- Associated Press - Saturday, October 17, 2015

ROCKY FLATS, Colo. (AP) - Dave Lucas slams his truck into drive. The refuge manager for Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is searching for the old dirt road that has disappeared under a sea of big blue stem and prairie sand reed.

He reaches the top of a steep ridge, and they come into view. A herd of nearly two dozen elk gather in a quiet ravine, the cows guarded by a vigilant, bugling bull. A handful of smaller males scattered up the gully keep their distance.

Just 16 miles from downtown Denver, it’s a tableau of wild beauty and one that few get to witness so close to a major metropolitan area.

“All this area - no one has ever played on it except for security guards,” Lucas said, scanning the horizon through a pair of binoculars. “It’s some of the only undisturbed habitat along the Front Range.”

The 5,000-acre Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge - not including a 1,300-acre core where for nearly four decades critical components for the nation’s nuclear arsenal were manufactured - is scheduled to formally open to the public at the end of 2017.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the cleanup of Rocky Flats during which 800 structures, including five plutonium-processing and fabrication facilities and two major uranium facilities, were decontaminated and demolished. More than 21 tons of weapons-grade nuclear material was removed from the site.

It cost the government $7 billion and took about a decade to clean up the highly contaminated site. The announcement that the job was complete came Oct. 13, 2005.

“It’s been very successful,” Scott Surovchak, Rocky Flats site manager for the U.S. Department of Energy, said of the cleanup.

But critics of the federal government’s refuge plans in Jefferson County say while it is easy to be enchanted by the elk, mule deer, black bears and mountain lions that roam through the 600 plant species growing on the rolling land between Superior and Arvada, the beauty is deceptive.

“The land looks beautiful and pristine. It is not,” said Kristen Iversen, author of “Full Body Burden,” which explores Rocky Flats and its legacy as a nuclear weapons plant. “Is the site ready for public access? No.”

It’s a place that Niels Schonbeck, a chemistry professor at Regis University who has monitored the public health effects of Rocky Flats since the 1980s, would never visit.

“I will not go there and will not let my kids go there,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake to open it up.”

There are too many unknowns, Schonbeck said, and too much potential for things to go wrong at a site where plutonium leakage was legendary and two major fires dispersed the deadly substance.

But for those who participated in the cleanup of Rocky Flats and who closely monitor potential health hazards today, the complaints from refuge detractors don’t comport with the facts on the ground.

Surovchak, who 10 years ago was handed the keys to Rocky Flats’ entrance gate by cleanup contractor Kaiser-Hill, said critics’ arguments are “based on emotion” rather than science.

He said the numbers from the data collected on site speak for themselves. Excess cancer risk today from what went on during the plant’s active years is negligible, Surovchak said.

“A lot of the intervenor groups like to claim there’s a boiling cauldron of stuff underground - and that’s not the case,” he said.

Conservative threshold

The former plant, where the plutonium “pits” for American nuclear warheads were assembled from 1952 to 1989, was cleaned to a very conservative threshold, said Carl Spreng, Rocky Flats coordinator for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The cleanup standard set for plutonium levels in soil was 50 picocuries per gram, which Spreng said is the equivalent of increasing someone’s cancer risk by two in a million.

For water, a threshold for plutonium at a remediated Rocky Flats was set at 0.15 picocuries per liter - 100 times more stringent than the federal drinking water standard for the radioactive substance, he said.

Spreng said the creeks that are inside the refuge - North Walnut, South Walnut and Woman - no longer flow into drinking-water sources.

A recent sampling of Woman Creek Reservoir, which was built in the mid-1990s to capture water from Rocky Flats before it reaches Standley Lake, revealed plutonium levels well within federal limits. The March 2014 analysis shows that five out of eight samples taken in and around the reservoir came up as “non-detect” for plutonium.

Spreng said while nearly all of the plutonium at Rocky Flats was removed during the cleanup, there are contaminated building slabs that were “left at depth.” Those slabs, he said, are at least 6 feet underground and painted over to prevent the escape of radioactive alpha particles.

“It’s not as if they buried drums of plutonium,” he said.

The Department of Energy has in place four groundwater treatment systems on site, samples groundwater at 88 locations, samples surface water at 19 locations, and maintains and monitors two landfills.

“This site has been scrutinized by the public officially and unofficially more than any other site,” Spreng said.

Some critics want to see readings for any contaminants at zero, he said, but that’s unrealistic. Atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs decades ago means there are trace, or background, levels of plutonium in most locations around the world.

