Plans are heating up for the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum
People have already forgotten," Shirley Garcia says. "They can't forget what's there."
Garcia never will.
When she and her husband moved from Texas to Jefferson County thirty years ago, they bought a house in the Countryside development – and the realtor handed them some papers to sign acknowledging that they knew they were living by Rocky Flats. "We just thought it was a factory," she remembers.
It was: the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, a factory that used plutonium and highly enriched uranium to produce all of the triggers for the nation's nuclear bombs, the United States' arsenal in the then-hot Cold War.
Garcia soon got a much more detailed look at Rocky Flats. The assistant manager at the shoe store her husband managed left for a job at the plant, and it paid so well that her husband began working there in 1981. He suggested that Garcia join him, and in 1982 she was hired as a chemical operator. She worked at the facility for fifteen years, moving up to environmental health and safety administrator and, ultimately, manager of waste generator services.
She was out by the ponds, where waste was stored, on June 6, 1989, when Rocky Flats was suddenly invaded. "It was scary," she remembers. "There were helicopters overhead, which was weird, because it was a no-fly zone. At first we didn't know what was happening. It was a while before they let us go home."
Here's what was happening: The FBI was executing its first-ever raid on another federal facility, one prompted by allegations of environmental crimes at Rocky Flats. Agent Jon Lipsky, who was then based in Denver, led that raid; the evidence his crew seized that day, and in the days that followed, was turned over to the Department of Justice.
The plant never manufactured another trigger, but it was about to blow up real good. In August 1989, Colorado's first special grand jury was empaneled to consider the charges against Rocky Flats. After two years of deliberation, and led by foreman Wes McKinley, the jurors were ready to indict eight individuals with the Department of Energy and Rockwell International, which had the contract to run the plant. Instead, the Justice Department sent the jurors home, cut a deal with Rockwell that would hold no individual accountable and fined the company $18.5 million – less than the amount it had been paid in bonuses for the plant's operation. Rockwell was also indemnified against future legal fees.
McKinley didn't know much about Rocky Flats when he showed up for jury duty; a rancher from southeastern Colorado who's now a state legislator, he just thought it had something to do with "hippies." By the time the grand jury was done with the special report they wrote in protest of the Justice Department deal, though, they had labeled it an "ongoing criminal enterprise."
Nat Miullo thought Rocky Flats was a prison when he first drove by. But by the late '80s, he knew better: He was the EPA official in charge of oversight at the plant. The day of the raid, "I was sitting in my little cubicle," he remembers, "and this very stereotypical individual, Jon Lipsky, came to visit me...dressed like one of the Blues Brothers...black suit, a black tie and white shirt, white socks, and shined black shoes.... He made it very clear to me that this was a serious matter. I could not believe that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was actually saying, 'We have concerns that there's a failure of environmental compliance at a national security weapons manufacturing plant.' It was too surreal. He was very serious, as was Bill Smith, the EPA criminal investigator for our national enforcement center in Golden.... I felt like I was being interrogated. At one point, Jon actually made me feel like my actions were in question, that I hadn't been tough enough.... He was probably right."
Miullo went on to a job as the EPA's revitalization coordinator, working with communities to clean up properties and return them to use; Rocky Flats, for example, is slated to become a national wildlife refuge. "Is it cleaned up appropriately?" Miullo asks at the end of his interview. "The answer is yes."
Garcia is not so sure. "Rocky Flats isn't going to go away," she says. "It wasn't cleaned up, it was remediated."
And she knows the difference, because she stayed there through 1997. In 1992, the DOE announced that it would decommission and decontaminate the site; a Superfund cleanup began in 1995. Ten years and $7 billion later, it was done – with 800 structures and buildings demolished, radioactive waste removed, soil remediated, groundwater treatment systems installed, and long-term environmental monitoring set up. But even after she left the plant, Garcia didn't go far: Since 2000, after a stint at a Superfund site in Grand Junction, she's been the environmental-services coordinator for the City and County of Broomfield and serves on the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, regularly meeting with other communities downstream from the former plant to discuss water quality in the area – and the potential for contamination.
Garcia is also the president of the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum board, a group that has been working to make the history of the plant concrete — but not contaminated — since 1998.
