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Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

Surprise: Big fire at Rocky Flats in 2003, a “thermal anomaly”

In Environment, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Workplace exposure on June 27, 2012 at 7:35 am

Toward the end of Kristen Iversen’s remarkable book, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, she provides a detailed account of a severe plutonium fire that happened in Building 371 at Rocky Flats in May 2003 in which Rocky Flats firefighters put their lives at risk in order to protect innocent people both on and off the site. By the time of this fire, I had for a decade been attending Rocky Flats-oriented meetings at the rate of two or three per month as a member of a number of advisory and oversight bodies focused on trying to get a responsible cleanup at  Rocky Flats. When the fire happened, those of us engaged closely in Rocky Flats matters were awaiting publication of the final legally-binding Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement by the Department of Energy and the cleanup regulators, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Despite all this close attention to what was happening at Rocky Flats, I and others around me never heard that there was another serious plutonium fire at Rocky Flats in May 2003. No one from the federal and state agencies responsible for day-to-day activities at Rocky Flats, no one from Kaiser-Hill, the cleanup contractor, no one informed us of this fire.

It might as well have been 1957 when a plutonium fire at Rocky Flats resulted in the largest single release of highly toxic plutonium to the offsite environment and the public heard not a peep. Forty-six years later, not a peep.

On the evening of Kristen’s reading from her book at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, I asked a former Rocky Flats worker who happened to be present if he was aware of the May 2003 fire. He said he was not because he was not working in that area. He added that Kaiser-Hill’s contract allowed only so many fires or accidents per year for them to get full payment for their work. Otherwise there’d be deductions on what they were paid. He said he saw reports that mentioned a “thermal anomaly,” a term Kaiser-Hill employed to disguise what had really happened. He suspected that the May 2003 fire in 371 would have qualified as a “thermal anomaly.” Never mind that at least one of the firefighters was severely contaminated with plutonium. Never mind that the public may have been endangered.

Rocky Flats: What Colorado Department of Health knew all along but didn’t tell the public

In Democracy, Environment, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats on June 27, 2012 at 2:34 am

People familiar with the history of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant know that tbe Mother’s Day 1969 fire marks a turning point in public awareness of Rocky Flats as a local hazard to people of the Denver metro area. On the day of the fire some people knew that a big fire occurred at the facility. One such person was Ed Martell, a radiochemist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. Martell had done radiation monitoring for the Army in some of the nuclear tests that happened in the South Pacific after World War II. He knew that the principal product of the Rocky Flats plant was the plutonium “pit” that formed the fissile core of every nuclear warhead in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. And he knew that  inhaling minute particles of plutonium was the most dangerous way to be exposed to this exceedingly toxic material, since particles lodged in the body constantly irradiate surrounding tissue, probably for the rest of a person’s life. Moreover, since the half-life of plutonium-239, the form used at Rocky Flats, is 24,110 years, any quantity of this material in the environment poses an essentially permanent danger.

Knowing all this, after the Mother’s Day 1969 fire he asked authorities at Rocky Flats to test soil for plutonium in areas downwind of the plant. When they declined, he and a colleague, S.E. Poet, collected soil samples themselves and analyzed them for plutonium content. In February 1970 they met with officials from Rocky Flats and the Colorado Department of Health to inform them that they had found elevated levels of plutonium at several offsite locations. They assumed that what they found came from the 1969 fire. Rocky Flats personnel, however, told them that very little plutonium was released in the 1969 fire and thus that what they found came either from a major fire that happened in September 1957 or from leaks from drums of plutonium-bearing waste that had been stored outdoors for more than a decade in the 903 area at the plant site.

As a result of Martell and Poet’s work, the public suddenly learned for the first time of these major releases of plutonium from Rocky Flats. I personally along with others in the activist community assumed that this was also when the state government learned about these releases, the largest in the history of operations at Rocky Flats. But on Thursday, June 21, 2012, in a discussion of the 1969 fire with several former Rocky Flats employees, a man who had been at Rocky Flats from the very beginning of work there bristled at my assertion that it was at the February 1970 meeting with Martell and Poet that the Colorado Department of Health first learned about the 1957 fire and the 903 area releases. He said State Health knew about the 1957 fire from the time it happened. He mentioned Al Hazle, said “we talked to him all the time,” adding, “If the public didn’t know, that means the State Health Department didn’t tell them.”

This really surprised me because the mythology absorbed by the activists over the years is that not only the public but also the state government did not know about releases of plutonium from Rocky Flats prior to the 1969 fire. Al Hazle, whom we knew as the spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Health, always seemed like “Mr. Innocent.”

