Raise awareness of environmental health issues in order to better protect our children and future generations.

11 December 2012

"Full Body Burden" - Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats

“Full Body Burden – Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats”, the story of the nuclear weapons plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado, is a tale of government and industry denial and cover-up, corporate greed, a public health and environmental contamination scandal. 

The book, by Kristen Iversen, is both the author’s personal account of growing up in Arvada, Colorado, near the Rocky Flats plant and an "intimate  history of the plant's environmental abuses."

The Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, located in the region of Arvada, Boulder and Denver, Colorado, produced plutonium “triggers” for nuclear bombs. From 1952 to 1989, the foundry produced over 70,000 plutonium triggers, “each one containing enough breathable particles of plutonium to kill every person on earth” and costing $4 million per piece. The plant, one of 13 nuclear weapons facilities in the U.S. during the Cold War period, was owned by the Atomic Energy Commission and operated by Dow Chemical Company.

The population living in the area of the Rocky Flats – some 200,000 to 300,000 persons - was not told about plans to build the facility or what the plant would produce. Information regarding the known and unknown health risks to workers and local residents and environmental contamination was strictly classified. People were told that the plant would not give off “dangerous wastes” and that “atomic bombs would not be built at the plant.”

Eventually, Rocky Flats was to be ranked the “most dangerous site in United States”, primarily due to the huge amounts of radioactive and toxic waste that contaminated groundwater and were carried on the frequent extreme prevailing winds that blew over the area. 

Karen Iversen
Iversen wrote, “Radiation – you couldn’t feel it, you couldn’t see it. You wouldn’t know if you were exposed. But with enough exposure, you got sick. Too much exposure and you died.” After Iversen started working (in administration) at the plant, she began to feel tired and unwell. One doctor told her that “It’s mostly in your head.” Iversen and all her siblings had problems related to immune system deficiencies. There were many cancer illnesses and deaths in her neighborhood. 

In 2003, Dr. Richard Clapp, epidemiologist, now Professor Emeritus, School of Public Health, Boston University, undertook a study revealing a disproportionate rate of lung and bone cancers in areas around Rocky Flats. The study recommended the continued surveillance of cancer and other disease incidence, and monitoring of public health. The U.S. Department of Energy, however, (DOE – former U.S. Atomic Energy Commission) said that due to population changes, low levels of exposure and the fact that no disease can be attributed solely to plutonium, it would not be feasible to do an epidemiological study of residents living near the plant. 

On 6 June 1989, 70 FBI and EPA agents “raided” Rocky Flats. An 18-day investigation was conducted concerning the cover-ups, accidents, illegal dumping, burning and polluting occurring at the plant and the false statements and concealment by Rockwell, the plant’s second owner, and the DOE.

Evidence indicated that for over 30 years, spills, leaks and waste disposal practices contaminated dozens of sites around plant. The FBI/EPA allegation included “concealment of environmental contamination: false certification of federal environmental reports”; improper storage and disposal of hazardous and radioactive waste; illegal discharge of pollutants into creeks flowing into the water supply.

The ensuing trial lasted 25 months. Three DOE workers and five Rockwell employees were indicted, but the U.S. Attorney and Department of Justice prosecutor refused to sign the indictments, despite over 400 environmental violations occurring for decades. A plea bargain with Rockwell was negotiated. Dumping and incineration charges were dropped. No individuals were charged. The plea bargain indemnified Rockwell from any further claims, closing the door on all future prosecution, criminal or civil. Rockwell did, however, plead guilty to criminal violations of federal hazardous waste law and the Clean Water Act: “possible exposure of workers and local citizens to radioactive and hazardous waste”.

Rockwell paid a fine of $18.5 million in 1991, the second largest in U.S. history for an environmental crime, the first being the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The fine represented 1/6 of one per cent of Rockwell’s annual sales. The company was also allowed to file for reimbursement of $7.9 million from taxpayers for case-related fees and costs. The more serious charges such as midnight burning of waste in incinerators and secret dumping of poisons into waste ponds were not prosecuted. Rockwell’s contract as operator of Rocky Flats was terminated. In 1989, Rocky Flats was added to the EPA’s Superfund cleanup list.

In 1990, 12,000 residents living in Arvada, where Iversen grew up, and the surrounding area, filed a class action suit against the plant’s two operators, Rockwell and Dow Chemical, over migration of plutonium onto properties, affecting homeowners’ property values (Cook vs. Rockwell). They requested medical monitoring for people who lived near the plant. The medical issue was disallowed by the court. The defendants argued that scientists had determined that even though plutonium had settled on plaintiffs’ land, it was of “no consequence or concern”. Counsel argued that “Dow and Rockwell were reckless in handling radioactive materials known to be dangerous, allowing plutonium to escape from the plant and that much of the defense was an attempt to continue to suppress and ‘spin the facts’ of what occurred at Rocky Flats and its effect on local communities.”

The jury found the two companies and DOE negligent and causing damage to property around Rocky Flats. Plaintiffs were awarded $926 million. Afterwards, the Cook vs. Rockwell suit was appealed and the jury decision overturned. The “presence of plutonium at best shows only a risk and not actual damage to residents’ health or properties.” 
Rocky Flats cleanup

Cleanup began – with a 2006 deadline and expenditure limited to $7 billion. It involved relocation of weapons-grade material, removal of bomb production waste, and building demolition. There was no off-site soil cleanup. It had been decided in 2001 that the area around Rocky Flats would become a 4,000-acre wildlife refuge and public recreation area for hiking and biking. Legislation that would have required additional signage informing visitors of what happened at Rocky Flats and why it might be dangerous was twice defeated.

In 2011, Boulder's Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center commissioned a study to gauge contamination levels in the area.  It found that  Rocky Flats was still as contaminated with plutonium as 40 years ago.

Another dark side of the nuclear industry …

Book review by Meris Michaels

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