Representative Wes McKinley was standing on the steps of the State Capitol yesterday, discussing the discovery of "breathable particles of plutonium" near the now-defunct Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, when hundreds of bicyclists and a whirring helicopter drowned out the revelations. Calling Dan Maes!
But unlike the gubernatorial candidate's wacky assertion that bike-crazy Denver is a "United Nations community," the facts about Rocky Flats are wilder -- and scarier -- than any crazy conspiracy theory.
Two decades ago, McKinley -- a rancher and teacher from southeastern Colorado -- was the foreman of the grand jury that reviewed evidence seized in the 1989 FBI raid of the plant sixteen miles from Denver, which was still manufacturing plutonium triggers for bombs. The grand jury termed the plant "an ongoing criminal enterprise" and wanted to indict officials with Rockwell International, which operated the plant, and the Department of Energy for environmental crimes. Instead, the Department of Justice sealed a deal with Rockwell that simply fined the company and held no individuals accountable.
Not for what they'd done at Rocky Flats -- and not for the waste they left behind.
Click here for an overview of the Rocky Flats story at age twenty.
After a $7 billion clean-up, Rocky Flats was declared clean in 2005, and turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which plans to turn at least 6,000 acres into a wildlife refuge that will be open to the public.
Before it is, environmentalist LeRoy Moore wants the area tested. But after both Fish & Wildlife and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment rejected proposals to test the surface soil, he organized his own tests, conducted by expert Todd Margulies in April.
"I suggested these citizen tests because after the grand jury reviewed a lot of damaging data about Rocky Flats, it got sealed in the grand jury vault and I'm not allowed to tell people about it," McKinley says, still silenced (somewhat) by grand-jury rules. "Since DOE is hiding its damaging data, I figured we'd just collect data ourselves."
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Of the four samples, analyzed by the Boston Chemical Data Corp., two came back with "breathable particles of plutonium" -- one taken from loose soil across from the plant, one from the crawl space of a nearby home. At the very least, Moore says, those discoveries indicate that Rocky Flats "poses a local hazard... forever," and recommends that "government agencies should establish at Rocky Flats a program for testing breathable dust in surface soil for plutonium content."
Or, As McKinley suggests, "two feet of concrete should be poured over the 6,000 acres, and we should post someone to pray there 24 hours a day."
If they're smart, the bicyclists (who were actually riding around the Capitol with Lance Armstrong and Governor Bill Ritter to push a new Colorado race) will stay far away.