Commentary

Fear of a Marshall Fire at Rocky Flats is real

Independent evidence of contamination is at odds with safety assurances from federal authorities

February 24, 2022 5:30 am

A contaminated “hot spot” removal is performed at Rocky Flats in 1994. (Courtesy of Department of Energy/U.S. government works)

The Marshall Fire could have been worse if it had entered Rocky Flats.

On the evening of the fire in December, authorities feared this could happen. Federal officials are at pains to convince local community members that the former nuclear weapons plant and Superfund site is effectively cleansed of radioactive contamination, but their account of the site’s condition is dubious, and independent evidence suggests that an out–of-control grass fire at Rocky Flats in high winds could disperse suspended radionuclides beyond the site perimeter, possibly posing a public health hazard for thousands of people.

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Rocky Flats starting in the early 1950s was the site of a factory that made plutonium “pits” — spheres of plutonium that act as triggers in nuclear weapons. For many years, hazardous waste was handled carelessly at the site. Radioactive material was often just buried in the ground, and accidents were common. The main production facility became known as the most dangerous building in America. 

In 1989, the FBI raided the plant on suspicion that the Energy Department and a contracted private operator had violated multiple environmental laws at Rocky Flats. The plant soon shut down and the property was designated an EPA Superfund site. A $7 billion clean-up was completed in 2005, and today the property, except for a former industrial area known as the “central operable unit,” is a natural wildlife refuge, where members of the public can hike and bike on trails.

Don’t let the recreation activities fool you. There is plenty of reason to doubt that the refuge is as safe as federal and state authorities want you to believe.

As the devastating Marshall Fire, propelled by winds of around 100 mph, galloped across Boulder County grasslands and leveled neighborhoods on Dec. 30, some local residents and leaders worried about the public health risk a wildfire at Rocky Flats could pose. Activists had long opposed prescribed burns at the site due to a fear that flames could spread plutonium contamination into neighborhoods.

Earlier this month, the Energy Department’s Rocky Flats site manager, Andy Keim, addressing a community meeting on the subject of wildfire hazards at the property, said there was “no real potential threat.”

“The remaining infrastructure — buildings, slabs and basements — and subsurface soils with residual radiological contamination are buried beneath at least 3 feet of clean soil,” he said.

Be very skeptical of this statement.

There is plenty of reason to doubt that the refuge is as safe as federal and state authorities want you to believe.

The federal government for decades was dishonest about Rocky Flats and the environmental damage the plant caused. It has no credibility when it comes to the site. Today Energy Department representatives like Keim have every incentive to maintain the narrative that the property, once one of the most contaminated pieces of real estate in the country, is now somehow all but pristine. Furthermore, credible scientific evidence contradicts the “clean” characterization.

Michael Ketterer is the former chair of the Metropolitan State University of Denver chemistry department and is now with the Northern Arizona University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. An expert in plutonium-isotope tracing, he has studied Rocky Flats soil samples and identified elevated plutonium levels in an area on the eastern edge of the property, along Indiana Street. The soil, within three feet of the surface, is contaminated, he said.

“It contains plutonium dioxide particles in essentially pure form,” he said. “These particles are in respirable size ranges … It’s not clean soil at all. It’s contaminated stuff.”

What if a Marshall Fire whipped across Rocky Flats?

“It’s just common sense that when there’s a big fire there’s going to be entrainment of all kinds of dust and soil from the surface, it’s all going to get entrained into the smoke plume and it’s going to be blown around,” Ketterer said. He added, “It would be entraining a lot of contaminated soil into the air, it would get into the suspended particulate matter that’s in the air.”

Ketterer said he is not qualified to assess the degree to which such an event would pose a public health risk. 

Timothy Mousseau, an ecology professor at the University of South Carolina’s Department of Biological Sciences, has studied how radionuclides emitted from wildfires near the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster site were dispersed. Chernobyl is much different than Rocky Flats, but Mousseau’s work offers general insights that could have bearing on conditions at Rocky Flats.

“We know that fires, especially hot fires, can redistribute radionuclides from the surface soil, the surface of the soil, into the atmosphere,” Mousseau told Newsline.

Scientists found that forest fires around Chernobyl — Rocky Flats is subject to less-intense grass fires — resulted in massive redistribution of radionuclides, which the fires not only moved around but also made more radioactive. The intensity of a fire will determine how far it can redistribute radioactive material, Mousseau said. A very hot fire can spread contaminated ash hundreds of miles.

“In terms of the health consequences, plutonium is one of the most toxic substances known,” Mousseau said. “Every isotope is radioactive, more or less, and when such isotopes are in the atmosphere, and if they are ingested, inhaled, they often will lodge in the lungs, and where they lodge in the lungs can be points for disease.”

This does not mean that if a fire blazes across Rocky Flats members of the surrounding community are necessarily at risk. But the best we can say is that the public health risk is largely unknown, which is at odds with the federal government’s assurances that there’s little need for concern. Such assurances are suspect, at best.

Many of the factors that made the extraordinary Marshall Fire possible were the result of climate change, and Marshall Fire-like events can be expected to become more frequent. Because it’s likely only a matter of time before a wildfire has its way with Rocky Flats, government leaders are obliged to acknowledge the truth about the risks, even if questions remain.

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