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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: