Toxic Suburbia: Fantastic Rocky Flats vistas, plutonium breezes
It’s an affordable, eco-subdivision. It’s located next to a nuclear waste site.
ARVADA, Colo. – There’s a Spielberg-like quality to the Candelas subdivision rising in the foothills here. It’s a suburban paradise that comes with wide-open views, solar panels and sustainability farm credits, but also with the radioactive vestiges of nuclear weapons manufacturing that critics say pose a lingering threat of illness and death.
It’s located between Golden and Boulder, just 15 miles from Denver. It’s also a mile south of the site of the Rocky Flats weapons plant that operated from the 1952 until 1992. Cold War government staffers working in a cluster of office and warehouse buildings made the plutonium triggers embedded in an arsenal of nuclear weapons that could have incinerated all of the Soviet Union and Cuba and most of the planet a hundred times over.
Plutonium production ceased in November 1989 and, after the plant closed three years later, the area was declared a Superfund site and became one of the most-studied and complex radioactive-waste cleanup projects in the country. The government spent billions transforming it into a national refuge maintained by the Fish and Wildlife Service. For years, Rocky Flats has been largely undisturbed and, depending on whom you ask, lingering radioactive material has been largely kept in the ground. Grass and scrub cover the rolling hills. Animals roam over the land and hikers and bikers ply nearby trails that snake toward the mountains.
But now, the long-proposed Jefferson Parkway is set to cut through the area. Bulldozers, tractors, backhoe excavators, dump trucks and work crews will plow up the ground and set traces of plutonium into the air. Housing construction is already well underway.
Candelas developers and real estate agents play down concerns. They say that, because the site has been so long studied, so extensively worked over by clean up crews, and so often reported on by news outlets, it must be safe. Indeed, they refer to the site clean-up history as a point of pride. They see it as a complement to the neighborhood’s environmentally friendly construction.
Critics describe the Candelas brand as total “greenwash.” They say rooftop solar panels and double-pane windows won’t balance out any of the cancer-causing plutonium that will come riding in on backyard breezes.
‘A green community’
Candelas homes look alike. There are different floor plans, but they are of a piece, like they came off the same factory line: modern design, clean lines, eco. When I visited in August, sweeping winds pushed hot air across the prairie and afternoon storm clouds rolled in. You could see the whole neighborhood across the sweeping landscape. There were fresh-paved roads, half-built structures with shiny windows and yards of broken dirt — all nestled sweetly against the mountain backdrop.
“Here at Candelas, we are a green community,” said a sales representative at the Richmond American Homes model. “Each home builder, in order to be in a community, had to reach certain sustainability requirements.”
The homes must meet an Energy Star score of 3.0. There’s the double-pane windows, which block sunlight in the summer and keep in warm air during the winter. All of the homes boast well-insulated exterior walls. They’re all wired for solar.
The model showcased by Richmond at Candelas is called “the Harmon.” It’s a home that’s being featured in the season’s Parade of Homes, a sort of realtor’s expo of high-end commercial housing. The Harmon is being built across several counties in Colorado and in other states.
“All these homes open up in Colorado and people go from one to another,” said Ramon Gabrieloff-Parish about the Parade of Homes. “Then they have drinks and jumpy air castles and all that stuff.”
Gabrieloff-Parish is an environmental-justice activist who joined his wife, Michelle, at Candelas protests this summer.
According to the Candelas website, new models for sale at the site “include everything from single-family detached homes to condominiums, town homes and luxurious custom homes. There truly is something for everyone.”
The homes, built by Richmond American, Ryland, Standard Pacific and Village Homes, as well as Century Communities and custom builders, range from $300,000 to $1 million. Terra Causa Capital and GF Properties are the residential developers, partnered with landowner Arvada Residential Partners. CBRE Commercial is designing the “big box” plans for the area, partnering with land owner Cimarron LLC.
Charles Church McKay, longtime rancher and prominent area landowner, is one of the Candelas developers. His family has long been tied to Rocky Flats. The neighborhoods rising here, he says, are the realization of a vision that his family had shared long before the Cold War plant started operations. McKay began planning residential development on the site as early as 1979, when he moved to the family ranch in Colorado from Southern California after the death of his uncle, Marcus Church. That year followed the peak of Rocky Flats demonstrations, or what social activists dub the “year of disobedience,” when protestors lay down on the railroad tracks that went to and from the plant in order to prevent bomb-making materials from reaching the site.
