Rocky Flats was designed to produce plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs. But what it really produced was waste -- lots of hazardous waste.Rocky Flats workers battled hazardous waste in protective suits and with glove boxes.Rocky Flats workers battled hazardous waste in protective suits and with glove boxes.
Rocky Flats was designed to produce plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs. But what it really produced was waste -- lots of hazardous waste.Rocky Flats workers battled hazardous waste in protective suits and with glove boxes.Rocky Flats workers battled hazardous waste in protective suits and with glove boxes.

This Place Is a Dump!

When the Atomic Energy Commission chose Rocky Flats as the site for its new nuclear-weapons plant, no one gave much thought to the wastes the plant would produce -- nor would they think much about those wastes in the decades to come.

In the beginning, the paper bags, cardboard boxes and drums filled with chemical and radioactive leftovers were simply pushed out the door and forgotten until someone somewhere higher up in the Atomic Energy Commission's hierarchy came up with a solution. Then Rocky Flats could wash its hands of the whole toxic mess. The plant didn't have time for such housekeeping chores, anyway. It had a vital mission: to produce nuclear pits, the smooth cores of plutonium or enriched uranium designed for the center of atomic bombs.

The commission knew that waste from its nuclear-weapons manufacturing was going to be an enormous problem. As early as 1947, government officials considered collecting it in garbage cans and burying it on federal property, storing it in vaults until radioactive decay had progressed sufficiently, dumping the material in the oceans, even shooting it into space by "interplanetary rockets." One thoughtful bureaucrat, writing in 1948, likened the vast quantities of radioactive liquids, solids and gases being spewed unchecked into the environment to "sins of emission" that, if left unabated, would someday pose the "gravest of problems."


Part 1: Bombs Away!
Part 3: Hot Property

View a map detailing the contamination of Rocky Flats.

But the years passed, and no one at the AEC ever came up with a reasonable solution for the huge quantities of radioactive waste accumulating at Rocky Flats, as well as at other production facilities located around the country. Intent upon winning the arms race against the Soviet Union, the commission forgot the prescient warnings, and the waste grew, and grew, and grew.

"Despite the mountain of waste, it was only an afterthought. Nuclear-weapons production was the only priority," says Len Ackland, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the author of Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West, a comprehensive book on the plant published last fall.

Located just sixteen miles northwest of downtown Denver, Rocky Flats produced a dizzying assortment of both radioactive and chemical wastes during its forty years of operation. Thrown into trenches, burial mounds and burn pits scattered across the site were ripped coveralls, torn respirators, and punctured gloves and booties, along with obsolete or damaged tools and machinery, wooden pallets, crates, paper wipes, flattened drums, construction materials, ash, asphalt, soil, sewage sludge and contaminated water.

The plant used more than 1,500 chemicals in its manufacturing and cleanup processes. Oil kept lathes, drills and countless other pieces of machinery operating smoothly. Carbon tetrachloride was used like "a bucket of soap and water" to clean glove boxes, furnaces, machinery and even the plutonium metal itself.

Americium, beryllium, chloroform, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, thorium, tritium, benzene, cadmium, chromium, formaldehyde, lead, mercury and nickel were just part of the toxic brew of chemicals and metals used at Rocky Flats. Not only were the radioactive materials potential carcinogens, but many of the chemicals were also capable of producing cancer or other serious diseases that affected the liver, kidney, skin or central nervous system.

Rocky Flats officials soon discovered that radioactive contamination was a nightmare that could bring assembly lines to a halt, force the evacuation of entire buildings, and require days, even weeks, of cleanup work. Radioactivity was a cursed contagion that in some ways resembled a disease: You couldn't see, smell or taste it. The hot, ticking molecules wafted through buildings on air currents and occasionally found a permanent resting place in the soft, moist passageways of the nose, throat or lungs -- the most dangerous place of all.

Too often, wrote attorneys for Marcus Church, a rancher who in 1975 filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against Rocky Flats for contaminating his nearby property, the plant behaved like a miner out of the Old West, simply shoveling the waste down the mountain and forgetting about it. "Waste management was a low priority at Rocky Flats," wrote the Church team. "It was plagued by bad planning, stop-gap solutions and attempts to save a few dollars."

