Buried in the past?

Health concerns resurface with public opening of Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge


Tossing 20 coins in the air and all of them coming up heads. Getting struck by lightning this year. Making it as a movie star. Each of these events is estimated to have a one in a million chance of happening to you.

Your risk of getting cancer from visiting the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is “far below” even these odds, according to Carl Spreng, state project manager of Rocky Flats for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

The manufacture of nuclear weapon triggers at the Rocky Flats Plant from 1952-1989 dispersed varying levels of radioactive plutonium, uranium and other toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater. Some of those contaminants have since spread onto the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge — 4,883 acres of open space surrounding the former facility site, which sits 10 miles south of Boulder.

The question isn’t whether pollutants exist on Refuge lands, but whether they’ve accumulated to levels high enough to warrant keeping the public out. And though the Refuge’s public opening in 2019 seems inevitable, some community members and organizations disagree with government agencies that contaminants on the land pose no threat to future visitors.

Much of North American soil already has background levels of plutonium from nuclear bomb tests conducted in the 1950s and early ’60s. However, due to high winds, erosion, surface water runoff and possibly even routine operations at Rocky Flats, additional plutonium and other contaminants have found their way onto Refuge lands and beyond. Some scientists think fires at the plant in 1957 and 1969 spread pollutants as far as Denver, 16 miles away.

At times, during the 37 years of the facility’s operation, contaminated runoff flowed through Walnut and Woman Creeks — both running through the Refuge — into Standley Lake, the current drinking water supply for Westminster, Thornton and Northglenn, and the Great Western Reservoir, Broomfield’s former source of drinking water.

Both of these bodies of water have “low but measurable concentrations of contamination from 5-10 inches deep in the sediments,” according to CDPHE, though the state has determined Standley Lake’s water to be safe for drinking.

“Essentially uncontaminated,” is how Scott Surovchak, legacy site manager of Rocky Flats for the Department of Energy (DOE), described Refuge lands in his April 2015 presentation to the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, an entity providing local government and community oversight of Rocky Flats.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), too, deems the levels of Refuge pollution to be so low that it can safely be opened for “unlimited use and unrestricted exposure.”

Technically, the Refuge is already open to visitors, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has led guided tours since 2015. However, by the summer of 2019, the agency plans to start construction of a visitor center and 20 miles of trails, after which the public will be allowed in without escort.

Despite budget cuts and staffing reductions in the Mountain-Prairie Region of the USFWS — which includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska — the project is moving forward thanks to a $8.3 million appropriation from DOE. The funding will cover building the visitor center and exhibits, creating access roads and trails, installing water, sewer and utility lines, and defraying some maintenance costs, according to Ryan Moehring, public affairs officer for USFWS Mountain-Prairie Region.

Many locals are excited for the hiking, biking, horseback riding and hunting opportunities in this unique ecosystem made up of a variety of native plant species. It’s offset by impressive views and is so close to a major metropolitan area. But not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.   

The land that once housed Rocky Flats Plant is set to become a publicly accessible refuge. Energy.gov/Wikimedia Commons

Coming clean

Several local groups, including Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, Rocky Flats Downwinders and Rocky Flats Right to Know, oppose the public opening of the Refuge, citing concerns with residual, and potentially ongoing, contamination.   

So does Jon Lipsky, the former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent who led the 1989 raid on Rocky Flats for alleged environmental crimes. The plant was shuttered shortly thereafter, and the investigation culminated in Rockwell International pleading guilty to illegal storage and disposal of radioactive wastes, receiving an $18.5 million fine.

“Humans should not be allowed on the Refuge,” says Lipsky, who considers his involvement with Rocky Flats nearly three decades later to be “unfinished business.”

Having retired from the FBI in 2004, Lipsky now spends much of his free time archiving Rocky Flats-related public documents on the website The Ambushed Grand Jury (RockyFlatsAmbushedGrandJury.com), also the title of a book that details some of the controversies surrounding the federal grand jury investigation of Rocky Flats and the sealing of the case’s records.

Lipsky is legally barred from discussing any private information gathered during the grand jury investigation, but he is free to talk about anything on the public record.

