ANOTHER ROW OVER PLUTONIUM | News | Denver | Denver Westword | The Leading Independent News Source in Denver, Colorado


It's impossible to tell which will last longer: the plutonium released from Rocky Flats, which remains radioactive for 24,000 years, or the argument over plutonium in nearby Standley Lake. Now the dispute has reached Olympian heights. Three U.S. Olympic Festival boating competitions are scheduled this week and next on the...
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It's impossible to tell which will last longer: the plutonium released from Rocky Flats, which remains radioactive for 24,000 years, or the argument over plutonium in nearby Standley Lake. Now the dispute has reached Olympian heights.

Three U.S. Olympic Festival boating competitions are scheduled this week and next on the lake a mile east of the former nuclear-weapons plant. And they've dredged up the old squabble over hazards posed by radioactive contamination of Standley's water and bottom sediment.

Olympic Festival officials intent on smoothly staging the events were surprised earlier this month to find themselves waist-deep in the quagmire. Inundated with seventy pages of faxes on the dangers of Standley Lake water from a local group called the Environmental Information Network, Craig Bohnert of the Olympic canoe and kayak team was taken aback. "I don't have any degrees in environmental sciences, so it was hard for me to make heads or tails of a lot of it," he says. Adds the team spokesman, "I think when people see an event with the Olympic placard attached, they see an opportunity to use it as a platform."

EIN director Paula Elofson-Gardine, a longtime gadfly of local bureaucrats on the subject of Rocky Flats, says she's outraged by such "clueless" responses to her missives. "It's unbelievable that this isn't treated like a huge health problem," she says of the lake's contamination.

Often termed a radical by the people she targets--including some environmentalists--Elofson-Gardine this time has the backing of the influential Sierra Club. "It isn't fair to the participants to make them row across a Superfund site," says Eugene DeMayo, who heads the local Sierra Club's committee on Rocky Flats. He believes the competition, which begins July 21, should be moved to another site. "It's foolhardy to put an event like this at Standley Lake," adds DeMayo, "when there are so many other lakes in the area not contaminated with plutonium."

However, the position of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the City of Westminster, which has used the lake as its primary drinking-water supply for the last thirty years, is that the levels of plutonium detected in the water are so low that the deadly element poses no risk to public health. "The water concentration of plutonium has never been a problem at Standley Lake," says Martin Hestmark, the EPA's head man at Rocky Flats. His agency calculates that one cancer death would occur for every million people exposed to Standley Lake water, which also provides raw water to Northglenn, Thornton and Federal Heights.

"They say it's an insignificant amount of plutonium," counters Elofson-Gardine, "but if you're the one in a million who dies because of an exposure, it's pretty significant to you."

Dr. John Gofman, a professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley, scoffs at the conclusion that exposure to small amounts of radioactive particles poses little or no threat to the public. A scientist and physician who worked on the Manhattan Project, Gofman parted ways with the federal government in the 1960s when his research on radiation and chromosome damage turned up results the Atomic Energy Commission disliked. "No ifs, ands or buts or other qualifiers," Gofman says. "There's no rational basis for saying there's a safe level of exposure to plutonium. The risk of cancer will increase in proportion to the amount of exposure and the amount of time of that exposure."

Richard Wanninger, who handles public relations for the Olympic Festival office in Denver, maintains that officials looked into the radiation issue before choosing the northside lake. "We talked to the City of Westminster and the EPA and looked at their water-sampling results," he says. "And all indications are that everything is safe. That was a big part of our selection of venues: the safety of the athletes and spectators."

Craig Bohnert of the canoe and kayak team also found Westminster's explanation reassuring. "They've told us that the plutonium in the lake is capped in sediments at a depth of sixty to eighty feet," he says. "There's no way our contestants or our spectators will be in contact with sediments that deep. If they were, we'd have more pressing problems on our hands than being exposed to plutonium."

But the Sierra Club's DeMayo disputes the claim that only sediments in the deepest part of the reservoir contain plutonium. Contaminated sediments can exist at any depth, he says, citing a recent admission by Rocky Flats officials that a release of contaminated water from a holding pond last May sent a fresh influx of plutonium to Standley Lake as well as to the Great Western Reservoir, which provides drinking water for Broomfield. Plant officials told the Boulder Daily Camera the release was necessitated by last spring's heavy rains--and conceded that similar rains could cause a repeat of the incident, which state and federal officials maintain did not threaten public health.

"I used to water ski at Standley Lake until I found out about the plutonium," says DeMayo. "The problem is, you can't really avoid the sediments. There are tons of mud around the edge of the lake, and you have to muck through it to get to the water."

Anyone with cuts or abrasions on his lower extremities could conceivably absorb radioactive particles from either sediments or water, say both DeMayo and Elofson-Gardine.

Westminster also has concerns about the hazards of the muck, admits Dave Kaunisto, a senior water resources engineer with the city. "We have no-wake restrictions on power boats in areas of water seven to ten feet deep to avoid" stirring up the sediments, he says.

But the EPA's Martin Hestmark is quick to reassure. "They've been boating on Standley Lake many years, and we've never seen any detectable change in plutonium concentration in the water from it," he says.

That should continue under the Olympic banner, according to Richard Wanninger. "Canoeing and kayaking and rowing only use the top couple of inches of water," he says.

But radioactive water isn't the only thing to worry about at Standley Lake, claims Elofson-Gardine. Less than a mile away, Westminster is digging a reservoir to catch runoff from Rocky Flats as part of the federally funded Standley Lake Protection Project. That excavation is being done on land that was found to be contaminated with plutonium twenty years ago. The construction project is raising dust, says EIN's executive director, and the wind is blowing it toward Standley Lake. "In the last two weeks, we saw forty-mile-an-hour winds sheeting dust off those massive piles of displaced soil they have out there," she says. "And last month, remember, a tornado was sighted over Standley Lake."

Kaunisto, who is the manager of the reservoir project for Westminster, says no complaints of dust blowing off-site have been received. And two air monitors near the site have detected less dust than was projected by planners, he says, though he acknowledges wind-blown dust could elude the monitors.

Either way, says Dave Whittingham, who is in charge of readying local sites for the Olympic Festival, the dust-up over Standley Lake should have taken place a year ago. "It's a serious competition and difficult to stage," he explains, noting that contracts had to be signed with Westminster, material suppliers, service companies and utilities and that surveying had to be done to set the race courses. "If there was a legitimate concern, it should have been raised when the venue was selected. To me, it feels like a political move for [EIN] to do this now when it's really too late to move the competition to another site."

"It's not a political thing," DeMayo replies. "It's a problem with bureaucrats and officials ignoring the obvious. They want to downplay problems caused by Rocky Flats in the surrounding community. They're having those events there because they want to show it's okay to jump into Standley Lake."

Officials from Westminster disagree, of course. As a matter of fact, they have an ordinance against jumping into Standley Lake--not to protect people from plutonium, but to protect the lake from people. After all, notes Kaunisto, "it's drinking water.

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