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Remembering Adrienne Anderson, 1952-2011 Premier Environmentalist

In Environment, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Workplace exposure on November 30, 2011 at 11:31 pm

(The following remarks were made at the memorial service, Sunday, 11-6-11.)

Adrienne, when I last saw you a few weeks before your death our visit was brief because you tired quickly. I thus didn’t get to share a lot that was on my mind, things like the following.

Over the three decades of your environmental work here in Colorado you put yourself in one dangerous situation after another, because you saw a need or because people sought your help. You knew that the natural ecology locally was severely endangered. You often pointed out that Denver is ringed by highly contaminated military-related Superfund sites. To the southwest is the Martin Marietta (now Lockheed-Martin) missile factory, to the southeast the Lowry Landfill, to the northeast the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and to the northwest the site of the defunct Rocky Flats nuclear bomb plant.

What a happy coincidence, you’d say. Environmentalists in Denver never have to worry about finding something to do. You devoted time and energy to every one of these facilities plus a bunch more. You worked with residents of polluted neighborhoods, unionized workers seeking a safer workplace, and individuals and communities troubled about ailments in their midst. And of course you were constantly trying to inform the unaware public affected by lethal contaminants that typically can’t be seen, smelled or tasted but can kill.

To reach the public you engaged journalists. They could be very valuable, but they could also demonstrate a lack of curiosity, a failure of memory, an absence of courage, or all three. You knew too that some were the unwitting or willing servants of corporate media. You were a close observer and sharp critic of how ownership and control of mainstream media in Colorado was concentrated in the hands of a few.

When I think about what you did and about your leaving us at age 59, I wonder if you weren’t exposed to some toxin that you encountered as you went about being yourself. You never hesitated to go where poison was present, because you wanted to alert others to its existence and to help do something about it.

In my view you were the foremost environmental investigator in this part of the country, one of the best anywhere. You knew how to uncover what the powers-that-be wanted to keep hidden. For several years you taught your investigative skills to students at the University of Colorado. They learned where to look, what to look for, to question authority, not to take no for an answer, to follow the money, to persist, and to persist, and to persist. Part of your effectiveness was that you modeled what you taught. When you were terminated at CU, you were the one who exposed the fact that the Governor of Colorado was operating like a puppeteer behind the scenes.

After your dismissal from the university we at the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center brought you onto our staff. We couldn’t match the pay you’d received from the university but we could provide a platform for your work. This was a controversial move for us, because various people, especially some glad to see you gone from the university, said that much of your work consisted of accusations of wrongdoing that were not supported by evidence. In response I resolved that before we hired you I would closely examine the record of your work in relation to Rocky Flats. More specifically, I would review your allegation that plutonium-laden liquid waste from Rocky Flats had for years been illegally dumped at the Lowry Landfill on the opposite side of Denver. My review confirmed the integrity of your work. Let me summarize what I learned.

Officials from Rocky Flats denied your charges and the EPA backed them up by insisting that there was no plutonium at the Lowry Landfill. But an EPA document that you dug up showed the opposite. The plutonium that was taken to Lowry Landfill from Rocky Flats, you learned, became part of a stew of toxins that over the years had been dumped there from a host of sources. The long list of institutions that contributed to the Lowry Landfill mess includes the City of Denver, the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News and a host of other well-known and not so well-known entities from throughout the metro area. One of the more stunning of your discoveries was finding that the EPA-approved Superfund cleanup of Lowry Landfill entails 50 or so years of gradual draining of the plutonium-bearing soup through 20-plus miles of city sewer lines running from Lowry Landfill to Denver Wastewater’s sewage treatment plant. There poorly protected sewage treatment workers compress plutonium solids into sludge slated for use as fertilizer on farms 50 miles east of Denver. Meanwhile the leftover plutonium-bearing liquid is diverted to ponds in Denver parks to await its eventual use to irrigate parks, playgrounds and parkways around Denver. All of this, you found, was sub rosa, a grand cover-up. It’s perhaps the greatest environmental scandal in scandal-ridden Colorado because of all the powerful entities involved. In 2001 Pulitzer prize winning journalist Eileen Welsome published three articles in Westword that not only told the Lowry Landfill story and your part in it but also made available all the pertinent documentation. My account barely touches what those articles reveal about your remarkable qualities as a brave and tenacious public servant. They are a well-deserved tribute to you.

Thank you, Adrienne. You came so late, you left so soon. We miss you.

Recent book on Rocky Flats by a health physicist at the plant

In Environment, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Workplace exposure on November 28, 2011 at 3:49 am

Clayton Lagerquist, The Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant I Remember: Its Rise and Fall (Morrisville, NC: Lulu.com, 2009). The author of this highly opinionated book was a health physicist at Rocky Flats from 1963 till 1988. Alongside his descriptions of individuals and the radiation detection world at the plant, he levels harsh criticisms at elected officials, the plant union, the media, and the Federal Government ¬ for supervising all activities at Rocky Flats, then suing Rockwell International for environmental misconduct. He says “the anti-Rocky Flats movement” that “ultimately caused its closure” and was “nothing but terrorists without guns” (p. 86).

“Safety of the employees,” he says, “was never a problem at Rocky Flats.” These are clearly not the words of an exposed production worker wanting a safer workplace. When a management colleague named Ron Reed urged Lagerquist “to reduce radiation exposure by a certain percent each quarter,” his reply was that he couldn’t because “any reduction would have to be accompanied by a reduction in production” (pp. 126-127). So here’s the health physicist, whose responsibility it is to protect workers, putting production ahead of safety. He claims that the plant’s records of workplace exposure fall well within the ranges of safety defined by NCRP and ICRP. But he never mentions the 1987 study by Los Alamos epidemiologist Greg Wilkinson that found excess cancers among some Rocky Flats workers exposed to as little as 5% of DOE’s permissible lifetime body burden for plutonium. Langerquist had to have known of this study since it was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 1987, the year before Lagerquist left Rocky Flats. The study created something of a firestorm at Los Alamos, because Wilkinson defied his supervisor who had told him not to publish the article until he had modified the results to “please the customer” (DOE).

An item in Lagerquist’s book that disturbed me even more than what he said about worker safety is his very brief reference to Wright Langham, whose work, he says, “was later criticized as human experimentation with plutonium but all he did was inject trace quantities of plutonium into some human volunteers and measure the amount that was excreted as a function of time” (pp. 52-53). Is Langerquist really this poorly informed? Eileen Welsome’s closely documented Plutonium Files (1999), for which she received the Pulitzer Prize, shows in great detail that Langham was one of the architects of the plutonium human experiments conducted not on volunteers but on unwitting subjects using not trace amounts of plutonium but quantities “five times the amount of plutonium the Manhattan Project scientists had just declared could be retained without harm to the human body” (Welsome, p. 126). Langerquist’s book displays the disturbing ethos of the health physics profession at Rocky Flats at the height of production at the plant.