium contamination of property on Arvada's side of the fence, say members of the panel overseeing the study, the wind and rain have taken care of the problem. "All that plutonium is in Kansas by now," says one panel member. And a growing number of environmentalists agree. So since 1989 Arvada has annexed 4,500 acres south and west of the plant for Howard Lacy's mammoth Jefferson Center development and hopes to add another 13,500.

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