It has been four and a half years since Colorado's state health department began a study of the health risks posed to Denver area residents over the past four decades by the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons factory. In that time the study has consumed $8.7 million in federal funds and produced a stack of technical reports with the heft of a tombstone.

More than $1.1 million of the money has gone for public relations.
The PR spending spree began in 1992, when the health department awarded the first of two "community relations" contracts for the study to the Fort Collins firm ENSR Consulting and Engineering. That $519,000 assignment expired in 1993; the second contract, worth $634,000 for two years of work, is held by the Denver PR firm of MGA/Thompson.

The hired help from MGA/ Thompson, who often attend health department meetings in groups of three and four, are charging up to $160 an hour each for such services as polishing the speaking styles of health department consultants and arranging presentations for luncheon meetings of Kiwanis clubs and Rotarians. Their job description also calls for writing guest newspaper columns and letters to the editor signed by health department officials. The health department pays for all of the expenditures with funds funneled to it by the federal Department of Energy.

Taxpayers also have paid to fly the members of an independent panel set up to monitor the study to meetings held out of state--and to fund three separate seminars at which those same watchdogs were given training in "community relations." That training included advice on how to look good on camera and how to respond when environmentalists butt into presentations with annoying questions.

Despite the million-dollar PR campaign, few members of the public appear to have paid much attention to the Rocky Flats health study, whose first-phase findings were released in October 1993. The quarterly meetings of the Health Advisory Panel (HAP), the twelve-member watchdog group composed of health officials, scientists and average citizens--all selected by the health department and appointed by the governor--often draw only a few dozen people who aren't being paid to attend. Responses gathered from audiences at other public presentations made by HAP members show that "over 90 percent of upper-middle-class business community members are unaware of the study," says one panel member. And the handful of environmental activists who have followed the study question both the project's validity and the sincerity of the health department in seeking public input.

But according to MGA/Thompson, there's nothing but good news to report about the "Historical Public Exposure Studies on Rocky Flats." After a year on the job, MGA/Thompson says it is cheered by an uptick in attendance at public meetings concerning the study--a trend that died a quick death in February when attendance at the group's quarterly meeting fell from about 100 people to less than fifty. And MGA/Thompson is not deterred by attendance rosters showing that about half of the interested faces in the audience belong to attorneys and consultants being paid by government agencies or Rocky Flats contractors to be there. Firm president Jeff Julin says he believes that the percentage of average community members attending the meetings has increased since his company took the reins of public involvement and argues that "the mix of people at the meetings makes it work; almost everyone is getting some valuable information or imparting valuable information."

The news from MGA/Thompson is just as upbeat on the scientific front, where the California firm that conducted the study's first phase has turned up nothing that would alarm the public. Yes, it was learned that deadly plutonium routinely and accidentally wafted, washed and gusted away from the plant through its 37 years of operation. But computer models constructed by the health department's hired experts show there's little cause for worry. Even those residents who lived within a few miles of the plant for half a lifetime face only a 1-in-100,000 chance of getting cancer from plutonium, according to the study. The risk involved in living a few miles from Rocky Flats while it was in the nuclear-weapons business is roughly equivalent to smoking a single cigarette, says Jim LaVelle, a former Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist who serves on the HAP and is the panel member most often referred to reporters by MGA/Thompson and health department officials.

"Risk communication"--the art of translating statistical hazards into terms the average person can understand--is a specialty of MGA/ Thompson. It is a skill acquired the hard way by firm chairman Michael Gaughan. As a PR prodigy of the early 1970s, Gaughan helped craft a positive public image for giants of the extractive industries such as AMAX, Inc., as those companies battled early environmental groups.

Gaughan seems to have discovered early one of the verities of the PR business: Good news does not come cheap. For its health department work, Gaughan's firm fields a trio of risk-communication specialists. Jeff Julin himself heads the team, billing $160 per hour for duties that include sitting through daylong sessions of the HAP. (The panel members themselves are paid $65 an hour for perusing research reports and listening to the oft-conflicting testimony of experts.)

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Richard Fleming