Longform

A Matter of Trust

Page 4 of 10

By the mid- to late '50s, Rocky Flats found itself with a backlog of "americium-containing sludge," records show. Using what was called a "molten salt extraction," the plant began extracting the americium from the plutonium, then shipping it to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. For a while, the Department of Energy's predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, succeeded in selling the americium for use in smoke detectors, but that market dried up by 1980.

In the '60s and '70s, Rocky Flats was shipping anywhere from 760 to 2,000 grams of americium annually to Oak Ridge, according to documents obtained by attorneys for Marcus Church, a neighboring landowner who filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against Rocky Flats. But despite these shipments, at one point the plant found itself with nearly ten kilograms of americium sitting in drums.

Americium-241 emits both gamma rays and alpha particles. Gamma rays can easily penetrate the human body; by contrast, alpha particles cannot penetrate human skin but are extremely hazardous if deposited in the lungs, the lymph nodes or life-giving bone marrow. With those penetrating gamma rays, americium wasn't something that plant officials liked having around.

In a 1968 report, Atomic Energy Commission officials blamed the large amounts of americium-241 and plutonium-241 present at Rocky Flats for a precipitous rise in employee exposures. Instead of cutting back on production schedules, however, supervisors decided to install extra shielding along the assembly lines to protect workers. Ironically, that shielding would contribute to a devastating fire that occurred in 1969.

During this period, Rocky Flats was also receiving a lot of plutonium from the United Kingdom that contained excessive amounts of plutonium-241. This plutonium was used for special fuel rods that the plant was making for the "Zero Power Plutonium Project," or ZPPP, an experimental reactor at Argonne National Laboratory.


The EPA was deeply suspicious of the early reports alleging large concentrations of radionuclides at the Lowry Landfill. The data tables were often annotated with such remarks as "probably false positive," "probably in error," "question accuracy of these results" and "confirmatory analysis required."

The data was also called into question at staff meetings. "Need to determine what data is real (valid) and 'not real.' If in fact the data is not 'real,' then it appears that there is no problem of radionuclides at this site," a participant at one such gathering wrote in his notes.

The EPA's skepticism is difficult to interpret; the agency already had indications of radioactive contamination at the landfill -- as evidenced by John Haggard's letter and the interview with Bill Wilson. In addition, the EPA and the FBI had conducted a joint investigation into Rocky Flats that culminated in an unprecedented raid at the plant on June 6, 1989. At the very moment the data on Lowry was rolling in, a federal grand jury was examining allegations concerning decades of illegal dumping and other environmental crimes at Rocky Flats.

The EPA's counterparts at the state health department were equally skeptical of the Lowry readings. In October 1991, when the Lowry Coalition delivered to the EPA a thick packet of data describing in detail the kind of radionuclides it had been finding at Lowry, the state's Radiation Control Division faxed the EPA a quick analysis that concluded the data was "inadequate and inconsistent." State health officials argued that the ratios for the various isotopes of plutonium being found at Lowry didn't jibe with the plutonium that Rocky Flats used. But those ratios did not take into account the accumulation of waste products, the variability in the feed plutonium, and special programs such as the ZPPP.

The skepticism continued even after a health department employee, Angus Campbell, found a witness who corroborated Wilson's allegations. Harley Brewster, another highway patrolman who'd cruised the old bombing range, told Campbell that tanker trucks would pull up to "any convenient low spot" and dump their loads. "Sometimes they would cover it with trash and other times they wouldn't," Campbell reported. Brewster "further stated that he couldn't recall any specific instances of dumping, but restated that there was indiscriminate dumping out there regularly."

Despite continued skepticism from the state health department and the EPA, the Lowry Coalition refused to alter its findings or conclusions. On December 13, 1991, the coalition sent a letter containing its official findings to EPA headquarters. This letter, which would be discovered five years later by activist and college instructor Adrienne Anderson, concluded that Rocky Flats was the "only plausible source" of the large quantities of plutonium and americium that had been found in the landfill.

The coalition ruled out other potential polluters based on the concentrations of radionuclides found in the landfill; the levels were too low to have come from a commercial nuclear power source and too high to have come from worldwide fallout -- a theory that is still popular with the EPA.

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Eileen Welsome