Rachel Carson and Rocky Flats

by LeRoy Moore

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The former Rocky Flats Plant in July 1995.
Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons

In 2018, The Library of America published Rachel Carson: Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment. Carson is famous for bringing to the attention of people in the U.S. and beyond the devastation to the environment by the modern industrial world. It is often said that her work inspired the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

I read Silent Spring long ago, but re-reading it, I was struck by how often her words are pertinent for Rocky Flats, the now-closed nuclear weapons factory near Denver that produced the fissile plutonium core of every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal. The FBI raided the plant in 1989 to collect evidence of violation of federal environmental law. Work at the plant was “temporarily” suspended, but it never resumed. 

In 1992 the plant’s mission was changed from production to cleanup. The Superfund cleanup of the site was finished in 2005 and about three-fourths of the 10-square-mile plant site — an area not cleaned up — was transferred from the Department of Energy (DOE) to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which created in a still contaminated area the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

Carson says in the second chapter of Silent Spring: “The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. … Only within the moment of time represented by the present [20th] century has one species — man — acquired sufficient power to alter the nature of the world.” In the pre-feminist days, she calls humans “man.” A major part of this alteration is radiation — “the unnatural creation of man’s tampering with the atom.” 

Rocky Flats was created to further this “tampering with the atom.” Plant operations began in 1952, but people in the area knew nothing of the contamination until a large fire in 1969. They learned of the contamination not from the federal or state government but from independent scientist Edward Martell who, with a colleague, collected samples of plutonium in soil east and downwind of the site. Scientists from the federal Atomic Energy Commission later sampled soil east of the plant and confirmed Martell’s findings.

Martell’s knowledge of plutonium came from his work studying the health of people exposed to plutonium in nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific after World War II. In a news conference after his sampling in the Denver area, Martell said that anyone who inhales particles of plutonium like those released from Rocky Flats would be “subject to radiation millions of times more intense than from an average naturally occurring radioactive dust particle of the same size. … Only minute amounts in the lung are sufficient to cause cancer.” 

Physicist Fritjof Capra of the University of California in Berkeley in The Turning Point (1982) calls plutonium “the most dangerous of the radioactive byproducts. … Less than one-millionth of a gram — an invisible dose — is carcinogenic. One pound, if uniformly distributed, could potentially induce lung cancer in every person on earth.”

In words pertinent to Rocky Flats, Carson said: “Man, however much he may like to pretend the contrary, is part of nature. Can he escape a pollution that is now so thoroughly distributed throughout our world?” Referring to a dilemma often mentioned, she said: “With the dawn of the industrial era the world became a place of continuous, ever-accelerating change. Instead of the natural environment there was rapidly substituted an artificial one composed of new chemical and physical agents, many of them possessing powerful capacities for inducing biologic change. Against these carcinogens which his own activities had created man had no protection. … Today, more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease. … Humbleness is in order; there is no excuse for scientific conceit here.”

People in the Denver area who have followed Rocky Flats issues are accustomed to the “scientific conceit” Carson mentioned. Spokespersons for the EPA, DOE, FWS and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) call the contaminated Wildlife Refuge “safe” and saw it opened to the public on Sept. 15, 2018. They say this despite their awareness that plutonium remains in the soil. 

In a major study published in 2006 the National Academy of Sciences says that any exposure to ionizing radiation is potentially harmful. Also a 1997 study by scientists Tim K. Hei and colleagues from Columbia University found that a single plutonium alpha particle taken into the body can be damaging. Once inside the body, the plutonium lodges in a specific location — a lung, a bone, the liver, the brain, the gonads or elsewhere. Thereafter, typically for the rest of one’s life, the plutonium bombards nearby cells with radioactive alpha particles.

In the face of the “scientific conceit” of government agencies, people in the Denver area must, like Rachel Carson, “dream greatly … to accomplish anything.” So we dreamed that we could stop the Wildlife Refuge from opening to the public. 

Already we have convinced seven school boards to decide that their students will not take field trips to the Refuge. We are also publicizing the fact that the route for the proposed Jefferson Parkway (connecting highways 93 and 128) passes along the easternmost contaminated edge of the Rocky Flats site. The Denver Regional Council of Governments decided that no federal or state tax money may be used to construct the Jefferson Parkway, so the project depends on private investors. Why would any investor want to spend money to construct a highway through a contaminated area? Those who construct the road could be harmed. So could people who live nearby or drive on the road.

Rachel Carson says those managing activities in the modern industrial era believe in the “control of nature” and that it “exists for the convenience of man.” Her words characterize those responsible for the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge and the planned Jefferson Parkway. What can local people who oppose both opening the Wildlife Refuge and constructing the Jefferson Parkway do?

Of course the real culprit with both the Refuge and the Parkway is radiation. Carson refers to Herman Muller, who received the 1946 Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery of genetic mutations in fruit fries exposed to radiation. Referring to an article he published in 1964, Carson says the harm from radiation exposure today “is far less than the damage which this same radiation … will inflict upon posterity.” She says, “His further conclusion was that hereditary damage should be the chief touchstone in the setting of permissible or acceptable dose limits.” 

Due to the 24,000-year half-life of plutonium-239, people of the future will be dealing with the radiation it emits long after the disappearance of the Wildlife Refuge and the United States. For as Capra says, “the plutonium will remain in the environment and will continue its lethal action, on and on, from organism to organism, for half a million years.” When the Rocky Flats cleanup was nearing completion in 2005, the point person for CDPHE said in a public meeting, “In the cleanup, we are taking care of things for about 200 years.” Carson says we need “a greater sense of responsibility for the welfare of generations to come.”

Speaking of harmful airborne particles, Carson says, “Little thought seems to have been given to the possibility of transport in dust.” This is literally the case at Rocky Flats. After the 1969 fire, a Jefferson County Commissioner asked Carl Johnson, Director of the Jefferson County Health Department, whether the Commissioners should approve a residential development on land east or downwind of the Rocky Flats plant. Johnson and colleagues from the U.S. Geological Survey collected samples in surface dust, because it could be blown about and readily inhaled. They found on average about 40 times as much plutonium in the dust as the state had found with its whole soil method of sampling. Soon after this Johnson proposed that the state adopt the dust sampling method for all its sampling work. They declined.

Over the years, there was airborne sampling, but biologist Harvey Nichols, who has a long experience of sampling airborne particles, when he was invited to collect samples at Rocky Flats, said the equipment used there to collect airborne samples was “laughable.” He and meteorologist W. Gale Biggs concluded that the air sampling done around the Rocky Flats site was to reassure the public that all was well. After completion of the cleanup in 2005, air sampling at Rocky Flats ceased. Dr. Biggs has repeatedly called for its resumption in a quality way.

Carson says, “So nature does indeed need protection from man; but man, too, needs protection from his own acts, for he is part of the living world. His war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” She refers to the right of the ordinary person to be secure at home “against the intrusion of poisons applied by other persons.” Not long before she died in 1964, Carson wrote, “And so we live in a time when change comes rapidly — a time when much of that change, at least for long periods is irrevocable. This is what makes our own task so urgent.”

The Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge must be closed and kept closed. And the Jefferson Parkway, if it is built, should be on the less contaminated west side of the Rocky Flats site. 

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