Toxic Suburbia: Fantastic Rocky Flats vistas, plutonium breezes

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.

related story disobedience 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.


Church dreams

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. ]


  1. It’s not a mile away from Rocky Flats! It borders it!

    It seems like all these concerns should be SERIOUSLY revisited after our recent flooding. Could a thousand year flood have release some of the 14 TONS of buried plutonium??

    Thanks for the article!

  2. “Caveat emptor.” Ignorance is the greatest evil. The Manhattan Project workers have been followed for decades, and few health effects have been observed. The situation is similar for the population of workers at the Rocky Flats facility. Inhaled radionuclides tests have only been conducted on (small)laboratory animals. In my opinion (I live a couple of miles downwind of Candelas), long term danger of disease from inhaled plutonium is less than death from influenza, walking across I-25, or an IED on 72nd Avenue. Realtors should alert prospective buyers to the (very minor) potentials … perhaps living there themselves. I’ll volunteer, for a freebie.

  3. Not sure what you’re talking about with the workers there, Dr.Bud Martin. The workers have suffered for years, many of them died from exposure. In fact there’s been a long battle to get surviving workers the medical help they need. Now they’ve finally won!
    Worker after worker has a horror story…
    You’re right, there’s lots of other dangerous things in this world, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore this one! Especially since children are the most at-risk population.

  4. Rocky Flats ceased production in November 1989 a well established fact according to official sources. Also Rocky Flats officially was declared a Superfund site in September 1989.

  5. Before he die of brain cancer my dad who was a inspector at dow at rocky flats told me that some day people will need to know about the pits of plutonium that are buried all over on the areas aroundthe plant, he said their deep and huge surrounded by 15 foot thick walls of a tar like substance he said it never goes away half Life of 500000 years I doubt they have been cleaned up, he was one of the very few that even knew about them and told me that someday Simmons would want to know …. well now you do, I have no proof other than he was my dad and sat me down when I was 9 years old and I’ve never forgot how serious he looked I’m 53 now it’s still there I’m sure. He died in 1986 of exposure to plutonium , my mother was never compensatied because”they lost any records of him being in our around the fire in the lab in 1967 ” liers…..

  6. Amen. The fact that the State of Colorado, the city of Arvada, the city and county of Boulder, DOE, EPA, Denver Water, Sierra Club, Senators Bennet and Udall, Associated Press, Greenpeace, Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, Denver Post, Homeland Security, Drudge Report, Department of the Interior, PETA, neighborhood associations, the New York Times, Washington Post, Democratic Party, FBI, BLM, University of Colorado, United Nations, Fish and Wildlife Service, Alliance for Justice and every other authority of consequence are relying on a single graduate journalism student to inform the public about what’s really going on just tells us how big of a conspiracy this really is.

  7. Granted, there are probably “pits” still under the demolished plant site … not cleaned up because they exhibit no harm. One may drive north on Indiana and observe ground water monitors designed to detect radiation that may escape. We may reasonably expect the new highway construction crews to similarly monitor, and take corrective action where necessary.
    As for residual plutonium attributes, see wikipedia.
    As I recall, one scientist in the ’80s demonstrated the non-effect of Pu by swallowing a pill, which evacuated normally with no ill-effects.
    Buyers at Candelas, just as anywhere, have access to appropriate information. How they spend their social assets is their business, and should be of no concern to partially informed busy-bodies.

  8. Dr Bud is right. Buyers at Candelas beware. I’ll take the word of the “partially informed busy bodies”. Dr Bud seems to be a strong supporter of the Candelas development. I wonder if perhaps his interest is more financial than political.

    I seriously doubt those of us who are “partially informed busy bodies” would be stupid enough to swallow a pill laced with plutonium let alone purchase a home atop deadly toxic waste.

  9. Amen again. It’s obvious that Dr. Bud or anyone else who uses “facts” and “logic” and “science” to counter what we all know is true even though there’s no evidence of it is part of the conspiracy.

