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Prescribed Burn at Former Nuclear Weapons Plant Stirs Public Concerns

Despite the possible spread of plutonium contamination at a wildlife refuge, the US government may use controlled burning in the future.

(Image: Controlled burn via Shutterstock; Edited: JR/TO)

This spring, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had planned to conduct a prescribed burn to reduce vegetation and kill invasive weeds on 701 acres of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, nearly 4,000 acres of grassland prairie surrounding the site of a former nuclear weapons production facility outside Arvada, Colorado.

After local uproar, the FWS canceled the spring burn in early February, but burning is still a “management tool” they will consider using in the future, according to Noreen Walsh, regional director for FWS’s Mountain-Prairie Region – despite concerns of radioactive contamination.

Local activists and experts, including an air quality meteorologist and a former Department of Energy contractor, argue that burning will release radioactive plutonium from grasses and soils that may drift into nearby communities in Arvada, Broomfield and Boulder, and possibly as far as Denver, which is 16 miles away. The spring burn would’ve taken place on the southern portion of the wildlife refuge, adjacent to the Candelas and Whisper Creek housing developments.

Operations contaminated the soils and groundwater of the plant site with radioactive plutonium, americium, uranium and other toxic chemicals.

The Rocky Flats Plant manufactured more than 70,000 plutonium “triggers” for nuclear weapons from 1952 until 1989, when a raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for alleged environmental crimes – along with the end of the Cold War – put an end to production.

Multiple fires, leaking storage drums, unlined disposal trenches, pipelines, storage tanks, landfills, incineration, buried buildings, and routine operations contaminated the soils and groundwater of the plant site – and, according to some evidence, the refuge lands and beyond – with radioactive plutonium, americium, uranium and other toxic chemicals, such as carbon tetrachloride, tetrachloroethene, trichloroethene, nitrates and chromium.

Plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,100 years, was “released to the air and water in greater quantities than most of the other radioactive materials used at the site,” according to the “Technical Summary Report for the Historical Public Exposures Studies for Rocky Flats,” a 1999 report by the Radiological Assessments Corporation.

Walnut Creek and Woman Creek flow through Rocky Flats and over the years have received storm runoff contaminated with plutonium and tritium, according to the State of Colorado. Walnut Creek flows into the Great Western Reservoir, which was the drinking water supply for the city of Broomfield until 1997, when contamination concerns resulted in the city procuring a new source. Woman Creek flows into Standley Lake, a current drinking water source for the cities of Westminster, Thornton, Northglenn and Federal Heights.

Internal plutonium exposure is an “extremely serious health hazard,” according to the EPA. Once plutonium gets inside the body, either by inhalation or through wounds, it remains there for decades, “exposing organs and tissues to radiation, and increasing the risk of cancer.” As a toxic metal, plutonium can also harm kidneys.

An online petition created by LeRoy Moore, founder of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and former committee member of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, addressed to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and President Barack Obama, demanding that the FWS end prescribed burning at the refuge, has 2,061 signatures. The petition claims that the burn will “endanger public health by releasing plutonium particles.”

The FWS, EPA, Department of Energy (DOE) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) insist that the levels of plutonium contamination at the refuge are so low as to be of no danger to the public and that the use of prescribed fire “would not pose a significant risk to firefighters, Service personnel, or the general public.”

Fear of Fire

The Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, a body overseeing the Rocky Flats site consisting of representatives of local governments, unanimously opposes prescribed burning at Rocky Flats and is encouraging the Fish and Wildlife Service to pursue other options due to “widespread community concern that will not be sufficiently alleviated through any public education process.”

Rocky Flats became one of the most hazardous Superfund sites in the country.

At a January 26, 2015, meeting of the Stewardship Council, David Lucas, FWS refuge manager, told the council that the FWS only took ownership of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge with the understanding that it could manage the lands in any way the agency saw fit, including prescribed burns.

The City of Arvada, adjacent to the refuge, along with the nearby towns of Superior and Northglenn, has joined with the Stewardship Council to oppose burning. In a letter dated December 8, 2014, the Town of Superior warned that a prescribed burn would “cause unnecessary concern to the residents of Superior and has the potential for airborne contamination from the site. The potential harm that could be done if there were any radioactive matter released as a result far outweighs the benefit.”

Ultimately, however, the final decision lies not with local governments, but with the FWS, a federal agency housed under the Department of the Interior.

Buried in the Past?

The Rocky Flats Plant officially closed in 1994 and Rocky Flats became one of the most hazardous Superfund sites in the country. A $7 billion cleanup from 1995 to 2005 included the removal of over 800 structures, and more than 500,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste – the waste amounting to a 65-story building as long and wide as a football field – according to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The cleanup did not remove all contamination at the plant site, which remains under DOE stewardship and off limits to the public, with residual contamination in the production areas, settling ponds and two landfills.