“The numbers we are dealing with at Rocky Flats are low and below regulatory concern, but they are not zero,” he said. “The goal is not zero. The goal is to protect human health and the environment.”

Schonbeck, the Regis professor, questions whether the risk thresholds for human health effects identified by the federal government are adequate.

“I think the data the feds have is accurate. What I have a deep argument with is their interpretation of it,” Schonbeck said. “They don’t give enough credence to what we don’t know.”

He worries about burrowing animals bringing plutonium to the surface, major flood events moving the substance around and prevalent high winds dispersing it far and wide.

And the fact that the 1,300-acre plot in the middle of the refuge - the once tightly guarded and highly classified industrial manufacturing core - will remain off-limits to visitors for the foreseeable future waves as “a red flag of the largest type” for Schonbeck.

As it does for Len Ackland, a former University of Colorado at Boulder journalism professor who wrote “Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West.”

Ackland, former editor of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said Rocky Flats was run with such “secrecy and deception” during its operational years that “the public is wise to be skeptical that everything is fine now.”

The fact that there is still buried plutonium - with a half-life of 24,000 years - at the site speaks to the “uncertainties of what remains there,” he said.

“Given that, I think that opening Rocky Flats to the public and pretending it’s just another piece of open space on the Front Range is foolish,” he said.

Off-limits to the public

Vera Moritz, Rocky Flats remedial project manager with the Environmental Protection Agency, said safety concerns are not the reason the Central Operable Unit remains a Superfund site.

She said the on-site presence of “institutional controls (that) protect the integrity of the engineered covers for two landfills and several groundwater treatment systems” is why the former industrial zone remains off-limits to the public.

No one touts the safety of the Central Operable Unit as vigorously as the DOE’s Surovchak does. He’s proud of the Cold War accomplishments at Rocky Flats, which he describes as a “big machine shop” that at its peak employed 10,000 people.

“We could shape any metal anyone asked us to,” said Surovchak, who has been the site manager at Rocky Flats for nearly a quarter century.

On a recent tour of the core, Surovchak stood on the footprint of former Building 771, which once bore the notorious title of “most dangerous building in America.” Not far away is the 903 Pad, where large-scale leaking of drums filled with plutonium-laced machining lubricants and solvents were discovered in 1967.

Former employees have struggled with illnesses they claim are connected to working at Rocky Flats, and the federal government has lifted some of the burden of proof so they could get faster processing of claims.

Surovchak said there is no denying Rocky Flats’ hazardous past, but the situation is much different post-cleanup.

He shows off an automated surface water monitoring unit that takes constant readings of North Walnut Creek as it flows past. He opens the doors on a groundwater treatment facility that employs a series of trays and pressurized air to strip chemical degreasers from groundwater.

While the monitoring and treatment will keep visitors out of the Central Operable Unit, Surovchak said, the public shouldn’t be denied the 5,000 acres of xeric tallgrass prairie that surround it on all sides.

“Look at it, this is fantastic,” he said. “You don’t find something like this in the Denver metro area. It’s either developed or it’s a private ranch that you don’t have access to.”

Familiar battle lines

The familiar battle lines over Rocky Flats are shaping up once again, decades after protesters linked hands along the facility’s perimeter fence demanding an end to the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Judith Mohling, with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder, said her organization will be “ramping up” a campaign in the next couple of years to warn people about Rocky Flats’ past and potential ongoing concerns at the site.

Lucas, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said his agency is planning a “robust public-awareness program” to tell the public that there are no significant safety issues at the refuge, which could one day boast more than 20 miles of trails.

In the meantime, the tensions over the former weapons plant play out in the new neighborhoods that in the past few years have filled in the empty land around Rocky Flats and now march right up to the refuge’s southern fence line.

Arvada’s Candelas, which will one day feature more than 2,000 homes, and nearby Leyden Rock, with a buildout of close to 1,500 homes, have taken center stage in the battle over just how safe Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is.

Groups such as Candelas Glows warn of the hazards left behind by the former nuclear weapons plant. Concerned residents scored a victory earlier this year when fears over potential plutonium dispersal prompted the USFWS to cancel a controlled burn on the refuge.

David Abelson, head of the 14-member Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, opposed the controlled burn but feels refuge opponents often go too far in their fear-mongering.

He gets four to six calls a month from prospective homeowners looking at Candelas. Many tell him about unfounded claims they’ve read on the Internet that the neighborhood is in some sort of hot zone, he said.

“And I can understand, because it’s easy to scare people about Rocky Flats,” Abelson said. “But the data don’t bear out that fear.”

___

Information from: The Denver Post, https://www.denverpost.com


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide