For almost four decades the Rocky Flats Plant located about nine miles south of Boulder produced the explosive plutonium “pit” at the core of every warhead in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Major accidents and routine operations released very fine plutonium particles to the environment on and off the site. Because this highly toxic material remains radioactive for a quarter-million years, its presence in the environment poses a permanent danger.
Inhaling or otherwise taking such particles into the body can induce cancer, disrupt the immune system or damage genetic material. Children, who would be encouraged to visit the refuge, are especially vulnerable, because they stir up dust, breath in gasps, eat dirt, or may scrape a knee or elbow.
After production ended at Rocky Flats, the badly contaminated site was cleaned up. Because a ceiling was placed on how much could be spent on the cleanup, unknown quantities of plutonium were left in the soil on the assumption that it was “safe.” This conclusion was based on some 4,400 samples of surface soil. But these samples produced misleading results, because they were “whole soil samples” that diluted the breathable dust by including it with other matter.
In 2006, after the cleanup was completed, the Department of Energy transferred about seven square miles (roughly three-fourths) of the Rocky Flats site to FWS to operate as a wildlife refuge. FWS has not yet opened the refuge to the public because it lacks the funds to prepare the site.
Before FWS even considers opening the refuge to the public, the breathable dust in surface soil there should be sampled quarterly for at least five years with each particular sample analyzed for plutonium content. Repeated sampling is necessary because burrowing animals are constantly bringing buried material to the surface where it can be picked up by the wind. This type of sampling has never been done on the Rocky Flats site. It would show to what extent plutonium is present in respirable particles, its most dangerous form.
FWS plans to burn some of the vegetation annually to rid the site of weeds. This would potentially spread plutonium particles in the smoke throughout the Metro area. Requests that they analyze the plants for plutonium have been repeatedly refused.
In the spring of 2009 I asked FWS to hire independent scientists to test the respirable dust at Rocky Flats for plutonium content. In September I received a reply from Will Shafroth, a high-ranking official in the Department of Interior, of which FWS is a part, rejecting my proposal and saying he was passing it along to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).
CDPHE has a little known history in relation to dust sampling at Rocky Flats. Though dust sampling has never been done on the Rocky Flats site, in 1975 it was done on land east or downwind of the site. Dr. Carl Johnson, then head of the Jefferson County Health Department, and two soil-scientists from the US Geological Survey took dust samples at 25 locations. They found plutonium concentrations on average 44 times greater than had been measured at the same locations in previous whole soil sampling done by CDPHE (then Colorado Department of Health). Their results led to cancellation of a planned residential development on the land in question.
Johnson proposed that, for purposes of assessing health risk at offsite locations, the State of Colorado test for plutonium in respirable dust on the surface of the soil. Coarser materials that cannot be inhaled and retained in the body, he said, have no bearing on actual health hazards. Including such material in samples that are analyzed dilutes the amount of radioactivity and provides results that are inaccurate and misleading.
State officials asked Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, the “father of health physics,” whether the state should adopt Johnson`s respirable dust method or continue the practice of whole-soil sampling. Morgan favored Johnson`s approach because it produces results that are more accurate and more protective of the public health. Colorado officials, having sought Morgan`s advice, ignored it.
In September Mr. Shafroth passed the buck regarding dust samples to CDPHE. To date there`s been no response. To better protect the health of the public and the environment, CDPHE should announce by not later than Valentine`s Day 2010 that they will do for plutonium in surface dust what they already do for plutonium in surface water at Rocky Flats, namely, establish a permanent regime of periodic sampling at Rocky Flats to determine the plutonium content in respirable dust there. Such an announcement would be a Valentine`s gift to the people of the metro area.
LeRoy Moore is a consultant with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center of Boulder.