Nor did the cleanup remediate surrounding lands that became the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge in 2007. The refuge has yet to be opened to the public, though plans to do so have been in the works for years.

In a 2005 letter to US Rep. Bob Beauprez, the US Fish and Wildlife regional director acknowledged that the refuge land has “very low levels of plutonium contamination” that the EPA maintains is of “no threat to human health and the environment.”

A 1972 study found that soil contamination in offsite areas east of the former plant site “ranges up to hundreds of times that from nuclear tests.”

However, some studies contest this claim. A 2005 study from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “any dose of radiation is potentially harmful,” while a 1997 study from Columbia University demonstrated that one particle of plutonium could cause cell mutations leading to cancer.

A 1972 study, “Plutonium-239 and Americium-241 Contamination in the Denver Area,” found that soil contamination in offsite areas east of the former plant site “ranges up to hundreds of times that from nuclear tests.”

In 1974, Dr. Carl Johnson, then director of the Jefferson County, Colorado Department of Health, took dust samples at 25 locations east of the Rocky Flats site and found plutonium concentrations that averaged 44 times greater than samples taken by the Department of Energy. Several of the readings exceeded the DOE readings by 100 times or more and one sample, by 285 times. He presented this information in a report to the Jefferson County commissioners and the Colorado State Health Department and was later fired.

Dr. Harvey Nichols contracted with the DOE to study airborne particles on the Rocky Flats site from 1975 to 1976. In a 2010 statement in support of State Rep. Wes McKinley’s House bill on Rocky Flats signage, Nichols concluded that the entire Rocky Flats site, including the current refuge land is contaminated with “up to tens of billions of plutonium particles per acre” that were dispersed during the plant’s routine operations.

Nichols, now emeritus professor of biology at Colorado University in Boulder, maintained his concerns with contamination at the refuge during the January 26 Rocky Flats Stewardship Council meeting. He said that when the Rocky Flats Plant was in operation, it was on a “routine daily basis emitting tiny quantities of plutonium of the size range suitable for inhalation” from stacks, which he believes can be found in refuge soils.

Biggs warned that “adequate monitoring systems need to be developed prior to any burn at Rocky Flats.”

In 1976, P.W. Krey of the Atomic Energy Commission (the agency that eventually became the Department of Energy) sampled soil across the Denver metro area and published a map depicting the wide-ranging plutonium deposits, with the heaviest concentrations near the plant.

Studies by S.B. Webb in 1994 and John Till in 2000 confirmed widespread site contamination of plutonium outside the Rocky Flats Plant site.

In 2010, specialist Marco Kaltofen of the Boston Chemical Data Corporation analyzed dust samples from a home near the Rocky Flats site and found “high concentrations of plutonium.”

In his public comment to the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council on January 26, air quality meteorologist W. Gale Biggs, Ph.D., echoed Nichols’ concerns about fugitive emissions spread from wind and human disturbance during the plant’s years of operations. “Since we do not know the emissions, the extent of the health problems is not possible to estimate,” he said.

Biggs warned that “the exposed public will not be protected from the plutonium emissions coming from the burn” and that “adequate monitoring systems need to be developed prior to any burn at Rocky Flats.”

Some Stones Left Unturned

The Rocky Flats cleanup concluded in 2005, though concerns about its efficacy remain.

Aside from the remaining contamination of the plant site, the GAO noted that the Department of Energy “did not effectively carry out some aspects of its oversight responsibilities.” These shortcomings included failure to complete certain cleanup verification activities and a lack of independent review for the quality of the data taken during the cleanup.

The cleanup has left “radioactive and toxic wastes in place – both within and adjacent to the wildlife refuge.”

The lands surrounding the plant site that are now the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge include “low” concentrations of radioactive materials, chemical solvents and heavy metal contaminants, according to the GAO. However, since they were “generally” below regulatory standards, the land was not subjected to the cleanup.

The environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan puts the cancer risk as “well within or below EPA’s acceptable risk range of 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 1,000,000.”

Jacque Brever, a former Rocky Flats worker and whistleblower in the FBI investigation, wrote in “An Analysis of the Department of Energy’s Cleanup Plans for Four Areas at Rocky Flats: The Coverup Continues” that the cleanup has left “radioactive and toxic wastes in place – both within and adjacent to the wildlife refuge.” This includes areas that were regularly sprayed with water contaminated with radioactive and toxic waste.

Instead of testing surface soil, samples have been diluted by “digging out a whole bunch of soil and testing it all together.”