A worker at the former Rocky Flats Plant. NPS/Wikimedia Commons

One of his concerns is that the 10-year, $7 billion cleanup that ended in 2006 wasn’t completed to appropriate standards, such as those outlined in the Multi-Agency Radiation Survey and Site Investigation Manual, or MARSSIM. The Department of Defense, DOE, EPA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission use MARSSIM, as “guidance on how to demonstrate that a site is in compliance with a radiation dose- or risk-based regulation.”

MARSSIM recommends 100 percent coverage for scanning areas with a “potential for radioactive contamination.”

But in its 2006 report, Nuclear Cleanup of Rocky Flats, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that,  instead of following MARSSIM, “the approved site cleanup strategy was to remove contamination to a 90 percent confidence level, meaning confidence that at least 90 percent of the contamination had been remediated to agreed-upon levels.”
One reason stated in the report for the standards was that MARSSIM was developed after the cleanup had already begun.

Another reason was that MARSSIM was “sure to find ‘hot spots’ … the extent and severity of which would then require investigation and potentially cleanup action.” Citing costs and the need to meet the cleanup schedule, DOE chose not to apply MARSSIM.

At an April 17 meeting of the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council in Broomfield, Frazer Lockhart, who led the DOE cleanup, said that while the cleanup was a success, the agency “did not clean up every piece of contamination on site. We were not required to.”

The former facility site and the most contaminated adjacent lands make up the 1,300-acre Central Operable Unit (COU) managed by DOE and is off-limits to the public.

The DOE acknowledged in a 2016 fact sheet that some of the COU soil has “low levels” of radioactive plutonium and americium, volatile organic compounds, metals, landfill waste containing hazardous waste and depleted uranium, and groundwater contaminant plumes containing nitrates, uranium and volatile organic compounds.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in 2006 that brings up concerns that DOE “did not complete all of the cleanup verification activities it had planned.”

“DOE’s failure to conduct independent assessments is particularly troubling because of the importance of the cleanup and residual contamination data,” the report, Nuclear Cleanup of Rocky Flats, found. “These data were not only the basis for EPA’s and Colorado’s approvals of the accelerated cleanup actions, but also the foundation for EPA’s and Colorado’s pending decisions about the overall sufficiency of the site’s cleanup.”

Gaining ground

Following the closure of Rocky Flats the lands that were to become the Refuge — known as the “buffer zone” or Peripheral Operable Unit (POU) — were placed on the EPA’s list of Superfund sites, an inventory of the most contaminated spots in the nation in need of cleanup. They were delisted in 2007 upon establishment of the Refuge, after the agency determined that they were “in a state that is protective of human health and the environment, where unrestricted and unlimited use can be allowed,” according to USFWS’s Ryan Moehring.

The CDPHE concurs. “Only three surface soil measurements were above 12 picocuries per gram (pCi/g), the concentration that corresponds to a lifetime excess cancer risk of one in a million for a wildlife refuge worker,” Spreng says.

The highest readings of plutonium on the Refuge were 20 pCi/g (picocurie per gram, a trillionth of a curie or the amount of radioactivity in a gram of radium), with a Refuge average of 1.1 pCi/g, which Spreng says “equates to below a one in a million risk for any exposure scenario, including residential.” Superfund guidance requires remediation of areas thought to present a cancer risk greater than one in 10,000.

The DOE’s 1997 Superfund Record of Decision mentions some “uncertainties” with its assessment of potential health impacts from visiting the Refuge, including that environmental sampling “may not have accurately characterized the amounts or distribution of hazardous substances … which could lead to either an overestimation or an underestimation of risk posed by these substances.”

When a series of ponds used to collect liquid waste near the former facility site sprung a leak, contractors started spraying some of the plutonium-laced liquid in various spots around Rocky Flats, including the buffer zone or POU, which is now the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

Spray Irrigation at Rocky Flats, a 1987 report by George H. Setlock, health, safety and environment supervisor for Rockwell International, states that “treated sanitary effluent has been spray irrigated at various Rocky Flats buffer zone locations since December 1979.” Setlock estimates that 70-80 million gallons per year were sprayed.

