Dirty Pictures

This Rocky Flats movie gets glowing reviews.

The lights dimmed, and there on the screen at the front of the room was a sight as obscene as anything that's ever hit Judge John Kane's court: the towering incinerator of Building 771 at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. Glowing.

To FBI agent Jon Lipsky, who'd been investigating the possibility of environmental crimes at the plant for more than a year, the infrared video captured on a secret overflight shortly after 10:30 p.m. on December 15, 1988, "indicated that the 771 incinerator was thermally active and was probably being operated that night."

Which was contrary to public statements by both the Department of Energy and Rockwell International, whose plant manager had announced just two months earlier that the incinerator would be shut down and Building 771 closed off because of potential safety problems.

Obscenity: You know it when you see it. And the twelve jurors considering the $500 million class-action case filed by Rocky Flats neighbors against Rockwell and Dow Chemical -- which really means the federal government, which had indemnified the two companies when it contracted with them to run the plant and has since paid out tens of millions of dollars in legal fees to defend them -- got a glowing example Tuesday morning as Lipsky narrated the film shot almost seventeen years earlier.

The tower and the roof of 771 weren't the only areas showing evidence of thermal activity, he testified. The 207B evaporation ponds, where wastes were stored in hopes that some would simply disappear, gave off an eerie glow, as did the sewage plant. There were streaks of light leading from the sprayfields, where contaminated waste was sprayed even in the winter, when the ground was too frozen to absorb it. (At 10 p.m. that December 15, the temperature was just 7 degrees Fahrenheit; Lipsky called the weather service to find out for sure.) And thin white lines indicating thermal activity led even "past plant boundaries," he explained, across Indiana Street and toward the Great Western Reservoir, where Broomfield got its water.

That video was just one piece of evidence that Lipsky used to draft a 116-page affidavit, an affidavit for a search warrant that allowed him to lead dozens of other FBI and EPA agents in a dawn raid on Rocky Flats on June 6, 1989.

Two weeks ago, Kaiser-Hill, the company that oversaw the $7 billion cleanup of Rocky Flats, declared that its work was done ("Truth Decay," October 13). The 771 incinerator stack is long gone. So is Building 771, once billed as the most contaminated structure in America. Much of the debris from the plant has been shipped off to waste-storage facilities; some has been buried deep beneath the ground. The top six inches of dirt have been designated clean. And 2,600 pounds of plutonium are still unaccounted for.

The DOE has ninety days to approve Kaiser-Hill's work; after that, much of the 6,500-acre site will be turned over to the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, which will run it as a wildlife refuge.

But two hours after Lipsky narrated his silent movie, there was little sign of life -- wild or otherwise -- along the strip that the infrared camera had captured. To the west, the scoured hills of the former plutonium-trigger bomb factory were protected by barbed wire and No Trespassing notices. Across Indiana Street from the old pullout that once led to the plant, Standley Lake -- directly downhill -- glittered in the sun. Sixteen miles away -- sixteen downwind miles away -- Denver stretched out along the horizon.

According to Adopt-a-Highway signs, this particular piece of road is "available."

Back in Kane's courtroom, Lipsky's testimony goes on. And on, despite frequent objections from the defense. Now retired from the FBI and running his own private-investigations company in California, Lipsky has waited almost two decades to tell how he came to Denver as a young agent in 1984, was almost immediately named liaison to the EPA, and quickly set out to create an environmental-crimes section. "The EPA was relatively new; laws were just as new," he remembered. Still, he'd managed to put together thirteen cases by the summer of 1987, when he found his fourteenth -- Operation Desert Glow, they called it -- through an internal DOE memo drafted a year before, right after the agency made a much-publicized agreement with the Colorado Department of Health and the EPA regarding more monitoring at Rocky Flats.

"Much of the good press we have gotten from the agreement in principle has taken attention away from just how bad the site is," read the DOE memo, which admitted to "serious contamination" and the fact that "our permit applications are grossly deficient (some of the waste facilities are potentially 'illegal')." During his investigation, Lipsky looked through thirteen volumes of a 1987 audit on Rocky Flats waste streams, "and at no time did I ever see a permit for the incinerator to treat/store" the waste streams destined for the 771 incinerator, he testified.

Over the years, Rockwell and the DOE have repeatedly denied that the 771 incinerator ever operated illegally. But every picture tells a story. And the ones in Judge Kane's courtroom have a particularly dirty tale to tell.

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