It’s springtime in the Rockies, and sixteen miles northwest of Denver, a rare expanse of xeric tallgrass prairie is greening up nicely. Too bad what lies under it is as clear as mud.
This was rolling ranchland, studded with scrub and rocks, when the federal government began looking for a place to build a plant that would produce plutonium triggers for atomic bombs. “Good News Today,” the Rocky Mountain News chirped in a front-page headline when metro Denver was awarded the plant by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1951. You didn’t hear much about the plant after that, certainly not about its inner workings, the leaks and the two fires that spewed plutonium into the sky.
From 1953 to 1989, the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant did most of its work in secrecy. Then at dawn on June 6, 1989, seventy armed FBI agents and EPA officials raided Rocky Flats. It was the first time a federal agency had raided another federal agency: the Department of Energy, which had succeeded the AEC in 1977.
Jon Lipsky was the affiant on the search warrant for that raid; then a 35-year-old agent in the FBI’s Denver office, he’d been investigating alleged environmental crimes at the plant for more than two years, ever since he’d read an internal DOE document describing major problems at the facility. There were charges of missing plutonium (since confirmed), leaks in the glove boxes used by workers handling the deadly element (ditto), faulty storage of hazardous wastes (including the infamous pondcrete — hardened wastes that were supposed to survive the elements but were soon seeping into the ground).
After the raid, Rocky Flats never made another plutonium trigger. The plant stopped production and ultimately was named a Superfund site.
Initially, it was estimated that the cleanup would take decades and cost $35 billion. But after a certain level of funding was guaranteed in 1999, the DOE said it could finish the job by December 2006. Contractor Kaiser-Hill beat that date, finishing in October 2005 for $7.5 billion and still meeting all the requirements of the Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement.
The property was declared clean — as clean as it was going to get, anyway, and clean enough to become a national wildlife refuge. Over 6,000 acres were transferred to the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife, which was charged with resurrecting the area as the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, much like the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal on the eastern edge of the city. Another 1,309 acres that made up the Central Operable Unit, where 800 structures once stood and 10,000 people worked every day, remain the property of the DOE, forever off limits.
Now Fish & Wildlife is planning to open trails in the wildlife refuge to the public this summer.
Some of the public isn’t happy about that.
Forty years ago, when the plant was still operating at full capacity, protests were common occurrences outside the site, though they often focused more on opposition to nuclear weapons than environmental hazards. In April 1978, the Rocky Flats Truth Force started blocking the railroad tracks leading into the plant. Daniel Ellsberg, who’d attained national notoriety after leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971, was arrested there four times that year. “One of the arrests was on Nagasaki Day, August 9, 1978,” Ellsberg writes in his book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. “The ‘triggers’ produced at Rocky Flats were, in effect, the nuclear components of A-bombs, plutonium fission bombs of the type that had destroyed Nagasaki on that date in 1945.” Along with poet Allen Ginsberg and many others, Ellsberg blocked the entrance to the plant, “to interfere with business as usual at the bomb factory on the anniversary of the day a plutonium bomb had killed fifty-eight thousand humans. (About one hundred thousand had died by the end of 1945.)”
Ellsberg was among the protesters tried that November for trespassing. Although he called the dangers at Rocky Flats “real and continuing,” Judge Kim Goldberger refused to let the defendants use the choice-of-evils defense, and they were all convicted.
Many of those protesters will be back in action this weekend, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Rocky Flats Truth Force. On Friday, April 27, Facing Rocky Flats, a group exhibition that uses art and oral history to explore the past, present and future of the site, will open at the Boulder Public Library, where it will remain through June 10. On Saturday, April 28, the Truth Force will be celebrated with panels and discussions that include former FBI agent Lipsky and Wes McKinley, the southeastern Colorado rancher who became the foreman of the first-ever special grand jury charged with considering the evidence seized in the raid of Rocky Flats. Ultimately, McKinley and the other jurors determined that eight individuals — employees of both the DOE and Rockwell International, which had the contract to run the plant — should be charged with environmental crimes; they called Rocky Flats “an ongoing criminal enterprise” in their report. Instead, in March 1992 the Department of Justice cut a deal with Rockwell. No individuals were charged, and the company was fined $18.5 million — less than it had gotten in its annual bonus for running the plant.
Ellsberg will be at the anniversary program, too, at least via Skype. And more secrets will spill on April 29, when the Boulder Public Library will show three films: Dark Circle (director Judy Irving will be on hand to talk about the re-release of her movie); On the Tracks: At Rocky Flats, a short documentary that follows photographer Joe Daniel; and The Half-Life of Memory: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear Trigger, directed by Jeff Gipe, an artist who’s featured in Facing Rocky Flats.
While those protests are now part of history, opposition remains.
The Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, comprising representatives of surrounding municipalities and other stakeholder groups, meets every month to discuss Rocky Flats. On April 2, Pat Mellen, a former journalist, recent law school graduate and the attorney for groups that a year ago sued to block the opening of the refuge (the court dismissed the complaint last September, saying that the groups didn’t yet have standing, but the plaintiffs reserved the right to refile once plans for the refuge were further along), offered a presentation on “Myths and Misunderstandings” about the contaminated former plutonium production facility. Her goal was to get the two sides to listen, to have more of a dialogue than the “intractable resistance to engaging beyond ‘Thank you very much for your comment’” that she’d observed at most meetings, she says.
And time is of the essence, she adds: “The fight has gone on so long, but the stakes have changed. A poor, uninformed backhoe worker is going to put a shovel into something bad. … If the refuge was a bad decision, we’re going to find out in an ugly way.”
In the fall of 2016, Fish & Wildlife launched “a public engagement process” to solicit input on the future of Rocky Flats, holding four “listening sessions” where many in the audience complained that they were doing all the listening. Last month, David Lucas, project leader of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR Complex, which includes Rocky Flats, sent a note to those who’d attended, thanking them for their participation, noting that “several minor changes” had been made to refuge plans as a result of this process, and concluding that the folks at Fish & Wildlife “look forward to the trail system on the refuge this summer.”
While the Visitors’ Center on the north end of the complex is now set for phase two, Fish & Wildlife promises that “exhibits within the multipurpose facility will address the complete history from pre-settlement and ranching, to the plan and the clean-up, to restoration and wildlife.” Meanwhile, during phase one, signs by the trails “will inform visitors about the site’s history, clean up and access restrictions.”
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Scientists continue to argue that there have not been enough studies of the cleanup to prove that the land is safe to serve as a wildlife refuge, much less be a good neighbor to the Jefferson Parkway, which will soon be built along the east side, or the massive Candelas project, a master planned community developed by Terra Causa Capital and GF Properties Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Southern Ute tribe. Some of the trails slated to open this summer lead right up to the fence overlooking the back yards of the more pricey Candelas properties.
On candelasrockyflats.com, you can read lots of stories about why the former nuclear weapons plant is no concern. “Persistent myths” about Rocky Flats create unwarranted angst, says Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The land is safe and suitable for any use, he writes, but conveying that is challenging “given the longstanding and polarizing opinions that often result in misleading and biased information concerning Rocky Flats.”
His words sound almost as glowing as that Rocky Mountain News headline back in 1951. But then, plutonium has a half-life of tens of thousands of years. It can glow on and on.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center will host a weekend of events dedicated to the fortieth anniversary of the Rocky Flats Truth Force from April 27 through April 29. Find all the details here.