In an amazingly blunt statement, a Rocky Flats official once explained how Dow Chemical, the ironfisted contractor that ran the plant for decades, lurched from crisis to crisis, unable or unwilling to develop a coherent, well-thought-out plan for disposing of its wastes. "Waste management tends to be a low-priority project, because it is desirable to do as little as possible to get rid of any waste streams," he said. "Changes in the waste program are generally made necessary by changes in shipping or governmental regulations. It is difficult to predict what changes will be made, and this tends to develop a crisis-type situation in which effort is expended to solve a specific problem, followed by lack of activity until the next crisis."

By the early 1950s, the pits were rolling off the assembly lines and the contaminated garbage was stacking up in hallways, on building slabs, at loading docks. Initially, workers collected the debris in paper bags, then mixed the bags with concrete and poured the mixture into 55-gallon drums. Plant managers hoped to dump the barrels at sea -- a common-enough practice at the time. But when ocean dumping became politically unpalatable, Rocky Flats began storing cast-off materials in cardboard containers "pending final decision on the disposal of hot wastes," wrote Oliver Windahl, head of the plant's health-physics division, in 1952.

Hundreds of metal drums and wooden crates were often stacked outside of buildings, where they were exposed to wind, rain and sun. The drums swelled with unvented gases, and the sounds of explosions occasionally resounded through the quiet back lots of Rocky Flats.

To save a buck, Dow purchased many drums secondhand and recycled them through the plant several times before consigning them to the trash heap. The corrosive liquids used in the production or cleanup processes ate through the metal and dribbled onto other drums and nearby equipment or onto the concrete slabs themselves before being discovered. Then a brigade of workers would be dispatched to the area with mops and buckets to clean up the spill. Soon the water became contaminated and spread to walkways, roads and culverts. Sometimes the crew just cordoned off the mess with rope and hung little yellow radiation signs warning people to stay away.

The radioactivity spread to tires and the beds of trucks used to haul the barrels. When the vehicles rumbled toward the gates on their contaminated wheels, they carried the material even farther. On one occasion, workers spent an entire week trying to clean up an area where just one drum filled with plutonium-laden waste had leaked. The drum's contents were extremely radioactive, producing Geiger counter readings in excess of 100,000 counts per minute. (Normal background levels are between about two and twenty counts per minute.)

Periodically, safety officials inspected the areas where the drums were stored and discovered, much to their dismay, that the liquid within the barrels had completely drained away. Behind "Plant C," the concrete edifice where the plutonium pits were produced, they found one empty drum among the 550 barrels stored there. At another holding zone where more than 610 drums from "A Building" (depleted uranium) and "B Building" (the enriched-uranium facility) sat, they counted nine empty barrels.

Nearly 300,000 square feet of storage space were severely contaminated by punctured and leaking waste drums containing both uranium and plutonium wastes. The soil was removed, and the area scraped and covered with gravel, but some radioactivity remained. "Residual infiltration is certain," concluded one Dow official.

Soon Rocky Flats officials began eyeing the wide swaths of vacant land that surrounded the buildings. Covered with rocks of all sizes and thatched grass, the prairie seemed as good a place as any to dump garbage. The plant was not licensed as a federal burial ground, but the law was sufficiently murky that officials felt comfortable with the move. No one bothered to keep detailed records of what was dumped where. As a consequence, the exact location of many of these dumps and what was within them grew hazy with time.

Sometime between 1952 and 1954, a backhoe rumbled out to the east side of the plant, just beyond the barbed-wire fence that encircled the "Protected Area," the heavily guarded cluster of buildings where plutonium was shaped into cores. The backhoe dug a long, shallow hole in the ground, and thousands of kilograms of depleted uranium chips were poured in and covered with a few feet of dirt. This burial site became known as Trench 1. According to documents obtained by attorneys for Marcus Church, Rocky Flats could have converted the chips to an oxide form and shipped them to the Atomic Energy Commission's burial grounds in Idaho but decided against that because the process was too "difficult." Ten drums of "concreted cyanides" and a drum of "special waste" were also tossed into Trench 1.

Between roughly 1954 and 1968, Rocky Flats dug ten more trenches, called Trenches 2 through 11, on the east side of the complex. ChemRisk, a company that did an exhaustive study of the releases for Colorado's Department of Health, found that more than 100 tons of sludge from the waste-treatment facility had been dumped into these trenches. The treatment plant was supposed to process uncontaminated domestic waste, but, in fact, the wastes were highly radioactive. Some of the dried sludge had readings as high as 250,000 disintegrations per minute. Also tossed into these trenches were 275 flattened drums and some asphalt planks contaminated with uranium and plutonium.