And now, after many years of searching for a home, the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum has come in from the cold. On April 1, the board leased a 7,000-square-foot property in the heart of downtown Arvada – originally a post office, most recently a church – that it will turn into an actual museum, filled with exhibitions, classrooms and research areas. Using a congressional appropriation of $492,000 that then-senator Wayne Allard secured in late 2007, as well as countless hours of volunteer labor, the board has been assembling artifacts and an oral-history collection with more than a hundred interviews of former workers – including Garcia and Miullo – as well as activists and community leaders. Materials that had been in storage units for years – the DOE donated the contents of its Rocky Flats visitors' center, among other things -- are slowly making their way to the museum's new home; Conny Bogaard, an art historian, has been hired to catalogue the collection and has made it through a thousand items so far. "It is a very interesting collection from a historical perspective, because it covers the whole history of Rocky Flats, about fifty years of history," she notes. "Sadly, after Japan's disaster, it has new relevance."
New items are arriving every day – some from former employees' attics, others from local museums. Last Friday, the Boulder History Museum's "history on the go" van delivered box after box from the archives of the late H. Peter Metzger, the scientist who worked for Rocky Flats – and took such glee in debunking any journalist who wrote pieces critical of the plant, including many in Westword. Lipsky says he'll donate his hat, "but they'd have to negotiate for the all-access FBI pass."
Even before all these materials are archived, the board is wrestling with how to display them. Kim Grant, who works as grants administrator for the City of Arvada and helped locate the museum's home, says he and fellow boardmembers have hired an exhibit design firm to determine the best way to tell the Rocky Flats story – and while it works that out, the board will be raising money so that story can continue to be told after the appropriation runs out, in 2013. "We have some preliminary themes that we've identified," he notes. "The main thing we want to do is make sure this whole story is approached in an objective, historical fashion.... We're working hard to tell a balanced story."
The plan is to focus on five areas: the history of Rocky Flats, the history of the Cold War, science and technology, the workers...and the protesters. Yes, the protesters who demonstrated outside the plant for two decades, and were often hauled off in handcuffs, will definitely be included; LeRoy Moore, head of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, is a longtime boardmember. (Since January, Moore has been hosting the series "Rocky Flats: A Call to Guardianship"; at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 14, Lipsky and McKinley will discuss "The 1989 Raid on Rocky Flats & Its Fallout" – even though both men are technically forbidden to discuss what they learned about Rocky Flats. )
Back when Colorado was campaigning to win the Atomic Energy Commission's proposal to put a nuclear facility sixteen miles upwind of Denver, there weren't many protests. In fact, the state celebrated as the Rocky Flats project was announced on March 23, 1951 – although just what, exactly, that project would be was not publicized. The mission of Rocky Flats spilled out over the years, sometimes into the very land beneath the plant, and today is outlined in a decade-by-decade timeline that the DOE, the successor to the AEC, produced after the plant was decommissioned. Those boards are now part of the museum's collection: the celebratory stories in the '50s; the "Hush Hush Blaze hits AEC" article in 1969, when a fire broke out at Rocky Flats (Bogaard says she's come across some amazing photographs); a pro-nuke protest in the '70s. But the biggest headlines followed the June 1989 raid, and the investigation, and the secret settlement that followed. (Westword broke the first big story in September 1992, in "Justice Denied"; the papers of the late Judge Sherman Finesilver, who signed off on the deal, would make a great exhibit for the museum – but after his estate donated the judge's papers to the Denver Public Library, court officials came and removed anything involved with Rocky Flats.)
A storage facility is still full of boxes and tabletop maps that show the layout of the 6,200 acres that once constituted the plant, most of which will be opened to the public in the next few years as a wildlife refuge (some of the most contaminated acres will always be off limits). There are big pieces of equipment, too, including the gloveboxes that workers used to handle radioactive material in the notorious Building 771. Garcia remembers the first time she went there, how dark and spooky it was – but the building became her favorite, "because they were like family there." She's still hoping to find the Fiestaware plates that were part of a visitors' center exhibit, where schoolkids learned that even common household items were radioactive — but perfectly safe, of course.
For his part, Grant is looking for items that illustrate the atomic culture of the era. (The Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas has a gift shop that sells Atomic Fireballs.) "We would really love to have the contents of a bomb shelter, for example," he says. "There are some up here in Arvada, but we haven't been able to find one whole."
Even so, the museum's boardmembers are finding something new every day. "There are so many stories, it's hard to keep on task," Garcia says. "We found out that the postmaster of this facility hated Rocky Flats – and he worked there twenty years!"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.