Colorado Department of Health is now known as the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

U.S. Department of TLC: Pertinent for Rocky Flats

In Art, Democracy, Environment, Nuclear Guardianship, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Workplace exposure on June 25, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Everyone knows what TLC means. Right? Well, maybe not. The envisioned U.S. Department of TLC (Toxic Land/Labor Conservation Service), projected to be housed in the Department of the Interior, will work with grassroots movements, non-governmental organizations and affected individuals already involved in “ending government unaccountability concerning the domestic effects of the American nuclear state. The legacy of secrecy, denial, mis-information and sacrifice that characterize Cold War government operations requires vigilant detection and continual exposition. To that end, the national TLC Service was founded to carry out the discovery  — in perpetuity — of ways to care for lands, attend to labor histories, and explore the linkages between bodies,, enviroments, and exposures. The current transformation of the nuclear complex . . . is an important opportunity to practice government differently, and to create another legacy altogether.” The Dept. of TLC will involve environmentalists, artists, nuclear workers, activists, Native communities and scholars to address the most urgent cultural and environmental justice issues regarding post-military, post-nuclear landscapes.

The initial step toward creation of the Dept. of TLC was the establishment on May 1,  2011, of the National TLC Service. The first directors of the National TLC Service are Sarah Kanouse, an artist based at the University of Iowa, and Shiloh Krupar, a cultural geographer who teaches at Georgetown University. Kanouse’s work seeks to undermine and alter spacial practices in politicized landscapes, such as military bases or nuclear installations. Krupar focuses on the politics of conservation, memory of place and environmental justice issues, including the unseen medical geographies of waste and interfaces of the body with cancer detection technology. The audacity of Kanouse and Krupar in creating the fictional/wishful National TLC Service displays a scintillating combination of political conscience and wry humor. May their tribe increase.

Of course, Rocky Flats is on their list of sites in need of TLC Service. Those of us involved with establishing Nuclear Guardianship at Rocky Flats applaud these TLC developments. See www.RockyFlatsNuclearGuardianship

To learn more about TLC, visit these sites:

http://www.nationaltlcservice.us/

http://theiwt.com/proposals/artists-national-tlc-service/

http://flawedart.net/ecocultures/projects.html (a recent exhibition)

Rocky Flats: Shiloh Krupar and Nuclia Waste

In Democracy, Environment, Nuclear Guardianship, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Wildlife Refuge on June 25, 2012 at 4:11 am

Quite by accident I recently came across Shiloh R. Krupar’s “Transnatural ethics: revisiting the nuclear cleanup of Rocky Flats, CO, through the queer ecology of Nuclia Waste,” Cultural Geographies, May 24, 2012.

I found the article dense, provocative and congenial. In an email message, Krupar, a Georgetown University geographer, describes the article as a bit of an awkward “sandwiching of empirical case-study material on the RF cleanup, with more philosophical speculation on environmental ethics.” She critiques the ethic that guided the Rocky Flats cleanup for “eliminating uncertainty” and assuming that nature is “static and separate from the human.” Those who did the cleanup, she notes, assumed erroneously that nuclear waste left behind will stay put. This made it possible for them to view and to invite others to view the resultant Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge as pristine rather than contaminated. Contrary to this dreamlike misperception Krupar says we no longer experience “pure nature” and thus must adopt a “transnatural ethic” that “directs attention toward the impurifications already in existence” and grounds responsibility in awareness of a broader human/nature kinship. She cites the antics of Denver drag queen Nuclia Waste as an example of the cognitive transformation required. Her paper is on line at http://cgj.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/05/24/1474474011433756.abstract?patientinform-links=yes&legid=spcgj;1474474011433756v1  An abundance of information about Nuclia Waste can also be found on the web.

Krupar says she grew up  in Richland, WA, right next door to the DOE’s Hanford facility where plutonium was produced for Rocky Flats, then later in Lakewood, CO, with her family working at Rocky Flats. While she was doing graduate work in geography at the University of California, Berkeley, she began to think about her “embeddedness” in these places.

I will write another blog entry about a remarkable project Shiloh Krupar is doing with Sarah Kranouse of Iowa University. Look for the U.S. Department of TLC.

Kristen Iversen’s remarkable new book about Rocky Flats

In Environment, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Wildlife Refuge on June 25, 2012 at 3:33 am

Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (NY: Crown Publishers, 2012), entwines tales of growing up in what her family regarded as a suburban paradise with her own gradually dawning awareness of what it means that they lived immediately downwind of the Rocky Flats nuclear bomb plant. Her superbly written narrative includes stories of both workers inside the facility and people in her neighborhood who wonder if their cancers and other ailments are due to contaminants released from the plant. The government, which holds the trump card in secrecy as well as in defining “permissible exposure,” says this is only conjecture. Iversen shows why the questions won’t go away. Among books written to provide a convincing account of existence in the nuclear era from the perspective of affected people, Full Body Burden sets a very high standard for thoroughness of investigation, clarity of explanation and humane understanding.

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