A few feet from Trench 1, Rocky Flats officials created another burial site that came to be known as the Mound. Day after day, forklifts rolled out to this site carrying drums of contaminated solvents and oils that had been accumulating around the buildings. The plant had tried to ship the barrels to Idaho, but Idaho officials had refused to accept any more liquid waste from Rocky Flats after they realized that some of the drums were leaking. So plant officials began burying the barrels beneath a foot or two of dirt in the Mound. Eventually, anywhere from 1,045 to 1,600 drums of oils, solvents and dry waste were buried here. Most of the drums were contaminated with depleted uranium, but others contained bomb-grade uranium and plutonium. Many of the barrels leaked out into the soil, contributing to the large blobs of contaminated groundwater that exist today.

In the Mound, the plutonium waste alone was extremely hot, with an estimated 285 grams of plutonium in the barrels. Contamination levels in the sludge at the bottom of the barrels were in excess of a million counts per liter. In 1970, when union officials were tipped off about the Mound's existence, they demanded an explanation from Dow. A transcript of that meeting shows that Dow officials had maintained sketchy records at best: They didn't really know what was buried in the Mound and were more concerned about the dump's existence becoming public than they were with cleaning up the mess. The drums were dug up that same year, repackaged and shipped off-site.

The creation of the solar evaporation ponds was another well-intended idea that ended up an unmitigated disaster. Waste water from the numerous industrial processes used throughout the buildings was pumped into these ponds. The first pond was completed in 1953. Within a year, documents show, scientists knew that the pond was leaking. Even so, over the years, four more ponds were built and lined with everything from "asphalt-impregnated felt covering" to concrete. But nothing stopped the leaks. The water was so polluted that spray contaminated nearby soil and even workers' cars. To keep the water from splashing out, sandbags were once stacked around the perimeter of the ponds and steel pellets dropped into the pools to keep the liners from floating up to the surface. Meanwhile, the water grew severely contaminated with nitrates as well as significant amounts of uranium, plutonium and other radioactive metals.

By 1957, just five years after it had begun operations, the plant had managed to convert acres of unsoiled prairie into a toxic dumping ground that would take hundreds of years to clean up. And still, the Rocky Flats plant wasn't close to reaching its peak production levels -- of weapons or waste.

When the first plutonium pits were made, workers tried to shape them in a "dry" state, with as little machining as possible. But in 1957, the Atomic Energy Commission and the military decided to change the design of these nuclear cores, making them hollow and lighter so they could be carried more easily on missiles. Not only did the hollow pits require more plutonium, but the metal itself was handled much more frequently as it was shaped into little derby hats, which were then trimmed of their brims and welded together.

As the plant hurried to produce the new components, the amount of liquid waste increased enormously. Small chips and shavings of plutonium ignited spontaneously in the presence of oxygen, so the metal was cooled with solvents and oils as it was machined. According to Edward Putzier, a Denver resident and one of the first health physicists hired by the plant, Rocky Flats simply didn't have the technology available to cope with the wastes. "It was a big problem," he remembered. "In the meantime, the pressure of production kept creating the waste."

And 1957 was a watershed year at Rocky Flats for another reason: On September 11, at 10:10 in the evening, a fire spontaneously erupted in one of the glove boxes in Building C. Before the blaze was brought under control, it had roared through the ducts to a plutonium-encrusted bank of filters on the second floor, creating a thick, black plume of smoke that poured from the building stack and drifted off into the countryside.

The fire left behind vast amounts of contaminated debris. Filters, twisted glove boxes, firefighting clothing and equipment were heavily contaminated. The entire building had to be scrubbed down before production could resume. The wastes were thrown into drums that were then carted out to the Mound.

When the Mound area was filled up, Dow officials opened another dump site that came to be known as the 903 Pad. The 903 Pad, which was located a couple hundred feet south of the Mound, was undoubtedly the most infamous of the numerous Rocky Flats dumping grounds, and the scientific reports chronicling its development and demise could fill a small library. The 903 Pad was used from roughly 1958 to 1967. During that period, some 5,240 barrels containing mostly plutonium-contaminated waste were stored there.

