Longform

The Lowdown on Lowry

Page 7 of 9


In the spring of 1977, a number of men gathered in front of Nickerson's Restaurant in Bennett. The group included an investigator and physicist from the state health department; an official from Rockwell International, the contractor running the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant for the federal government; a former Colorado state patrolman and a reporter from the Boulder Daily Camera. The day's outing had been triggered by a provocative letter that the former patrolman, Bill Wilson, had written to the health department a few days earlier.

While patrolling Highway 30 back in 1961, Wilson wrote, he'd once stopped a Boulder County milk transport truck. When he asked the trucker what he was hauling, the man told him that his load was "polluted radioactive waters" from the Rocky Flats plant. "He said they dumped the polluted waters in any old valley or hole on the range by government agreement," Wilson said. Although he subsequently reported the event to the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the trucking industry, Wilson wrote that he'd continued to see strange milk trucks traversing the bombing range.

Health department officials didn't know what to make of Wilson's letter. But they were concerned enough about his allegations to read them over the telephone to a Rocky Flats official, who had them transcribed verbatim. And later that day, Albert Hazle, then head of the health department's radiation and hazardous waste division, was kind enough to deliver a copy to the home of Earl Bean, then assistant manager for the Energy Research and Development Administration, which oversaw Rocky Flats. Bean called Hazle later that night and told him they'd concluded that Wilson's communication was nothing more than a "crank" letter.

Still, Rocky Flats officials weren't taking any chances. They decided to send Burt Kelchner, a Rockwell employee, on the tour that Wilson was going to lead after lunch. So after they'd finished eating, all five men piled into Wilson's car and headed out to the bombing range. They stopped at one of the missile silos and took radiation readings, then drove to a stream bed where Wilson thought dumping had occurred and took samples. Wilson tried to find another creek bed where other milk trucks had spewed their contents, but the passage of time had rearranged the landscape, and he had a hard time finding any familiar landmarks. Finally, they stopped near the spot where Wilson thought he'd first encountered a milk truck, but by then health department officials were so skeptical that they didn't even bother to get out of the car. They simply stuck a Geiger counter out the window to get readings.

Rocky Flats officials subsequently interviewed numerous plant employees who were familiar with procedures for handling both radioactive and uncontaminated waste. "All of the personnel interviewed are certain that no liquid wastes have been shipped offsite to the Lowry Bombing Range or to any other location in the Denver area," Bean determined.

But eighteen boxes of records that were eventually found in a shed belonging to one of Milt Adams's companies suggested otherwise. Waste Transport and other recycling companies had in fact made a number of trips to the bombing range on behalf of Rocky Flats between 1970 and 1980, dumping waste oils, solvents and paint thinner at the landfill. But whether these items were contaminated with plutonium is another question: Rocky Flats did make an effort to separate "hot" wastes from "cold" ones, but even cold wastes occasionally contained small amounts of plutonium and other radioactive chemicals.

And for the earlier dumping period, from roughly 1953, when the nuclear-weapons plant opened, to 1970, few documents have surfaced showing what, if anything, Rocky Flats sent to Lowry.

Plutonium from Rocky Flats could also have been transported to Lowry inadvertently by the Waste Transport trucks that stopped at the plant two to three times a month in the early '70s to suction out water that had collected in concrete basins, or sumps, located near the buildings. According to Hesser, the former Waste Transport driver, these sumps contained anywhere from two thousand to three thousand gallons of water. "Whenever it rained, we had to go out and haul that stuff away," he says. "We'd take the manhole cover off, suck it out and go on." Today officials believe that some of the most heavily contaminated areas of Rocky Flats lay beneath those production buildings.

Neighbors who lived near the bombing range remember seeing tankers that resembled milk trucks hauling waste up and down the highway. "We all saw them. It was hard not to see them going down the road," says Jerry Rains, the son of Maryann Rains, the woman who'd complained about the landfill odors.

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Eileen Welsome

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