In 1992, Rockwell pled guilty to illegal treatment and storage of hazardous wastes and several Clean Water Act violations, including having “knowingly violated conditions and limitations” in terms of the spraying.

DOE’s Scott Surovchak points to a 105-acre section of Rocky Flats known as the West Spray Field, or Operable Unit 11 (OU 11), located in the buffer zone/Refuge. The highest reading of plutonium on the site was 2.2 pCi/g, with DOE concluding in a 1995 report that there is “no evidence to indicate the existence of an imminent threat of a release of hazardous or radioactive constituents from OU 11 to the environment.”

Surovchak also notes that the area known as the East Spray Field is “mainly” within the Central Operable Unit, though “some portions may be within the POU (the Refuge).”

The former Rocky Flats Plant in July 1995. Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons

Blame it on the rain

Government agencies emphasize that the Refuge is safe for public use. Yet the most recent soil sample taken at the Refuge was in 2006. Has anything changed since then?

In its 2006 report, the GAO determined that “contaminants move around the site, and potentially off site, by surface-soil erosion, wind or surface water.”

The DOE’s Rocky Flats fact sheet mentions areas where soil is contaminated with “low levels” of plutonium and americium, which could “affect surface water quality if the soils were disturbed to the extent that erosion could mobilize the contaminants.”

A 2006 USFWS survey prepared by Mark Sattelberg, contaminant biologist, states that contamination at the former facility site “may be brought to the surface by erosion or slumping of slopes,” and suggests that the Refuge staff should review all DOE monitoring.

Burrowing animals, such as prairie dogs, routinely move soil around at Rocky Flats, though the prairie dogs that used to live on the former facility site died of the plague 10 to 15 years ago, according to Surovchak. One colony remains active inside the Refuge.

CDPHE has determined that shallow groundwater at Rocky Flats is contaminated, yet due to the geology at the site, it’s “very unlikely” that it has moved into drinking water aquifers.

Colorado’s dry climate also helps prevent the plume from spreading. Though, sometimes, it rains.

M. Iggy Litaor worked from 1990-95 as senior soil scientist for EG&G, the main contractor for Rocky Flats after Rockwell. He is currently a professor of environmental sciences at Tel-Hai College in Israel and returns to Boulder often. 

On May 17, 1995, heavy rains “created a significant amount of plutonium transport across the soilscape” at Rocky Flats, Litaor says. “For sure, plutonium, americium and other goodies have been remobilized.”

Despite the geology, he says that the 1995 rains “opened up my mind to the fact that under certain hydrological circumstances, groundwater can rise all the way to the surface.”

And then came the flood of 2013. Because of it, Litaor says, “rethinking needs to be done about the potential mobility of actinides [radioactive elements] in the soil of Rocky Flats.”

“New work that will put some light on … the potential of actinide movement in times of climate instability, should be conducted in Rocky Flats, and should be open to the public to read, to scrutinize and make their own judgment,” he says.

Litaor doesn’t oppose recreational use of the Refuge. Still, from what he knows about Rocky Flats, he wouldn’t let his kids play there.

“I have a hard time seeing a cyclist going through this terrain with knobby tires getting dust into the air. It’s crazy,” he says. “It’s absolutely crazy.”

The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Footwarrior/Wikimedia Commons

Hot on the trail?

Twenty miles of trails are planned for the Refuge along with a proposal to link up with the Rocky Mountain Greenway from Rocky Mountain Arsenal to Rocky Mountain National Park. Soil samples will be taken before trail construction begins.

Steve Watts, executive director of Boulder Mountainbike Alliance, is excited about the trails, which he sees as a great opportunity to take pressure off other local bike routes.

“We’re going to advocate for maximizing the trail user experience on that property,” Watts says, advocacy that has involved working with USFWS to develop the trail system.

When asked about potential health risks, Watts says that, “organizationally, our stance is that we do not have concerns.”

“We look at risk in a holistic way, and there’s certainly more risk of death traveling to trails in a car than any potential risk you’d have from exposure to any radiation that might be found anywhere on that property,” he says. “I certainly would take my nieces and nephews and recreate on this property.”

