Blowin` in the Wind

Citizen sampling finds breathable plutonium in a home and on open space near Rocky Flats, a future recreation area

Oakland L. Childers

LeRoy Moore has
always been opposed to the plan to open to the public a wildlife refuge
that sits on the former site of the Rocky Flats nuclear bomb plant near
Golden. He says he’s never bought the assertions of the Department of
Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency that the site, although
dotted with contamination by plutonium, is safe enough for people
to recreate there. Now he says “citizen sampling” near the site has
confirmed his worst fear — that breathable dust containing plutonium is
present near the site, on open space and in a home downwind of the

Wednesday, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center held a news
conference on the west steps of the State Capitol to present the
findings. On hand were state Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, who served as
foreman of the grand jury that spent nearly three years examining
evidence of alleged environmental lawbreaking at Rocky Flats after the
1989 FBI raid of the plant, as well as Sheri Kotowski, who lives
downwind of the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico and is the lead
investigator of the Embudo Valley Monitoring Group.

says he spent two years requesting that some government agency sample
breathable dust on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land near the former
bomb factory.

says he urged Will Shafroth, a founding director of the Colorado
Conservation Trust and Great Outdoors Colorado Trust, now deputy
assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s fish,
wildlife and parks division, to do the kind of sampling that had been
done at Rocky Flats.

“It took him a long time to say no, but he did say no,” says Moore.

explains that the idea for citizens to collect samples and have them
analyzed came from McKinley. So the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice
Center hired Todd Margulies, who has experience collecting samples
relating to Rocky Flats.

April 14, Margulies and Moore collected dust samples from several areas
east of Rocky Flats, including the crawlspace of a home, and sent them
off to Marco Kaltofen, president of Boston Data Corporation and a
radiation researcher at Worchester Polytechnic Institute in

Kaltofen, who donated his services for the project, says his analysis of the samples from around Rocky Flats was thorough.

looked at it by two different methods,” says Kaltofen, “a gamma
spectrometry method and an x-ray method called scanning electron
microscopy energy dispersive x-ray analysis.”

Both methods indicated there were trace amounts of plutonium in the samples.

“Because we found plutonium by both methods it makes the odds of a misidentification very, very low,” he says.

says it’s important to point out that his analysis looks at individual
particles, not a large sample at one time. “The vast majority contain no
plutonium and a few have quite a bit of plutonium and uranium,” says
Kaltofen. Uranium, unlike plutonium, does occur naturally in small
amounts, he adds.

analysis showed plutonium in two spots, one in the crawlspace beneath a
house built about a mile from Rocky Flats in 1960, the other on open

plutonium at that offsite location suggests it had to have been
delivered there by wind, so it must be at other locations, both on and
off the Rocky Flats site,” says Moore.

Spreng, a project manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health
and Environment, says he isn’t surprised by the findings.

has been a lot of sampling in the past and it’s well-known there is
plutonium off-site,” says Spreng. “We’re well aware of those amounts.
They are well below any levels that are concerning. They are not unsafe

adds that the multi-billion dollar remediation of the site took all
factors — including the inhalation of dust and the ability of burrowing
animals to reach deep strata of soil with far higher levels of
contamination — into consideration and factored that information into
the decision to open the site to the public.

Division of Wildlife would not accept the site if [plutonium levels
were] too high,” says Spreng. “The EPA certified the findings. Like any
contaminant at any site, there are levels that below which there is no
longer any concern to the health of humans. The land met those criteria
before it became part of the refuge.”

says the plutonium found near the Rocky Flats site almost certainly
resulted from a windstorm that hit a storage area known as the 903 site.
The high wind, he says, blew small amounts of material contaminated
with plutonium off the Rocky Flats site and onto land directly to the
east. He says it’s a situation that the public health department, the
EPA and the wildlife division are well aware of, and one that does not
pose a threat to anyone.

Moore is not convinced the site is safe, and less convinced it will
stay at its current levels of contamination. With 18 species of
burrowing animals living on the site, Moore says the dangerous material
that lurks below the surface won’t stay there forever.

creatures can go down to 16 feet,” says Moore, adding that there was no
limit placed on how much contamination soil below six feet at the site
can contain. “Anything that’s below the surface they bring up —
including plutonium.”

Moore is calling for periodic, permanent testing of soil and surface dust at the wildlife refuge and surrounding areas.

says such testing has already been done and will continue to be done.
In addition, the site is regularly examined for burrowing animals which,
when found, are removed. The area, he says, is then tested again for
contamination and properly cleaned up if necessary.

One man who remains unconvinced about the safety of visitors to the site and surrounding areas is Rep. McKinley.

“This is a dangerous place,” says McKinley. “You are exposing yourself to the risk of cancer by going out there.”

the site to the public, he says, is a bad idea, no matter what
remediation has been done. He says there’s no way to be certain
dangerous levels of plutonium aren’t lurking at Rocky Flats, disturbed
by animals or wind.

totally opposed to [opening the site to the public],” says McKinley.
“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Why would you expose
your children to that?” Despite reassurances by Spreng and others that
the remediation at Rocky Flats and nearby areas has been thorough and
that the area will be safe for the public when it is finally opened,
Moore and others say the possibility of contamination slipping through
the cracks is too strong to ignore. He says a permanent plan for
analyzing surface dust on and around the site is the least the
government could do to help mitigate the danger.

is available at the site and there is a risk,” says Moore. “No one can
say they will be exposed, but there is a risk.”

McKinley, quibbling about contamination levels and how plutonium has
been spread around is pointless. It’s dangerous, he says, and that’s all
that matters.

you’ve got a rattlesnake sitting on your dining room table you don’t
ask how it got there,” says McKinley. “You just stay away from it.”