The 903 Pad had not even been operating for a year when Rocky Flats officials discovered that many of the drums were leaking. Instead of removing the barrels, workers simply added a rust inhibitor to the contents of the drums before they were hauled to the field. The rust inhibitor did nothing to prevent leaks, however, and the oils and solvents seeped into the soil and found their way into the groundwater. The actual amount of plutonium present in the 903 Pad area has been the subject of fierce controversy. The official estimates range from 85 to 160 grams, but other documents suggest that each barrel contained anywhere from 1 to 25 grams, which would push the total much higher.

Through the years, the 903 Pad continued to be a troublesome source of contamination. Signs were posted warning of the high radioactivity levels, and the whole noxious affair was enclosed in a fence to keep the rabbits away. But air samplers stationed at the eastern edge of the property continued to register high readings from plutonium that had leaked into the surface soil and then been picked up by the wind and suspended in the air.

Heavy rains pummeled Rocky Flats in 1967 and spread the plutonium from the 903 Pad area even farther. After shoveling up the soil and dumping it back inside the fence, Dow officials decided it was time to properly dispose of the drums. While the forklifts were transporting the corroded barrels and pallets down the street, some of the liquid sloshed onto the road. The Geiger counters went crazy, recording counts as high as 140,000 per minute. Rocky Flats workers tried to cover the contaminated roadway with gravel and sealer, but that didn't work; ultimately they had to rip up sections of the asphalt. (This asphalt, in turn, was taken to another dump.)

The cleanup of the 903 Pad continued to be plagued with poorly thought-out decisions that ultimately spread the plutonium in a wide zucchini-shaped swath far beyond the plant's boundaries. After the drums were removed, workers burned off the weeds and vegetation and then graded the area with bulldozers -- two activities that greatly increased the amount of airborne plutonium. To make matters worse, the bulldozed ground was left open to the wind and the rain for an entire year while plant officials and the Atomic Energy Commission squabbled over construction of the barrier. Finally, in 1963, a concrete pad was poured over the whole mess. The fence that surrounded the 903 Pad and the two forklifts used to remove the barrels were shipped to "hot waste," according to a government document.

The growing waste problems at Rocky Flats had been shrouded from public view by the mantle of secrecy that enveloped everything related to the nuclear-weapons program. But Dow officials themselves soon realized that if they kept using the adjacent prairie as their own private dumping ground, they would soon run out of room for buildings. As one official later put it in a meeting with union leaders, Rocky Flats was becoming "the world's barrel capitol." In terse, understated memos, a number of Rocky Flats officials working in the health and safety department warned of the spreading contamination. Writing in 1959, one plant official pointed out that many of the drums moved to the fields were "leakers," in all probability. A year later, another wrote: "These wastes cause the greatest problem at the present time, and they include solvents, coolants and oils. At present there is no answer for disposal of these wastes."

To cut down on the amount of waste that was buried or shipped to a federal burial ground in Idaho that still accepted solid waste from Rocky Flats, Dow officials began burning cast-off material in open pits and incinerators. Near the Mound, workers gouged a pit out of the ground and burned a total of 1,082 drums laden with uranium-contaminated oil in 1957 and again from 1961 and 1965. But the problem didn't disappear with the burning; about 10,000 cubic feet of hot, ashy residues remained. The ashes were then dumped into pits and covered with dirt. Three sheets of depleted uranium sandwiched between plywood and weighing a total of sixty kilograms were also accidentally burned. On the west side of the facility, a smaller pit was opened, and ten drums of oil containing depleted uranium were burned. The mess was covered with backfill and a building erected on top of it.

"A better means of contaminating the countryside with large quantities of insoluble particles of uranium oxide of respirable size can hardly be imagined," Church's lawyers wrote, adding, "The lack of records, lack of monitoring and lack of separation of depleted uranium, enriched uranium and plutonium-bearing wastes at Rocky Flats gives little assurance no plutonium oils were burned."

For nearly sixteen years, Rocky Flats burned all of its purportedly non-contaminated waste in an open-air incinerator located near the west access road. In a court deposition, Edward Putzier likened this facility to the "kind of incinerator you see at Safeway stores." Not surprisingly, some depleted uranium chips got thrown into the mix. The vast quantities of ash were then shoveled into nearby pits or thrown over a hill into an area that drained into Woman Creek. The incinerator was finally demolished in the early '60s.

As if Rocky Flats didn't have enough trash of its own, it also began accepting waste from Lowry Air Force Base, Martin Aircraft Company, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Denver Research Institute, the Colorado School of Mines, the University of Colorado's School of Medicine and the Coors Porcelain Company. Most of this waste was then shipped to the federal burial ground in Idaho, but some waste from Coors, which included both beryllium and uranium-contaminated liquids, was poured into the plant's solar evaporation ponds.