Also that year, McKay took over a lawsuit his uncle began, on behalf of his family and against the U.S. government and Rocky Flats contractors.
“Part of that lawsuit was because there was this huge circle drawn around the Rocky Flats site that said ‘No building permits will be issued!’ Well that’s like taking your property but refusing to pay for it,” McKay said in an interview conducted last spring. “They took it with the promise that the rest of the property was going to be so greatly enhanced by the Rocky Flats plant and that companies would flock to us.”
McKay is now in his early seventies. He’s heavy-set and sports a head of thick white hair. He speaks low and slow. He intends to see that his family’s property is put to use.
“A good farmer and rancher doesn’t throw away anything but the squeal,” he said. “If you have a house, are you not going to take care of the yard? Are you going to put in nice landscaping and paint it every three years and throw a new roof on it every 20 or 30 years and make it nice?”
When McKay’s great-great grandparents, Sarah and George Henry Church, arrived at what is now Jefferson County in an ox-drawn wagon, they established a successful cattle ranching business with 50 Hereford cows brought from Iowa. The couple had a son, acquired a significant piece of the Homesteader’s pie, and over the years, Church Ranch expanded from Westminster to the edge of the foothills, covering a few thousand acres.
But the government seized a good chunk of that land.
When the Atomic Energy Commission in 1951 chose Rocky Flats as the place to make plutonium bombs, it condemned 1,450 acres of the family’s ranch land. The government added a buffer zone in 1974. The facility turned out to be horrifically managed, given the potential hazard posed by the product the government was producing. Workers dumped radioactive material into leaky containers left out in the air that contaminated the soil. The troubled plant drew the attention of authorities and was raided by the FBI in 1989. The raid ended plutonium production and spurred the EPA to add the site to its Superfund National Priorities List the same year. The Department of Energy hired private contractor Kaiser Hill LLC to clean up the area after the plant closed in 1992. Work began in the late 1990s and ended a decade after it started. The project cost taxpayers $7 billion.
Carol Ibanez, senior planner for Arvada, said ownership in the area was designated when it was annexed back to the city in the late 1980s. Land was split between Arvada Residential Partners and Cimarron/Vauxmont. In the process, environmental assessments were conducted.
Charles McKay places a great deal of confidence in the assessments.
“I have a certification from the state of Colorado, health and radiation department — and they did multitudes of tests,” he said. “It’s a legal document. So this isn’t some used car sales guy who tells you it’s low mileage but then you find the sticker on the inside of the door.”
In his 1995 article for Westword, “Hot Property,” author Richard Flemming discussed the controversy that erupted from earlier plans to develop Rocky Flats. Howard Lacy, a former electrical engineer at the weapons plant, proposed to build the Jefferson Center, an 18,000-acre mixed-use complex. McKay approached Lacy and other area landowners. He presented his family’s long-envisioned plans for the site. It lined up with Lacy’s vision and the men worked out a deal with Jefferson County and Arvada to form a governmental taxing authority called the Jefferson Center Metropolitan District. McKay’s involvement with future development on the Front Range would play a big role.
Backhoes, bulldozers, plutonium particles
Sales representatives at each Candelas model home keep “Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge” literature on hand, but in a drawer. A pamphlet offers “facts and information from the developers of Candelas.”
It says the refuge was “created after the largest and most successful environmental cleanup in history” and that it “represents a remarkable Colorado milestone.”
Developers refused to comment for this story and sales representatives who did speak preferred to stay anonymous.
Plenty of people who oppose the Candelas development, however, want to speak up. They say branding the development to buyers as healthy and eco-conscious is a farce. Plutonium is not eco-conscious or healthy, they say, and it will be a wind-borne reality at Candelas, posing health risks to the families who live there.
“I feel bad for the developers,” said Michelle Gabrieloff-Parish. She wants to see the development scrapped. “You have this gorgeous piece of property here… but because of the mistakes of the past and contamination, you can’t live here.”
