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South of Rocky Flats, the real estate market is heating up

Kristen Iversen grew up in Arvada, near the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant.
Kristen Iversen grew up in Arvada, near the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant.
kristeniversen.com

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.

Rocky Flats isn't the secret it once was. But it's not the hot topic it once was in Colorado, either, when that raid made front-page news and a cover article about the "Secret Story of the Rocky Flats Grand Jury" earned Westword a national Silver Gavel Award. "When I talk in London or Mexico, people in other places tend to know more about Rocky Flats than people in Colorado," Iversen says. "There's so much secrecy and silencing in Colorado...in subtle and not-so-subtle ways."

Staying at a Boulder hotel for a reading in that town, Iversen was stunned to find that a young desk clerk had never heard of Rocky Flats. "People outside Colorado know about Rocky Flats, what an environmental disaster it was," she says.

Many of the would-be buyers who visited Candelas on Saturday were too young to have remembered the raid; their best clue about what had happened on the property just north of the development, the open space that opens the way for all those beautiful views, was the protesters by the entrance, some of whom were holding petitions protesting the development and the proposed Jefferson Parkway, slated to go along the eastern edge of Rocky Flats, which will disturb the land still more — and open the area to more development. "I think we have to educate each new generation," says Iversen.

But unlike the developers who sold property to families moving into the neighborhood decades ago, who glossed over the details of what was going on at the federal facility and had home buyers sign waivers, Candelas does deal with Rocky Flats on its website, which includes this Q&A:

What can you tell me about the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge?

"Created after the largest and most successful environmental cleanup in history, Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge represents a remarkable Colorado milestone. For decades, the center of Rocky Flats was home to a manufacturing plant supporting America's nuclear program. But in the mid-2000s, following a massive 10-year cleanup project costing more than $7 billion, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE), surrounding cities and all other representative authorities gave approval to transform the area into protected open space. Due to a lack of federal government funding, the refuge is not yet open to the public. That will soon change, however, as Colorado recently announced plans for bike and pedestrian trails connecting Rocky Flats to other open spaces. Candelas is situated more than 1.3 miles from where the Rocky Flats facility once stood, and the two locations are separated by thousands of acres of protected open space. Please visit www.candelasrockyflats.com for more information about Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge."

That link sends you to a microsite almost as detailed as Iversen's. "We invite you to learn more about living life wide open at Candelas," urges the site. "Stay INFORMED."

That's good advice...for at least the next 24,000 years. "The short-term problem is stirring up the dust," Iversen says. "The long-term consequence is devastating. People will forget. Ten years from now, twenty years from now, people will have forgotten altogether. We're working very hard in Colorado to forget that Rocky Flats ever happened."


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