Rocky Flats. The name is synonymous for some Coloradans with a massive radioactive weapons plant, and the environmental contamination that it caused. …
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Rocky Flats. The name is synonymous for some Coloradans with a massive radioactive weapons plant, and the environmental contamination that it caused.
But go there today, 20 years after weapons production was halted, and it looks like an idyllic meadow of grass and wildflowers on a plateau. Lush, green creek drainages serve as resting spots for herds of white-tailed deer and elk. On a clear day, Pikes Peak, the Continental Divide and downtown Denver can be seen from the same spot where weapons were created at the plant, which operated from 1952 until 1992.
Every year, the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, comprising 13 representatives from city and county governments and community groups with a vested interest in Rocky Flats, tours the site. They come to see how the clean-up operations are going, and to see how the latest water-testing and treatment sites are operating, and then pass their observations to their organizations.
The latest of those tours occurred last week under sunny skies. Representatives from the Department of Energy (DOE), and from Stoller (the company hired by the DOE to manage the site) led a dozen stewardship council members through the grounds.
“We like to show them what we’re talking about so they have a better grasp of what’s going on out there,” said Bob Darr, a spokesman for Stoller and one of the tour guides.
“There’s a buffer zone, a ring of land that became an official national wildlife refuge,” said another guide, Rik Getty, a technical adviser to the council, as the tour vans rolled through grassy meadows. “The central core of the doughnut is retained by the Department of Energy.”
The refuge is currently closed to the public for lack of funds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but could one day resemble the Rocky Mountain Arsenal refuge, with hiking trails, nature programs and a visitor’s center.
It was inside that core where the maximum-security weapons facility was located. When it opened in 1952, a small town, complete with a gas station, water-treatment plant, and police station were built around the plant to help maintain its 24/7 operation.
Vans drive the stewardship council members around the land, starting on the southern side, where runoff through the old Rocky Flats landfill, along with contaminated groundwater seepage, pours into Pond C2. Getty points to a sample-well site, which sits upslope of the pond, where he says several barrels were found leaking nuclear waste into the soil.
“Then the winds would blow dust east,” Getty said, pointing towards Indiana Avenue and the residential areas beyond.
The barrels are long gone, and the soil was either moved off site or buried deep. Still, monitoring must be done, to ensure surface erosion and groundwater do not carry dangerous materials into populated areas.
“We measure everything that leaves the site here,” said George Squibb, the lead environmental engineer for surface-water monitoring.
Squibb showed the council how one of the “points of compliance” monitoring stations takes an automated water sample in five-minute intervals. Those samples are tested to meet Environmental Protection Agency standards, which are higher than for drinking water. The tour swings back up onto the flat portion of Rocky Flats, where buildings once stood. Now, only rows of aging pines indicate where roads and walkways used to be. Spots of the old facility where known nitrate or uranium leaks occurred now are only identifiable by the presence of monitor-well markers.
“It gets harder to remember where things were every time I come here,” said Getty, who worked on the site beginning in 1983.
On the north side of the plateau, the council was shown where underground containment ditches were installed. Those ditches routed groundwater, too contaminated to mingle with Denver waterways, to treatment sites. With only solar power available to run machinery, representatives from Stoller said, they have experimented with different techniques to treat water that had suffered the negative effects of both industrial waste and radioactive contamination.
So far, the surface water making it off the site has remained clean enough to meet federal guidelines, the representatives said. Constant water sampling has revealed new contamination situations over time though. After years of hunting an elusive source of uranium contamination in one stream, monitoring showed a spike in November of the cancer-causing americium, a radioactive chemical element, giving the Stoller engineers two “needles in a haystack” to find.
Council members say they have seen progress made.
“It’s interesting to come back and see the vegetation grow,” said Jeannette Hillery, the representative for the League of Women Voters. “And the water treatment too. This really hasn’t been done long-term before.”
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