Tim Rehder at the Environmental Protection Agency says the United States Green Building Council “certainly wouldn’t dock LEED points” for the fact that Candelas is a mile south of Rocky Flats.
Gabrieloff-Parish arranged a protest at the site this summer after posting an essay on the matter at Boulder-based Elephant Journal. People arrived for the protest in hazmat suits with signs bearing radiation symbols and the phrase “Candelas Glows.”
After Gabrieloff-Parish attended a public meeting in Superior in April about the Rocky Flats cleanup and safety implications of the Jefferson Parkway, she became concerned about additional sprawl and what highway construction might mean. Like many who begin looking into the history of Rocky Flats, she stumbled upon the founder of the Peace and Justice Center in Boulder, LeRoy Moore.
“He told me a little about it and how it’s really airborne contamination that [we should all be] worried about,” she said. “Then I’m like, well, shoot. You should see our diet. We have this organic, wheat-free, dairy-free, corn-free, white potato-free… organic, super-expensive, fresh-meal diet. But you’re telling me that, with all that we’re doing, we’re running around and breathing in plutonium?”
Moore is a writer and an activist. His Peace and Justice Center has been involved in raising awareness about Rocky Flats since 1978. Moore has written extensively on the implications of plutonium exposure and has argued against any disruption of the soil in or around Rocky Flats.
“With plutonium in the soil, some of that’s going to be brought to the surface and if it’s brought to the surface , it will be picked up by the wind and people can inhale it which is the worst way to be exposed to plutonium,” he said, talking about the planned parkway construction.
According to Moore, inhaling plutonium is potentially lethal, and the chances of getting cancer increase when plutonium is inhaled.
The Jefferson Parkway will be a 300-feet wide toll road. It will run along the west side of Indiana Street and connect State Highway 93 to the Northwest Parkway. Supporters of the project believe it will be the “missing link” to the Denver Metro beltway system, a measure that will bolster and serve anticipated growth in the north Denver metro Front Range. Opponents believe the toll road will serve mostly just to increase traffic. They’re horrified that it would cut through the southeast edge of the Rocky Flats buffer zone, where it has been proven that traces of plutonium are buried in the soil.
Bill Ray, interim director with the Jefferson Parkway Highway Authority, explains that the route was chosen over 73 alternative proposals.
A daily taking point
Gabrieloff-Parish and the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center received Cease and Desist letters from Arvada Residential Properties attorney Jonathan Pray this summer. The letters said the protesters were making defamatory statements.
Both letters – sent to the Peace and Justice Center and Gabrieloff-Parish, accuse the parties of making defamatory statements.
“They served me cease and desist, but they didn’t say anything about me not approaching this property,” said Gabrieloff-Parish, sporting a white jumpsuit, the dismal sign for radiation emblazoned on its front. “They said I can’t voice any concerns about the property and I cannot infringe on their property right or use any of their literature to say what I want to say. But it’s a First Amendment right… They just want me to shut up. So it’s just a threat.”
Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s attorney Randall Weiner issued a response to the firm representing Candelas. He said the company’s attempt to silence protest amounts to a “SLAPP” suit — a strategic lawsuit against public participation. He said accusations made by Candelas are false. He said no one was “defaming” Candelas.
Sales representatives in the Candelas model homes told me buyers now often ask about Rocky Flats.
“It’s a daily talking point,” said one. “If there was something to hide, we wouldn’t have as much information as we do. There wouldn’t be this many builders coming together and feeling confident 20 years down the road.
“I always tell [prospective buyers] to do their own research, find out where the gray area is where they’re comfortable.”
Correction: The article originally stated that the Rocky Flats weapons facility closed in 1992. That’s correct. Plutonium production, however, ended in 1989, after the FBI raid. Hat tip to reader Jon Lipsky. LeRoy More also wanted to clarify that he meant that any plutonium particle inhaled was potentially lethal. The article has been edited to reflect that view.
[ Images from top: Solar-paneled street lamps line roads for future residential development near Rocky Flats; Candelas at Arvada, Colorado. Ryland Homes is one of five builders at the site. By Nicolene Durham. ]
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