  10. It is not just the threat of Plutonium contamination that has citizens of north Jeffco opposed to the Jefferson Parkway toll road, but the fact that it is unneeded, unwanted, and too costly. The proposed Jefferson Parkway toll road intersection with SH-93 is in Jefferson County on high ground south of the planned, very expensive bridge over the Leyden Road gulch. That there is no demand is based on numerous valid studies showing that toll revenue will never come close to paying for designing, building, operating, and maintaining the toll road. The potential foreign investors have acknowledged that fact, and it is the reason that there is no contract after over five years of the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority spending millions of taxpayer dollars on the project.

    The shortfall in funding the project is also the reason that the JPPHA is trying to get taxpayer money from the state to supplement the limited toll revenue. A requirement for DRCOG to approve putting a new project on the Regional Transportation Plan is that funding is assured. The JPPHA got DRCOG approval by falsely testifying that investors for the project were lined up—no taxpayer money would be required, as for E-470. If the JPPHA is able to get some RAMP money from the state after their false testimony to DRCOG it will not be enough to cover the gap in toll revenue. Additional taxpayer money will be needed, as demonstrated by the addition of toll lanes on C-470. This would mean that residents and businesses in north Jeffco would be required to pay for an unneeded, unwanted, and too costly toll road.

    Bill Ray’s statement that the proposed JP route was chosen (by the NW Corridor EIS Study) from 73 alternatives is misleading. All but four of the “alternatives” were slight variations of the route for a point to point limited access superhighway from the west end of the NW Parkway toll road to C-470 in Golden. The high speed superhighway would cut through Golden on the SH-93/US-6 corridor. The four alternatives calling for highway improvements to several of the existing highways (SH-93, SH-72, SH-128, McIntyre) were arbitrarily eliminated. These free highways can get drivers anywhere the proposed JP can, including Candelas.

    (For four years I was on the Technical Support Committee of the $13.7 million NW Corridor EIS Study.)

  11. Check the EPA report on Rocky Flats. The EPA says there is no way totally to clean up the area. It will need to be monitored indefinitely.

  12. National Institute of Standards & Technology, formerly National Bureau of Standards, has used the inside of the S.E. corner of the outer fence of the RFP site on at least two occasions to produce Standard Reference Material SRM 4353 “Plutonium in soil, Rocky Flats Soil…” See:

    In 1995 Reg. VIII E.P.A. defunded the only legitimate, technically competent, independent oversight group administering the Technical Assistance Group (TAG) in an illegal fashion that was totally arbitrary and capricious. We had been successfully administering it since we successfully applied for this grant in 1987. Why? Because we were not willing to sell out to the polluters, CDPHE, and the U.S. E.P.A.

    Do not ask about the CDPHE’s alleged plant operator’s sycophant from the Radiation Control Division! He never, once, lifted a finger to condemn a single thing at RFP operations even after the two worst industrial fires in U.S. history. Ditto for the massive yellow cake (uranium oxide) spill on U.S. 287.

  13. This entire development is a ruse. It was allowed by JeffCo and Arvada in order to build the toll road. The land is poisoned and they know it. It’s all about tax revenue. Stop the toll road! Stop Candelas! Stop disturbing the plutonium infested ground. JeffCo and Arvada politicians are greedy. They’ll sell everyone’s health for a few more tax dollars.

  14. Very sorry to hear all of this…want to say “thank you” I will not be moving out this way now. thank you again for all of your posts. Arvada looks nice…but with this scare…I would not like living there knowing what I know now. Good I found out before moving out there. I would of been so upset not having been told about this before I moved. Yes they should be warning people about this so a person can make up their own mind to live there or not…Noone told me..I researched and found things on my own.

  15. I am wondering if the new Skyestone development to the east of Rocky Flats is in a polluted plutonium area? Anyone know?