In 1969, a second major fire erupted inside the plutonium-production complex. In addition to causing millions of dollars in damages, this blaze generated huge quantities of garbage. Buildings 776 and 777, where the blaze broke out, had to be cleaned from top to bottom. Into the trash heap went melted lathes and tools and tons of charred shielding that had stoked the flames. Some of the dangerously radioactive fire debris was stored outdoors in wooden boxes, ironically creating an additional fire hazard. "If one box were to catch fire," wrote M.A. Thompson, "there would be a high potential for the fire to spread to other boxes and to release significant amounts of contamination. Admittedly, the potential for fire to start in any one box may be small, but many of our recent incidents have been events with small probability of occurring."

Following the 1969 fire, nuclear chemist Dr. Edward Martell and other members of the Colorado Committee on Environmental Information sampled soil near the plant and discovered plutonium levels that were 200 times background levels. Martell and others believed the contamination was a result of the fire, but Rocky Flats managers vehemently denied the charges. In an effort to prove the critics wrong, in a face-to-face meeting, plant officials for the first time admitted the existence of the 903 Pad and the large black plumes of contaminated smoke that blew off-site during the 1957 fire.

The plant tried to discredit Martell's work, but one of the AEC's own consultants later confirmed the high levels of plutonium in the surrounding prairie. During the ensuing controversy, critics learned of Dow's spotty or nonexistent sampling. Charged the Church lawyers: "Rocky Flats' monitoring practices have, in several accident situations as well as during routine operations, been notable not for what was measured but for what was not measured. Rather than make attempts to evaluate the extent of such releases through material balance calculations, environmental sampling or other means, Dow and the AEC rather classified whatever information does exist, assumed releases were 'negligible'; made 'estimates' with little basis in fact; and/or made carefully worded, frequently misleading statements with a minimum of information in press releases and reports to outside agencies such as Colorado Department of Health, the governor of Colorado, and members and committees of Congress."

As a result of the controversy, in the early '70s the AEC decided to purchase another 4,620 acres surrounding Rocky Flats. The commission and Rocky Flats officials maintained that the land was being acquired simply as a buffer zone, or a "greenbelt," to "minimize the types of problems that often arise from proximity of industrial facilities to residential communities." But internal documents suggest the high plutonium levels found in the buffer zone were a major factor in the decision. With the acquisition of the land, the plant's new borders -- which were off limits to the general public -- extended from 96th Avenue on the south to Highway 128 on the north, and from Indiana Street on the east to the railroad tracks on the west.

Soon after this decision was made, the Atomic Energy Commission, the all-powerful federal department that oversaw hundreds of production facilities and research laboratories throughout the country, was dissolved by President Gerald Ford. But the culture of secrecy that had pervaded the agency since its inception could not be dislodged so easily and continued to thrive in its successors -- the Energy Research and Development Administration and the modern-day counterpart, the Department of Energy.

Dow Chemical, the tough-minded company that had managed Rocky Flats for 23 years, also called it quits in 1974, passing the torch to Rockwell International. But the enormous environmental problems would continue under Rockwell's reign, with a federal grand jury eventually urging the government to indict Rockwell, as well as corporate and federal employees, on criminal charges stemming from environmental abuses.

The leaky, highly contaminated solar evaporation ponds were a colossal headache. They were raised, lowered, cleaned, drained, patched, relined and repeatedly measured for contamination levels. They were always radioactive, with 16.2 grams of uranium detected on some rotten planks that had been used as liner. (The planks themselves were subsequently dumped into Trench 4.) But Rocky Flats officials continued to toss all kinds of things into the hot, briny pools, including a thousand gallons of sewage from a tanker spill. Slowly but surely, a vast plume of groundwater containing primarily nitrates and uranium materialized beneath the surface.

In order to get rid of some of the liquids, Rockwell gave the go-ahead to begin spraying pond water onto a swath of open prairie that became known as the West Spray Field. Between 1982 and 1985, 90,000 gallons per acre were sprayed over 105 acres; this spraying succeeded in contaminating one of the still relatively unblemished portions of the plant site. And the water sank down, carrying plutonium, uranium and other metals and chemicals into the groundwater and bedrock.