Carl Spreng, Rocky Flats program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), presented the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council with soil testing conducted on the proposed burn site. Thirty-eight samples in 28 locations resulted in an average of 0.23 pCi/g (Pico Curie per gram, a trillionth of a curie or the amount of radioactivity in a gram of radium) of plutonium in the soil, with background levels typically at 0.066.

Spreng explained the higher than usual levels resulted from a 4.6 pCi/g reading in one location, which he says is at the “very low end” of a residential risk range, with less than a two in a million chance of exposure resulting in cancer.

Paula Elofson-Gardine, executive director of the Environmental Information Network based in Lakewood, Colorado, believes refuge lands contain higher levels of radioactive plutonium and americium than soil samples have shown due to poor testing methods. Instead of testing surface soil, she points out that samples have been diluted by “digging out a whole bunch of soil and testing it all together.”

“Weed Invasion” or False Alarm?

The Rocky Flats Bluestem Grassland ecosystem making up the refuge lands contains an “unusual” combination of plant species from eastern tallgrass prairies and western shortgrass prairies, along with plants typically found at higher elevations in the Rockies.

Xeric tallgrass prairie makes up a large portion of this unique ecosystem, a globally rare plant community that the Colorado Natural Heritage Program has designated as imperiled in the state.

The Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, inhabits the site, along with mule and whitetail deer, the black-tailed jackrabbit, black-tailed prairie dog, and several species of grassland birds, among other wildlife.

As with many native ecosystems across the United States, invasive plants, such as diffused knapweed, thistle and spotted St. John’s wort, have begun increasing in the refuge, competing with native plants. One of the main reasons for the prescribed burn is to manage some of these invasive weeds, according to Steve Segin, public affairs officer for the FWS Mountain-Prairie Region.

Yet some studies suggest the weed problem to be minimal. A 2012 study by Buckner and Odasz concludes that the unique plant composition of the refuge, including montane and subalpine grasses, makes the ecosystem “more resistant” to weeds.

Instead of a prescribed burn that LeRoy Moore fears would release plutonium into the air to spread for miles, he agrees with the Jefferson and Boulder Counties study that recommends grazing or biological controls such as insects that prey specifically on weeds.

A five-year study commissioned by Jefferson and Boulder Counties from 1996 to 2001 demonstrated that the presence of invasive weeds at the refuge site was “much lower” than nearby big bluestem ecosystems, and that “the resistance … to weed invasion is striking.” The study recommends grazing with livestock as a weed control method.

But weeds are only part of the reason for the prescribed burn, according to Segin. Fire is a natural part of the prairie landscape and, other than a 2002 wildfire, the refuge hasn’t had a fire for 25 years, which has led to a buildup of dead grass, which might fuel a high-intensity fire, harming the ecosystem and potentially impacting adjacent communities. The prescribed burn would be “fighting fire with fire … to reintroduce what’s natural back onto the landscape” and prevent private property loss.

According to David Lucas, refuge manager, the fire interval in this type of ecosystem is five to seven years and the FWS plans on conducting burns on different parts of the refuge every two years.

LeRoy Moore, consultant with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, makes the point that fire and weeds aside, the contamination of Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge means it isn’t your typical ecosystem. Instead of a prescribed burn that Moore fears would release plutonium into the air to spread for miles, he agrees with the Jefferson and Boulder Counties study that recommends grazing or biological controls such as insects that prey specifically on weeds.

Lucas says they have been using biological controls on the refuge, though none are working on thistle. St. John’s wort has over 40 insect predators in its native Europe, with some studies showing success in controlling the weed in North America, according to Ohio State University.

Grazing with cows or goats isn’t feasible, according to Lucas. At the January 26 Rocky Flats Stewardship Council meeting, he brought up public concerns about what to do with the animals afterward. Stewardship member and Boulder City councilor Lisa Morzel points to past grazing at Rocky Flats being “very effective” in reducing the fuel load.

The FWS maintains that the area will burn eventually, as almost all grasslands do every five to seven years, on average, regardless of whether the prescribed burn takes place or not. The agency’s intention is to burn the area under controlled conditions and to limit the intensity of the burn.

A “Creeping Chernobyl”?

If the Department of Energy, EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health are accurate in their assessments that the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge isn’t a threat to public health, what about potential contamination spreading from the former plant site to the refuge lands?

The Department of Energy has admitted that high winds could result in “transport of radionuclides to distant downwind locations.”

The groundwater would be the first place to look. The Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site – Groundwater Monitoring Program found “several groundwater contaminant plumes which are slowly migrating.” In its Draft Proposed Action Memorandum Hot Spot Removal, the DOE determined that water migration with contaminants could occur “during periods of intense rainfall.”

Major flood events, such as 2013’s 1,000-year flood, may have spread contaminants into the refuge and beyond.

And then there are the winds, which at the Rocky Flats site can roar down from the Flatiron Mountains and top over 100 miles per hour. The DOE has admitted that high winds could result in “transport of radionuclides to distant downwind locations.”