While local children are expected to hike on the trails, none of them will be doing so as a Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) sponsored field trip.

Citing “strong concern by some scientists and others, as to the health and safety of the Rocky Flats site,” the BVSD Board of Education decided on March 14 that no “sanctioned field trip to the Rocky Flats site involving district students is permitted” until further notice.

Bill of health

USFWS will be holding its fourth and final Rocky Flats Sharing Session, “Safety Concerns and Risk Management,” on Monday, May 15 at the Arvada Center from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Officials from DOE, EPA, CDPHE and USFWS will speak about potential health risks at the Refuge and take public comment.

Two major questions linger when it comes to health concerns at Rocky Flats: Has contamination impacted downwind communities? And, is it safe to visit the Refuge?

Metropolitan State University of Denver is conducting an ongoing survey of individuals who lived downwind of Rocky Flats from 1952 to 1996. As of November 2016, 1,745 self-reported surveys resulted in 848 reports of cancer, with 414 of those cancers designated as “rare,” typically occurring in 15 out of 100,000 people. The survey can be found at rockyflatsdownwinders.com/health-survey.

The second-most reported cancer in the survey is thyroid cancer, ranked ninth nationally. Studies have drawn a link between thyroid cancer and exposure to alpha radiation emitted from plutonium.

A 2016 CDPHE evaluation of cancer cases experienced by people living downwind of Rocky Flats found that the “incidence of all cancers combined for both adults and children was no different in the communities surrounding Rocky Flats than would be expected based on cancer rates in the remainder of the Metro Denver area for 1990-2014.”

Critics, such as Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice founder LeRoy Moore, point out that the study didn’t include thyroid cancer.

“It’s a disappointment to find out that our state health department isn’t taking care of public health,” Moore says. “They’ve been misleading the public about radiation harm for a long time.”

Spreng says that CDPHE left thyroid cancer out of the study because “the main risk of inhaled plutonium is cancer of the lung, liver, bone and bone marrow.” However, because of public concern, he says the agency will draft a supplement that “includes an analysis of the incidence of thyroid cancer in communities around Rocky Flats.”

Federal and state agencies maintain that only “low levels” of plutonium can be found in the Refuge soil. Yet the health impacts of small doses of radiation are unclear.

The DOE’s 1997 Superfund Record of Decision for Rocky Flats acknowledges that “basic uncertainties exist when applying risk factors to radiation dose or radionuclide uptake,” including the “extrapolation of risks from high doses of radiation (for example, those sustained by atomic bomb survivors or uranium miners) to much lower doses,” such as those that may be found in the Refuge.

The 2006 USFWS survey acknowledges that there is “no literature in the scientific journals that follows the long-term chronic exposure to low-level radiation, in particular over several generations.”

“Because of this unknown,” the report cautions, “it is imperative that the Refuge staff pay attention to the reproductive success of wildlife on the Refuge and note any unusual diseases, tumors or malformations during normal operations on the Refuge.”

Cancer isn’t the only potential health impact from radiation. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has determined that plutonium can impact the immune systems of laboratory animals and has raised questions about whether exposure can impact fertility or cause birth defects.

In a 2012 article in ScienceDaily, Anders Møller, co-author of a 2012 study on low-level radioactivity published in Biological Reviews, says that his analysis of 46 peer-reviewed studies “provides evidence that there is no threshold below which there are no effects of radiation.”

“We’re kind of like Flint, Michigan,” says Lipsky, the former FBI agent, drawing a parallel between lead contamination of the city’s drinking water supply and Rocky Flats. “The government exists because, in part, it’s also (there) to protect its citizens. In this case we’re not being protected at all.”

In Lipsky’s opinion, the main purpose of opening the Refuge to the public is to “make it look like Rocky Flats is not dangerous anymore.”

If all goes as planned, and the Refuge opens to public recreation in 2019, whether it’s safe or not is a judgment people will have to make for themselves.

Correction: A quote was incorrectly attributed to a 2011 letter from CDHPE and EPA to David Lucas. It is from a 2006 GAO report Nuclear Cleanup at Rocky Flats. We apologize for the inconvenience.

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