By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Stake your claim in the latest residential hotspot," urges the story in Saturday's New Homes section in the Denver Post touting an open house at Century Communities at Candelas.
A really hot spot: the half-life for plutonium is 24,000 years.
Century isn't the only home builder developing Candelas, a 2,000-acre project that could have more than 4,000 single-family homes and 7.2 million square feet of office, retail and industrial space. Ryland Homes, Richmond American Homes and Standard Pacific Homes are all part of the project; the Candelas website — candelaslife.com, with the slogan "life wide open" — shows stunning views looking out over open space northwest to the mountains and touts the greenness of Candelas, the "low-cost energy conservation lifestyle."
But then, the area around this development could probably glow all on its own. The project is right below Rocky Flats, the former nuclear-weapons plant that for decades processed plutonium to make triggers for nuclear bombs.
On June 6, 1989, exactly 24 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency and the FBI led a spectacular pre-dawn raid on Rocky Flats, which was then run by Rockwell International for the Department of Energy. It was the first raid by a federal agency of a federal agency, and the evidence seized during that raid was later presented to Colorado's first-ever special grand jury, which was convened in August 1989 and charged with investigating allegations of environmental crimes at Rocky Flats. Ultimately, the grand jurors wanted to indict eight individuals from both Rockwell and the DOE for what they called an "ongoing criminal conspiracy" at Rocky Flats. But instead, the Department of Justice sealed a deal with Rockwell, a settlement that called for the company t pay an $18.5 million fine — less than it got in bonuses for running the plant — in exchange for employees being indemnified from prosecution. And the results of the investigation, like the lips of the grand jurors, were sealed.
Over the years, some of the secrets of Rocky Flats have leaked out. Since the '70s, protesters have trekked to the site — to complain about Cold War politics, to complain about nuclear weapons, to complain about environmental contamination, and, on June 1, to complain about Candelas being built on land so close to a former Superfund site. Rocky Flats never resumed operations after the raid; instead, the facility became a Superfund site, the focus of a $7 billion cleanup that turned the area — less 1,300 acres that are still off limits — into a future wildlife refuge. The foreman of the grand jury wrote a book spilling some secrets with the FBI investigator who led the raid; that investigator also testified when the class-action case filed by longtime property owners around Rocky Flats finally went to trial a half-dozen years ago. The jurors who heard that case awarded the plaintiffs a whopping settlement from Rockwell and Dow Chemical, which had run the plant from its inception until Rockwell took over. But that verdict was overturned, and the case may never make it back to court.
There have been other books, too. Kristen Iversen grew up in the shadow of Rocky Flats; her family moved into what was then a brand-spanking-new Arvada development in the late '60s, right before the 1969 fire at Rocky Flats sent a "cloud of plutonium passing over us at our Mother's Day brunch," she recalls. But her family didn't know what was in that cloud for decades.
Today Iversen is a professor at the University of Memphis. After working for a time at Rocky Flats, she went on to get her Ph.D. from the University of Denver and wrote Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, winner of the Colorado Book Award. From there, she moved on to another writing project: a memoir of growing up near Rocky Flats. It took her ten years to complete Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, because it's much more than just a memoir; it's chock-full of science and political history and documents (many of which you can find on her website, kristeniversen.com). The book was released a year ago by Crown, then picked up by a British publisher; the paperback edition just came out this week. At this point, Full Body Burden looks like it will have a half-life just short of that of plutonium — despite the fact that it's a book Iversen "wasn't sure would ever get published," she writes for Humanities Tennessee this week. "It's personal. It's controversial. Sometimes funny, often dark, it tells a hidden, secret side of American history and how that history affected the lives of individual people — that is, me — as well as my parents, my siblings, and our horses and dogs and cats. Not to mention our neighbors and everyone else living in the area. Few people know the story and devastating legacy of the secret Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, just down the road from my family's home near Denver. Now they know."
The modest initial tour for the book grew into presentations and readings in more than twenty states and three countries. Iversen has spoken to entire university classes — whose members are assigned to read Full Body Burden for orientation — and on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.; this summer, she'll be a featured author at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And every day, she hears from people concerned about the legacy of nuclear contamination. Many of them worked at Rocky Flats. Some of them worked on the cleanup.