Burrowing animals, such as prairie dogs, can dig down to 14 feet, while rabbits and coyotes also disturb soil. A study published in 1998 by ecologist Sean Smallwood, “Animal Burrowing Attributes Affecting Hazardous Waste Management,” estimates that animals disturb 11 to 12 percent of surface soils at Rocky Flats every year. The GAO reported on the failure to place a “biointrusion” layer in the landfill in which uranium and volatile organic compounds are stored, the purpose of which was to prevent burrowing animals from bringing contaminants to the surface.

“It’s a dynamic site, not a static site – a creeping Chernobyl.”

Jody Nelson of the Department of Energy told the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council that prairie dogs lived at Rocky Flats until 2008, when they were wiped out by plague. Earthworms can also bring up subsoil, and predators who eat them may leave the site to defecate, potentially spreading plutonium contamination miles offsite.

“It’s a dynamic site, not a static site,” warns Elofson-Gardine of Environmental Information Network. “A creeping Chernobyl.”

As Ye Sow …

If refuge soils are contaminated with plutonium, does that mean that the prairie grasses the Fish and Wildlife Service intends to burn are as well?

Plutonium “does reside on grass and grass litter” at Rocky Flats and must be considered “a major source of Pu [plutonium] particles,” concluded “Resuspension of Rocky Flats Soil Particles Containing Plutonium Particles,” a 1989 study by Environmental Health Programs.

Spreng of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) told the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council that radionuclides found in thatch or grasses were mostly due to rain splash, as “whatever’s in the soil splashes onto plants.” He acknowledged that “burning those plants may release whatever’s been splashed onto them,” but maintained that the levels were too low to harm human health.

Despite pleas from locals, federal and state government agencies refused to test the area for radiation following the burn.

In an 11-year study of the Savannah River site, a former nuclear weapons manufacturing facility in Aiken, South Carolina, the Department of Energy found that grasses could uptake an “extremely limited” amount of plutonium to the surface. The study determined that “small concentrations over multiple years may result in a measurable accumulation of Pu [plutonium] on the ground surface.”

An EPA study from 1979, “Plutonium-239 and Americium-241 Uptake by Plants from Soil,” demonstrated that plutonium and americium could be carried from the roots of alfalfa grass into higher parts of the plant, but that the “plants reduce plutonium upon uptake.”

In 1991, a haystack fire on a location outside the boundaries of the refuge resulted in ash testing from CDPHE. Plutonium concentrations were found to be 217.5 times higher than background levels, according to the Environmental Information Network’s (EIN) summary of the original report.

In April 2000, FWS conducted a 50-acre test burn at the refuge. According to EIN, the smoke drifted “north to Boulder, and along the Front Range, beyond Golden and Lakewood.” Locals told the organization that they had a “metallic taste” in their mouths afterward, which could be indicative of plutonium exposure, as reported by Earth Island Journal.

Despite pleas from the locals, federal and state government agencies refused to test the area for radiation following the burn. EIN’s radiation readings conducted with a hand held radiation monitor “reached the highest levels of detection.”


“The perception of the public is that this is not a good thing to do,” said Lisa Morzel. She points out how rare it is that the Stewardship Council would unanimously agree on anything – yet that is exactly what the entity representing 900,000 locals has done on the Rocky Flats burn. “We speak with one voice,” she added.

Residents are concerned for a variety of reasons, some of them business-related. Mary Harlow, former Rocky Flats coordinator for the city of Westminster, worked for years to ensure that the lands around the Rocky Flats Plant were protected as a wildlife refuge to prevent housing developments on the land. If a burn goes through, she is concerned that the potential spread of contamination may prevent people from moving in to the adjacent Candelas housing development and may even cause Google, which plans to build a new campus in Boulder, to have second thoughts about moving into the region.

She wants the FWS to follow the precautionary principle and “err on the side of safety,” by seeking out alternatives to the burn. She fears that to do otherwise means there might be “another Love Canal,” the New York town contaminated by toxic waste in the 1970s. Locals, such as Environmental Information Network’s Paula Elofson-Gardine, are asking the FWS to test the radioactivity that could be released from burning the grasses by doing a controlled “box burn” in a laboratory. Lucas, the refuge manager, said he’d only do so if asked by a government agency.

While no federal or state agencies have committed to monitoring potential radiation from the burn, the Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship plans to conduct monitoring of radioactivity by mounting air samplers to a vehicle and following the smoke, if and when a burn occurs. The results will be sent to a lab for testing and released to the public.

What should local residents do if the Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately decides to go through with the burn?

“If I lived in the area and knew it was going to happen,” said Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s LeRoy Moore, “I’d take my family and go away.”

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