While You Were Away

Since I last visited the Lace House, back on Memorial Day, an entire tourist season has come and gone--without one tourist touring through what was once Black Hawk's top (and arguably only) attraction. But that was in the days when people enjoyed the ramshackle charms of the old mining town and its quaint, if often dilapidated, Victorian cottages--particularly this 1863 home, the finest example of Carpenter Gothic in the West. In those days you could actually see the cottages, rather than the giant casinos that today block all views ("Black Hawk's History? It's History," May 29).

In early June, Black Hawk's city council, which never met a developer it didn't love, fell for a mega-casino's proposition that the Lace House be moved off its historic foundation and relocated to a new, "historic" village down the road, conveniently located outside the district where gambling is allowed. The casino would fill the hole left by the Lace House with parking and then throw in some restoration money to sweeten the deal.

If the whole idea smelled, well, that could be because the "historic" village is also conveniently located near Black Hawk's sewage plant.

But the plan's opponents played the Lace card: Digging through the town's musty past, a former Black Hawk mayor found a contract--dating from 1976, the year the building was spruced up for Colorado's Centennial (more history: Poet Allen Ginsberg was one of the volunteers)--that apparently gives control of the structure's future to the Colorado Historical Society.

Before that's settled, of course, the lawyers will no doubt be called in. And in the meantime, the ka-ching of the casinos comes ever closer to the Lace House--which prompted last week's announcement by Colorado Preservation Inc. that the building had been placed on top of the state's Most Endangered Places List. The list is a brand-new CPI project, one made possible by funds from the Historical Society, which shares in the take from gambling. (Legalized gambling was sold to voters in part as a historic-preservation measure.) That irony, like much of the town's beauty, was apparently lost on the good bureaucrats of Black Hawk, who quickly fired off this response to CPI's announcement:

"City officials reacted with surprise and dismay this afternoon when informed of a media event, held in Denver, to protest the proposed relocation of Black Hawk's historic Lace House some 200 feet further down Main Street.

"Commented City Manager Lynnette Hailey, '...anyone who asserts that the Lace House will be destroyed, leveled, or in any way harmed is just wrong. It really is a showplace, on which the City has already spent over $250,000 in restoration costs, and our efforts are solely designed to give the house the protection and prominence it deserves in our rapidly changing downtown skyline." (This from the manager of a town that didn't have a "downtown skyline" until six years ago--unless you count stunning mountain views.)

"It's a shame that people focus on one controversial project, and ignore the good that the $36.7 million of gaming tax dollars distributed by the State Historic Fund to nearly 1,000 projects in every one of Colorado's 63 counties has done."

It's a shame, all right.

On the plains last week, a cleanup team was attempting to tidy up another sordid chapter in Colorado history: the legacy of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.

The former chemical-weapons factory, which has been called the most contaminated square mile on earth, hosted a five-member international inspection team, in accordance with a treaty that requires that nations account for their chemical-weapons stockpile. According to the Army, the visit was a great success, and our foreign visitors left convinced that the arsenal--now repositioned as a wildlife refuge--poses no threat.

But they also left without getting a chance to talk with John Yelenick, the chair-elect of the arsenal's Remedial Advisory Board, which is supposed to assist the Army in making sure the public understands the cleanup process. "They kept us apart from the team," says Yelenick. "They wouldn't let us close."

If he'd gotten close, Yelenick would have told the team that, contrary to what the Army was telling them, the arsenal is a hazard--although more to the people who live nearby than to America's old enemies. "They bent over backwards to keep us from telling them that we have a controlled agent, according to the 1992 Australian Conference," he says.

That agent is DIMP, diisopropyl methylphosphonate, a chemical unique to the Army's manufacture of GB nerve gas--sarin, for those who remember the Tokyo subway terrorism. Yelenick does, and since the first of the year he's been fighting for studies to research the plume of DIMP now migrating northeast from the arsenal in the groundwater. He's worried not just about the extent of the contamination, but also about DIMP's potential for interacting with other chemicals in the arsenal's toxic soup ("And Not a Drop to Drink," April 3).

The more worried Yelenick gets, the less it seems the Army wants to deal with him. But he isn't giving up. "We are really pressing hard right now," he says. "All our concerns from the beginning of the year are starting to come true. Unfortunately."

Like the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons plant was considered a boon to the local economy when it set up shop in the early Fifties. And as at the arsenal, the business of making weapons--plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs, to be exact--left a dangerous legacy. Last month Energy Secretary Federico Pena--who once was mayor of the city sixteen miles downwind of Rocky Flats--announced he was designating the facility an "accelerated pilot closure site," which means that the place is supposed to be all clean and closed by 2006.

Which also means that Rocky Flats may be cleaned up before the litigation surrounding it is.

It was eight years ago this summer that the FBI raided the plant, carting away boxes of documents that later were presented as evidence to the special grand jury investigating alleged environmental crimes at the facility. Many of those jurors, who met for the first time in August 1989, were back in U.S. District Court last month ("The Other Jury," April 10). In August 1996 the jurors had sued for the right to speak--to breach the confidentiality that governs grand jury proceedings--so they could tell the court how their investigation into Rocky Flats had been blocked. While the jurors ultimately wanted to indict eight people from the Energy Department and Rockwell International, which ran the plant at the time, the Department of Justice instead cut its own deal with Rockwell, settling the case with an $18.5 million fine and an agreement that the company was exempt from further legal action connected with the plant. (There was a notable exception, however: Whistleblower Jim Stone's 1989 suit against Rockwell was exempted from the deal, a provision that the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld last week over Rockwell's protests.)

After studying a petition outlining their case, Judge Richard Matsch ordered that the jurors be heard by a U.S. magistrate, who will pass their testimony along to him. But what the jurors said is being kept confidential on Matsch's orders.

The jurors, who five years ago first told Westword how justice had been denied, want to talk about how the contamination they found stretched far outside Rocky Flats--right into the Department of Justice. They want to tell why the whole deal was dirty.

History has no half-life.

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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