Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Plans are heating up for the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum

People have already forgotten," Shirley Garcia says. "They can't forget what's there."

Garcia never will.

When she and her husband moved from Texas to Jefferson County thirty years ago, they bought a house in the Countryside development – and the realtor handed them some papers to sign acknowledging that they knew they were living by Rocky Flats. "We just thought it was a factory," she remembers.

It was: the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, a factory that used plutonium and highly enriched uranium to produce all of the triggers for the nation's nuclear bombs, the United States' arsenal in the then-hot Cold War.

Garcia soon got a much more detailed look at Rocky Flats. The assistant manager at the shoe store her husband managed left for a job at the plant, and it paid so well that her husband began working there in 1981. He suggested that Garcia join him, and in 1982 she was hired as a chemical operator. She worked at the facility for fifteen years, moving up to environmental health and safety administrator and, ultimately, manager of waste generator services.

She was out by the ponds, where waste was stored, on June 6, 1989, when Rocky Flats was suddenly invaded. "It was scary," she remembers. "There were helicopters overhead, which was weird, because it was a no-fly zone. At first we didn't know what was happening. It was a while before they let us go home."

Here's what was happening: The FBI was executing its first-ever raid on another federal facility, one prompted by allegations of environmental crimes at Rocky Flats. Agent Jon Lipsky, who was then based in Denver, led that raid; the evidence his crew seized that day, and in the days that followed, was turned over to the Department of Justice.

The plant never manufactured another trigger, but it was about to blow up real good. In August 1989, Colorado's first special grand jury was empaneled to consider the charges against Rocky Flats. After two years of deliberation, and led by foreman Wes McKinley, the jurors were ready to indict eight individuals with the Department of Energy and Rockwell International, which had the contract to run the plant. Instead, the Justice Department sent the jurors home, cut a deal with Rockwell that would hold no individual accountable and fined the company $18.5 million – less than the amount it had been paid in bonuses for the plant's operation. Rockwell was also indemnified against future legal fees.

McKinley didn't know much about Rocky Flats when he showed up for jury duty; a rancher from southeastern Colorado who's now a state legislator, he just thought it had something to do with "hippies." By the time the grand jury was done with the special report they wrote in protest of the Justice Department deal, though, they had labeled it an "ongoing criminal enterprise."

Nat Miullo thought Rocky Flats was a prison when he first drove by. But by the late '80s, he knew better: He was the EPA official in charge of oversight at the plant. The day of the raid, "I was sitting in my little cubicle," he remembers, "and this very stereotypical individual, Jon Lipsky, came to visit me...dressed like one of the Blues suit, a black tie and white shirt, white socks, and shined black shoes.... He made it very clear to me that this was a serious matter. I could not believe that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was actually saying, 'We have concerns that there's a failure of environmental compliance at a national security weapons manufacturing plant.' It was too surreal. He was very serious, as was Bill Smith, the EPA criminal investigator for our national enforcement center in Golden.... I felt like I was being interrogated. At one point, Jon actually made me feel like my actions were in question, that I hadn't been tough enough.... He was probably right."

Miullo went on to a job as the EPA's revitalization coordinator, working with communities to clean up properties and return them to use; Rocky Flats, for example, is slated to become a national wildlife refuge. "Is it cleaned up appropriately?" Miullo asks at the end of his interview. "The answer is yes."

Garcia is not so sure. "Rocky Flats isn't going to go away," she says. "It wasn't cleaned up, it was remediated."

And she knows the difference, because she stayed there through 1997. In 1992, the DOE announced that it would decommission and decontaminate the site; a Superfund cleanup began in 1995. Ten years and $7 billion later, it was done – with 800 structures and buildings demolished, radioactive waste removed, soil remediated, groundwater treatment systems installed, and long-term environmental monitoring set up. But even after she left the plant, Garcia didn't go far: Since 2000, after a stint at a Superfund site in Grand Junction, she's been the environmental-services coordinator for the City and County of Broomfield and serves on the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, regularly meeting with other communities downstream from the former plant to discuss water quality in the area – and the potential for contamination.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun