16 miles northwest of Denver, CO sits the Rocky Flats site, formerly home to a plant that produced nuclear weapons from 1952-1989. These operations were shut down for repeated safety violations, which whistleblowers started bringing to the attention of the EPA and FBI in 1987. The extent of the contamination of the site was never revealed publically.
In 1992, Rocky Flats was closed for good following the fall of the Soviet Union. It was added to the EPA’s National Priorities List, and cleanup efforts began. In 2000, Congress proposed that the site be transformed into a wildlife refuge. The cleanup was declared complete in 2005, although the levels of present contamination were not shown to the public.
The site has come under scrutiny again, as efforts are being made to build a new highway along the eastern edge of the refuge. The EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment insist that the site is safe, and that construction won’t pose a health risk to workers or surrounding communities. Those living in the area aren’t so sure, especially because no new testing was planned in advance of the construction.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center hired independent contractors to test the soil and find out what the level of present plutonium contamination really looks like – but they were barred from actually entering the refuge. Instead, they tested the soil along the outside of the fence, and found that the level of contamination hasn’t changed since the 1970s. The results showed plutonium levels ranging from 0.019-1.579 picoCuries per gram of soil. The typical level of background plutonium contamination in the Western US is usually no more than 0.01 – so these are troubling findings.
In the blog post Plutonium Is Forever, the center notes the dangers of exposure even in small amounts:
Plutonium particles in the soil at Rocky Flats will one way or another, sooner or later, come into people’s lungs and lives, since, with a half-life of 24,000 years, it poses a radiation hazard essentially forever. Minute particles much smaller than germs get brought to the surface by burrowing animals, incautious humans, turbulent geology and extreme weather. Such particles can be carried near and far by the wind and inhaled by unsuspecting people, including children, the most vulnerable. Once inside the body, plutonium does its damage.
The late Edward Martell, NCAR radiochemist, pointed out as early as 1970 that the radioactivity from plutonium dust particles at Rocky Flats is “millions of times more intense than that from naturally occurring radioactive dust particles (uranium) of the same size. Minute amounts are sufficient to cause cancer.”
The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the refuge, insists that the soil contamination is not at unsafe levels. Nonetheless, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center has filed a lawsuit to attempt to block any construction. Other environmental groups, along with the neighboring cities of Golden and Superior, have followed suit.
Photo Credit: WikiMedia Commons
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