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.
Lipsky faced his own hurdles. In January 1993, he testified before Congressman Howard Wolpe's subcommittee about what had happened at Rocky Flats. Before the end of the month, he was transferred to Los Angeles, where he was assigned to work on gang issues. Lipsky is now retired from the FBI, but not from talking about Rocky Flats. He testified when the class-action case filed by nearby property owners in 1990 finally went to trial in 2005. Those plaintiffs won a record judgment that was immediately appealed; it's unlikely they'll ever see a cent. And in 2010, Lipsky testified at the Colorado State Capitol, when Representative Wes McKinley, a rancher from the southeastern corner of the state who just happened to have served as the foreman of the Rocky Flats grand jury, proposed some very simple legislation: requiring that "informed consent" signs be posted out at Rocky Flats so that anyone who visited the wildlife refuge would know just how wild life had once been there. That the plant had worked with not just plutonium, but other dangerous chemicals — chemicals that had gotten into the air and water and ground.
Today, the area is marked off with a simple fence and "No Trespassing" signs. The 1,309 acres at the center have a security gate. Early suggestions that a visitors' center with a museum be built by the entrance to the refuge went nowhere; workers and others set up their own Rocky Flats Institute & Museum, but it's running out of money. When the workers are six feet under, their knowledge will be, too.
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After the raid, Rocky Flats never made another plutonium trigger. Since then, its main product has been secrets. Uncovering some, covering others. Initially it was estimated that the cleanup would take decades and cost $35 billion. The first mission was to clean up the inside of the buildings, "packing the product," as Surovchak says. But after a certain level of funding was guaranteed in 1999, the DOE said it could finish the job by December 2006. With contractor Kaiser-Hill, it beat that date, finishing in October 2005 for $7.5 billion — over a year and $500 million under budget, and still meeting all the requirements of the Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement. But were those requirements stringent enough? With all the secrets, it's hard to know.
Building 771 was once called the "most dangerous building in America," says Surovchak. "Turns out it wasn't." When they opened the door to the "Infinity Room" in that building, they found "essentially nothing." The concrete remains of 771 are buried six feet under, as are other contaminated chunks of concrete and infrastructure. "We're here to protect the remedy," Surovchak explains, monitoring the groundwater, making sure that no one — and nothing — disturbs that six feet of ground.
Where the site ends to the south, the building begins; the Candelas development is going up quickly. Between two blocks of future homes is the route the long-delayed Jefferson Parkway will one day take. In exchange for section 16, a big patch of open space, becoming part of the refuge to the west, the Parkway Authority received a 300-foot right-of-way on the eastern edge of Rocky Flats, the edge that showed the most evidence of contamination in 1995 studies. There are signs that indicate where the future entrance of the parkway will be.
There are no signs that tell you the history of the 6,500 acres just up the hill.