McKinley: Private testing shows Rocky Flats has plutonium

By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, announced this week that new testing of surface soils at the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant has yielded plutonium in breathable particles, its most dangerous form.

McKinley announced the test results at a Wednesday press conference, somewhat overshadowed by an announcement an hour earlier that Colorado will host a professional cycling stage race next year.

McKinley and other concerned citizens want the surface soil tested for breathable dust that could contain plutonium, requests that he said have been rejected by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

So McKinley encouraged private citizens to set up the testing themselves.

The tests were organized by environmentalist LeRoy Moore, and based on the results Moore said the site would forever be a local hazard. The samples were collected in April from soil on the site and from the crawlspace of a house located a mile south of the facility.

“Burrowing animals on the site will continually bring buried plutonium to the surface,” Moore said. “The winds that scour Rocky Flats will scatter it far and near, with the risk to sending it both to off-site locations as well as the into the lungs of the public using Rocky Flats for recreation. Moore cited one report that showed burrowing animals could dig down as much as 16 feet and then could bring buried plutonium to the surface, where it could be scattered by the high winds common to the area.

The Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant is located 16 miles northeast of downtown Denver. It operated from 1950 to 1991, and during its operations housed 14 tons of plutonium and seven tons of uranium.

In 1989, the plant was raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A federal grand jury was empanelled to investigate the activities of the plant, led by McKinley, who was its foreman.

After a two-and-a-half year investigation, the grand jury in 1992 blasted both the plant’s operators, Rockwell International, for a host of illegal activities including violations of federal environmental laws; and the federal government for failing to exercise proper oversight of the facility. The grand jury also recommended indictments against Rockwell officials and the U.S. Department of Energy.

But the indictments were rejected by then-U.S. Attorney Mike Norton, who settled the case with Rockwell in exchange for the company pleading guilty to five felony and five misdemeanor violations of federal environmental law. Rockwell also paid an $18.5 million fine that was about $4 million less than the profit the company made from the facility. McKinley turned his experience with the grand jury into The Ambushed Grand Jury: How the Justice Department Covered Up Government Nuclear Crime: And How We Caught Them Red Handed.

After cleanup, which was completed in 2006, the site was to be turned into a 4,000-acre wildlife sanctuary. That has been delayed until at least 2012 because of funding issues.

McKinley also attempted to get a bill through the 2010 Legislature that would require signs and brochures warning visitors to the wildlife sanctuary about “the presence of, and risks posed by, plutonium and other toxic substances that were used in the production of nuclear weapons at the site.” The bill died in its first committee hearing in March.

Matt Kales, a spokesman for the Fish & Wildlife Service, told The Colorado Statesman in February that his agency has already agreed to post signs on the history of the facility. Kales also said the agency believes the site has been adequately cleaned up.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com