I’m going on a hike tomorrow, and I’ve never been more prepared.
I’ve got granola bars in my backpack, ice water in my bottle, the trailhead programmed into my GPS, and 60 years of Cold War intrigue, heroic activism, land use debates, public health conundrums, and an extra helping of self-doubt all stuffed inside my head.
For the past two years, I’ve been researching and reporting on the opening of this particular hiking destination for my podcast Changing Denver. Rocky Flats used to be a nuclear weapons plant, as you may have heard, and now the land that once served as the buffer zone around the plant is opening to the public.
To some, the opening of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge on September 15 caps off one of the most successful Superfund cleanups since the program was established in 1980. It cost $7 billion and it took 10 years, but now, government officials say, we can look at these 5,237 acres of endangered xeric tallgrass prairie with pride.
To others, this day marks the latest in a long line of government abuses of the people of Colorado. Why do government officials insist that the refuge is safe when even they admit that plutonium remains? Why can’t we just keep it closed?
No matter how you feel about the health risks posed by low levels of radioactive contaminants — and the levels at Rocky Flats are very low, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the independent experts I consulted — the story of Rocky Flats is a good one. Changing Denver is all about the messy relationships people develop with made spaces, and, in 2016, when a friend told me she was helping a professor at Metro State compile health data about people who lived downwind of the old nuclear weapons production plant 16 miles west of Denver, I was hooked.
I started with the activists: Judy Danielson, the woman who started the first campaign back in the early 70s with her partner Pam Solo; LeRoy Moore, the man who has provided the intellectual foundation for the movement since he joined the anti-nuclear protests in 1978; Jon Lipsky, the FBI agent whose dramatic raid of the plant in 1989 led to its ultimate closure; Kristen Iversen, the woman who perfectly captured the human drama of the Rocky Flats in her book Full Body Burden. I got to know them as great characters, yes, but also as people — people whose activism was only a small part of their lives.
I came to see Rocky Flats as a big, complicated, generational problem, much like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a topic I’ve written about throughout my professional career. And perhaps because I’ve always approached that conflict from the Palestinian side of things, I identified with the Rocky Flats activists. They were the underdogs, struggling against a foe with seemingly limitless resources.
When they speculated about government conspiracies, I understood them to be commenting on the systemic failures of government bureaucracy. When they cursed government officials, I remembered the stories they’d told me about loved ones suffering from rare cancers. When they published report after report on the science of linear no-threshold radiation models, I read them as serious inquiry, a search for an answer untainted by the powers-that-be. When they shouted down Fish and Wildlife officials or ran for seats on oversight boards, I saw them acting in the grand American tradition of social and political protest.
But one side of the story does not a podcast make, and as I talked to officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the government agencies in charge of regulating Rocky Flats — the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the CDPHE — a different picture emerged: The activists say the site is dangerous, and they don’t trust the regulators. The regulators say unequivocally that the 10.3 miles of trails are safe for the tens of thousands of expected visitors each year.
So which was it? Is Rocky Flats a public health hazard or not?
That became the driving question of Unclear Danger: The Colorado Story of Rocky Flats, a multi-part investigation into the history and recent controversy over Rocky Flats that I released in partnership with the Denver Public Library and The Colorado Independent this past summer. I wanted to go beyond the he-said, she-said narrative that’s reigned since the cleanup era in the ‘90s and early 2000s. I wanted a proper answer, and I thought I could get one.
So I went deeper. I researched health physics, looked into similar sites around the world, and talked to independent scientists, people with no stake in either side. And I got my answer. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that the levels of residual contamination at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge pose an extremely small, yet very present risk (check out episode 4 of Unclear Danger for a proper breakdown of my answer. In short, the radionuclides remaining in the soil are not significant enough to deliver dangerous doses of radiation, and the risk of getting cancer from inhaling or otherwise taking in a “hot particle” is very low). Yes, there have been health studies of the communities downwind of the plant that appear to challenge that consensus — some appear to show a cancer cluster downwind of the site — but the consensus remains.
So if it’s safe, what does that say about these activist groups? What does it say about the school board members who voted to ban field trips to the site without consulting any of the regulators or unaffiliated scientists? What does it say about us?
In the final chapter of Unclear Danger, I wondered about what U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democrat running for governor from progressive Boulder, would think. (The activists were not likely to have much leverage over his Republican opponent Walker Stapleton). I’d heard from sources on both sides that he privately expressed sympathy for their positions, but his public statements on Rocky Flats have been few and far between, and he never responded to my interview request.
As I was finishing up this very piece, Polis put an end to my speculation.
In a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke yesterday, he wrote, “I am following up on my constituents’ request that the Department of Interior (DOI) complete further testing of air, water and soil at the Refuge site by March 2019, and that until further testing has been completed, the Refuge site remain unopen to the public.” He reiterated the activists’ complaint that there has been no testing of the refuge lands since the floods in 2013 and concluded, “the health and safety of construction workers, staff, and visitors must remain a top priority.”
Polis’s stance reinforced the impression this whole experience has left me with. Mistakes made during the Cold War, and specifically the Atomic Energy Commission’s erroneous reading of the winds along the Front Range that led to the siting of a nuclear weapons plant upwind of Denver, ripped a hole in the fabric of our community that is still very much agape. Although it began more than half a century ago, the Rocky Flats story is in many ways a microcosm of our current political moment. Distrust in our legacy institutions is rampant and, in many cases, deserved.
In other words, as I knew from the very beginning, but only now fully understand, the truth of Rocky Flats may never fit into the black-and-white frame I wanted to impose on it. It is a complicated morass of science and history and politics and power, waiting there, just beneath the surface.
The Colorado Independent has been a distribution partner on Unclear Danger, but takes no position on the safety of Rocky Flats.
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