To get rid of the toxic mud in the bottom of the ponds, Rocky Flats officials came up with the idea of mixing the gooey sludge with concrete to form heavy "pondcrete" blocks that could then be shipped off-site. The plant also decided to make "saltcrete" from cement, salts and salt brine from liquid-waste treatment processes.

As word of these practices leaked out to the Environmental Protection Agency, in June 1989 the FBI arranged a dawn raid on Rocky Flats. Two months later, a special grand jury -- Colorado's first ever -- was convened to consider evidence seized from the plant during that raid. According to the Rocky Flats grand jury, the pondcrete and saltcrete slurries were poured into large cardboard boxes that had been lined with plastic. The boxes were then moved outdoors, where, theoretically, they were supposed to harden into monolithic blocks that could be shipped off-site. But the blocks remained soft as Play-Doh. Jim Stone, then a mechanical engineer for Rockwell, warned that the process wouldn't work, but his warnings went unheeded. "Rockwell was supposed to be the premier outfit in nuclear design, but they didn't know their ass from third base," he says today.

In all, the plant made 19,000 of these blocks between 1986 and 1989, according to one DOE document. Some of the blocks, which weighed anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 pounds, were actually shipped to the Nevada Test Site and placed six feet deep under the desert. But when Nevada officials learned the blocks contained certain hazardous substances, they refused to accept any more. So the blocks began to pile up on outdoor pads at Rocky Flats. Stacked one on top of another, the cardboard containers deteriorated and ruptured, releasing a liquid or powdery substance that contained both hazardous and radioactive materials. In characteristic understatement, the DOE acknowledged in 1994, "These complications accelerated costs appreciably."

Trouble had also erupted at the plant's sewage-treatment facility in 1989 when employees discovered a green, slightly fluorescent fluid flowing into the plant. The liquid, which turned out to be chromic acid, killed the microbiological bacteria in the sewage-treatment plant that helped purify the wastewater effluent. Soon the raw or partially treated sewage was discharged to a nearby holding pond. In an effort to get rid of some of the greenish, smelly water, Rockwell then decided to spray the liquid onto an area that became known as the South Spray Field.

The grand jury later alleged that the company chose this method to get rid of the tainted liquid because "Rockwell did not want to face potentially adverse publicity from discharging the colored wastewater effluent directly downstream into the Great Western Reservoir (i.e. Broomfield's drinking water supply) and because the plant did not have sufficient storage capacity to retain all of the chromic acid on site. Rockwell realized that a substantial quantity of the toxic liquid would run off the spray field into Broomfield's water supply because the spray field was frozen at the time and it was covered completely with ice and snow."

Between 1987 and 1989, Rockwell also sprayed massive quantities of wastewater onto seventeen acres known as the East Area Spray Field. The runoff flowed into Woman Creek and Walnut Creek, two streams that eventually flowed downstream into municipal drinking-water basins. "Rockwell," wrote the grand jurors, "continued the spray irrigation even during blizzards, when the ground was covered with snow and ice, and it was impossible for any of the treated wastewater effluent to penetrate the surface of the ground. Massive 'ice castles' were formed around these agricultural spray irrigation devices at those times, but the flow of irrigation water seldom stopped."

Rockwell also sprayed wastewater over the eastern trenches where the plant had previously dumped uranium chips and other radioactive sludge. This practice flushed unknown quantities of hazardous and radioactive materials into the underlying groundwater and "greatly expanded" the plume that exists below the surface.

Following its two-and-a-half-year investigation, the grand jury concluded that Rocky Flats was an "ongoing criminal enterprise" and prepared criminal indictments against certain former and current employees of the Energy Department, as well as Rockwell, the DOE's contractor. "For forty years," the jurors noted, "federal, Colorado and local regulators and elected officials have been unable to make DOE and the corporate operators of the plant obey the law. Indeed, the plant has been and continues to be operated by the government and corporate employees, who have placed themselves above the law and who have hidden their illegal conduct behind the public's trust by engaging in a continuing campaign of distraction, deception and honesty."

But then-U.S. attorney Mike Norton declined to sign the indictments, saying he believed the federal government didn't have enough evidence. Rockwell got off with an $18.5 million fine that was far less than the bonuses it had extracted during its years of operation. As for the grand jurors, they were -- and still are -- unable to speak out about what they found because federal law prohibits them from talking about their deliberations.

Still, the evidence was all there -- in the soil, the water and the air.

Next week: The high cost of cleaning up.

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