  16. To Janet. Yes!!!
    That area is the one of the heaviest polluted concentrations of microcuries of Plutonium. One tiny piece of dust can lodge in your nasal or lungs, and pulsate indefinitely, and disrupt your organs into forming cancer cells.
    I invite you to explore the maps and information at
    and Google the words Rocky Flats Contamination” and examine the maps under “images”

    See also

  17. To Janet. Yes!!!
    That area is the one of the heaviest polluted concentrations of microcuries of Plutonium. One tiny piece of dust can lodge in your nasal or lungs, and pulsate indefinitely, and disrupt your organs into forming cancer cells.
    I invite you to explore the maps and information at
    and also go and Google the words Rocky Flats Contamination” and examine the maps under “images”

    See also

  18. my 9 year old grandson has been in remission since 2013 from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He lives in Arvada as I do. Also a kid on his football team has a little brother who has the same type leukemia as my grandson. The little brother and his family also live in Arvada. Omg the city of Arvada is contaminated with trace elements of plutonium

  19. Dr. Bud Martin,
    You’re right swallowing a PU pill would not be harmful. PU is most deadly harmful when inhaled not ingested.

  20. Toxic city toxic suburbia. Where in Metro-Denver doesn’t have major contamination issues from past industrial pollution? The entire north and northeast side is an oil & gas industry wasteland with terrible air quality. Then there is the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which manufactured chemical weapons and pesticides. There is the Lowry landfill and its numerous buried chemical wastes. Valmont Butte is contaminated and so is the Erie landfill.

    On the near north side of downtown there were several major chemical polluters and 3 metal smelters that showered areas downwind with metal particulates, There were several radium and uranium processors south of downtown and radioactive mill tailings were used as road base all over town. On the near southwest side there are old oil wells as well as near the Coliseum and several across the Stapleton neighborhood as well as the Montbello Industrial Park,. There are old oil wells in Thornton and in Westminster too. Commerce City has hundreds of oil oil wells and Aurora does too, Wherever there are old oil wells the fracking industry would just love to get back in and redrill. What about the old underground coal mines running from Golden up to Boulder then northeast to Frederick and Firestone? When will they cave in? There are also old coal mines under Aurora,

    The west side had contamination at the Federal Center and southwest of the city at Waterton Canyon was another major defense plant with heavy contamination, The railyard immediately northwest of downtown used to be contaminated before it was built over,. Another railyard north of downtown was also contaminated, as was the old industrial neighborhood up there, Everything downwind of the oil refinery is contaminated as is everything downwind of the former Cherokee and Valmont coal-fired power stations. , Burning coal puts out particulates and mercury too. There were other major polluters lining Santa Fe down as far as Dartmouth at one time. What about all those old gold mines and gold mill sites in the mountains leaking acid runoff into local watersheds? There are lots of lesser pollution sites too.

    Ever since the Jefferson Parkway was proposed there has been virulent opposition, most of it from Golden or Superior residents, some from the few residents along Indiana. They are of course opposed to any development along Hwy 72 as that would eventually cause the Parkway to be built. The Parkway is going to be 300 feet wide? I don’t think so. It is going to have two lanes in each direction with a median maybe 50 feet wide, just like E-470 or the Northwest Parkway have . There might be 300 feet in-width between the outer fences but the roadways themselves will only be about 36 feet wide.

    My wife and I live in Broomfield and we would like to see the Parkway get built as then we wouldn’t have to slug it out in stop & go traffic on I-25, I-76, and I-70 just to get to the west side. The Northwest Parkway and E-470 have sure made it handy to get to DIA despite having to drive through near-toxic air quality from way too much fracking to get there, One thing we both noticed when we were over at Candelas the other day was how much cleaner the air is there than in the northern part of Broomfield.

    What would you rather have, a 1 in 10 million chance of breathing in a plutonium particle or a 100 out of 100 chance of having to breathe heavy oil and gas industry pollution? I am thinking that living in Candelas will cost a lot less than having to buy $1000 worth of specialty inhalers like Advair, Dulera, and Spiriva just to breathe half-normally in plenty of other areas of Metro-Denver.

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