The secrets of Rocky Flats won't stay buried forever

The secrets of Rocky Flats won't stay buried forever

Behind these rolling grasslands dotted with wildflowers stand the foothills and still-snowcapped peaks; far off in front is the skyline of downtown Denver, sixteen miles to the southeast. Sixteen miles downwind. This expanse of open space is a lovely surprise amid encroaching suburbia. But the real surprise is the ugly reality of what's just six feet below.

We're at the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, a 6,500-acre federal facility that was considered quite a plum when it was awarded more than sixty years ago. "Good news today," reads the newspaper headline announcing the win for metro Denver in 1951. At one point, the dirt track that took us to this point was a four- to five-lane highway through the plant, which held 800 structures. "It was a small city, with as many as 10,000 people working 24/7, three shifts a day," says Scott Surovchak, the site manager who came to Rocky Flats in 1992 — when its work for the Cold War was done and the dirty work of cleanup remained.

Today there are only two structures left at Rocky Flats, both sheds added after 9/11. The rest are all gone, hauled off to fourteen different waste sites — municipal landfills, hazardous-waste repositories in New Mexico, Idaho and Nevada or, in some cases, buried six feet under.

More than 5,000 acres of the Rocky Flats site have been turned over to the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife, which is charged with resurrecting it as a wildlife refuge, much like the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal on the eastern edge of the city. The 1,309 acres that make up the Central Operable Unit, where the buildings once stood, will remain in the hands of the Department of Energy. Surovchak likes to refer to the former plant as a "machine shop," a description that infuriates many former Rocky Flats workers who are dealing with health problems brought on by the hazardous materials used in that shop. "They would take a lump of metal and machine it into a part," he adds.

And what a part: Rocky Flats manufactured plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs.


On June 6, 1989, seventy armed FBI agents and EPA officials raided Rocky Flats at dawn. It was the first time a federal agency had raided another federal agency. Jon Lipsky was the affiant on the search warrant for that raid; a 35-year-old agent in the FBI's Denver office, he'd been investigating alleged environmental crimes at Rocky Flats for more than two years, ever since he'd read about the Walker memo, an internal DOE document describing major problems at the plant.

David Skaggs was the congressman representing the district that included Rocky Flats at the time; the plant was his district's biggest employer. He didn't know the raid was coming down, but he certainly knew of problems at the plant. As an aide for Congressman Tim Wirth, he'd worked on the Lamm-Wirth task force that the then-governor and representative had set up in the mid-'70s to study Rocky Flats. When Skaggs was elected to Congress in 1986 — winning a close race against Republican Mike Norton, who went on to become the U.S. Attorney working with the special grand jury that would consider the evidence seized in the FBI raid — Wirth called him and said, "David, now Rocky Flats is yours."

Then-governor Roy Romer didn't know the raid was coming down, either; the first time he met Lipsky was on a panel this past weekend at the Arvada Center, "Rocky Flats Then and Now: 25 Years After the Raid." But he'd had his own concerns about Rocky Flats even before the raid, one of which he revealed for the first time on that panel. One morning he'd gotten a call from Phil Anschutz, who owned the railroad that was hauling waste away from Rocky Flats. The waste site in Idaho wouldn't accept it, Anschutz told Romer, and it had to go back to Colorado. So Romer and some aides headed to Rocky Flats to count the number of hazardous-waste barrels there waiting for shipment. The number came to 1,601. "I considered it my responsibility that waste would not accumulate there," Romer remembered. And so he declared that no more than 1,601 barrels could be kept on site — and "that began the conversation about WIPP," the $7 billion waste-storage site ultimately built in New Mexico.

Romer didn't hear about the raid in advance, but he had his first briefing at 10 a.m. that morning. Things were moving fast — and Lipsky wasn't happy about it. The search warrant was unsealed, letting plant officials know what he was looking for. The state's first-ever special grand jury was empaneled that August and began considering evidence that Lipsky had hoped wouldn't be presented for many more months. "The politicization of what was going on was unbelievable," he says. "The case got out of hand quickly."

So much so that when the grand jurors decided they wanted to indict eight individuals for environmental crimes at the plant — employees of both Rockwell International, which had taken over operations of the plant from Dow Chemical, its original operator, and the Department of Energy — the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney Norton instead cut a deal with Rockwell. In March 1992, the company was fined $18.5 million, less than it had earned in bonuses for running the plant; no individuals were charged. The secret story of the grand jurors broke in Westword in September 1992 — but nearly 22 years later, they are still prohibited from talking about how justice was denied in the Rocky Flats case.

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My Voice Nation Help

I was there for the clean up. Bldg. 881 & 883. We did it (clean up procedures) by the numbers. I was impressed. Did not know of the raids until now. Never had time to wonder about its history as we worked 6 days a week of 10-12 hour shifts.


Oops-- the original "clean up" estimate was $35Billion, not million!
Thanks for the article. I'd like to hear more from workers and others who've been concerned about the contamination out there and the plans for development-- the Parkway and the housing.


DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@fabfamilia ... billion, million, gazillion ... it's all the same in stoner math.