By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
It's impossible to tell which will last longer: the plutonium released from Rocky Flats, which remains radioactive for 24,000 years, or the argument over plutonium in nearby Standley Lake. Now the dispute has reached Olympian heights.
Three U.S. Olympic Festival boating competitions are scheduled this week and next on the lake a mile east of the former nuclear-weapons plant. And they've dredged up the old squabble over hazards posed by radioactive contamination of Standley's water and bottom sediment.
Olympic Festival officials intent on smoothly staging the events were surprised earlier this month to find themselves waist-deep in the quagmire. Inundated with seventy pages of faxes on the dangers of Standley Lake water from a local group called the Environmental Information Network, Craig Bohnert of the Olympic canoe and kayak team was taken aback. "I don't have any degrees in environmental sciences, so it was hard for me to make heads or tails of a lot of it," he says. Adds the team spokesman, "I think when people see an event with the Olympic placard attached, they see an opportunity to use it as a platform."
EIN director Paula Elofson-Gardine, a longtime gadfly of local bureaucrats on the subject of Rocky Flats, says she's outraged by such "clueless" responses to her missives. "It's unbelievable that this isn't treated like a huge health problem," she says of the lake's contamination.
Often termed a radical by the people she targets--including some environmentalists--Elofson-Gardine this time has the backing of the influential Sierra Club. "It isn't fair to the participants to make them row across a Superfund site," says Eugene DeMayo, who heads the local Sierra Club's committee on Rocky Flats. He believes the competition, which begins July 21, should be moved to another site. "It's foolhardy to put an event like this at Standley Lake," adds DeMayo, "when there are so many other lakes in the area not contaminated with plutonium."
However, the position of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the City of Westminster, which has used the lake as its primary drinking-water supply for the last thirty years, is that the levels of plutonium detected in the water are so low that the deadly element poses no risk to public health. "The water concentration of plutonium has never been a problem at Standley Lake," says Martin Hestmark, the EPA's head man at Rocky Flats. His agency calculates that one cancer death would occur for every million people exposed to Standley Lake water, which also provides raw water to Northglenn, Thornton and Federal Heights.
"They say it's an insignificant amount of plutonium," counters Elofson-Gardine, "but if you're the one in a million who dies because of an exposure, it's pretty significant to you."
Dr. John Gofman, a professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley, scoffs at the conclusion that exposure to small amounts of radioactive particles poses little or no threat to the public. A scientist and physician who worked on the Manhattan Project, Gofman parted ways with the federal government in the 1960s when his research on radiation and chromosome damage turned up results the Atomic Energy Commission disliked. "No ifs, ands or buts or other qualifiers," Gofman says. "There's no rational basis for saying there's a safe level of exposure to plutonium. The risk of cancer will increase in proportion to the amount of exposure and the amount of time of that exposure."
Richard Wanninger, who handles public relations for the Olympic Festival office in Denver, maintains that officials looked into the radiation issue before choosing the northside lake. "We talked to the City of Westminster and the EPA and looked at their water-sampling results," he says. "And all indications are that everything is safe. That was a big part of our selection of venues: the safety of the athletes and spectators."
Craig Bohnert of the canoe and kayak team also found Westminster's explanation reassuring. "They've told us that the plutonium in the lake is capped in sediments at a depth of sixty to eighty feet," he says. "There's no way our contestants or our spectators will be in contact with sediments that deep. If they were, we'd have more pressing problems on our hands than being exposed to plutonium."
But the Sierra Club's DeMayo disputes the claim that only sediments in the deepest part of the reservoir contain plutonium. Contaminated sediments can exist at any depth, he says, citing a recent admission by Rocky Flats officials that a release of contaminated water from a holding pond last May sent a fresh influx of plutonium to Standley Lake as well as to the Great Western Reservoir, which provides drinking water for Broomfield. Plant officials told the Boulder Daily Camera the release was necessitated by last spring's heavy rains--and conceded that similar rains could cause a repeat of the incident, which state and federal officials maintain did not threaten public health.
"I used to water ski at Standley Lake until I found out about the plutonium," says DeMayo. "The problem is, you can't really avoid the sediments. There are tons of mud around the edge of the lake, and you have to muck through it to get to the water."