Published in the Boulder Daily Camera, 1-26-14
A December 28 Camera article suggests that the proposed Jefferson Parkway is moving ahead. This toll road would add about ten miles to C-470, almost completing the loop around Denver. Some call it the “plutonium parkway,” because it would be built on the contaminated edge of the Rocky Flats site, where for four decades the explosive plutonium pits for nuclear warheads were made.
Plutonium released from Rocky Flats is present in soil on and off the plant site in the form of particles too small to see but not too small to do harm. Plutonium emits a type of radiation that cannot penetrate skin but that may wreck one’s health if it is inhaled or otherwise taken into the body. Lodged in the body, it continually irradiates surrounding cells, probably for the rest of one’s life. The result may be cancer or other ailments, including harm to offspring. Because it remains dangerously radioactive for a quarter of a million years, it poses an essentially permanent danger.
In 1970 P. W. Krey and E. P. Hardy, scientists with the Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor to the Department of Energy), sampled soil on and off the Rocky Flats site to a depth of 8 inches and analyzed it for its plutonium content. The heaviest concentrations were in soil along the eastern edge of the site in the area now intended for construction of the highway. In September 2011 Marco Kaltofen of the Boston Chemical Data Corp. collected soil samples along Indiana St. precisely where the proposed road would be built. He found plutonium concentrations roughly equivalent to what Krey and Hardy found in 1970.
Sampling done as part of the Rocky Flats cleanup on what is now the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge showed only a scant presence of plutonium near where the highway would be built. But these samples were collected in shallow surface soil, not at the deeper levels analyzed by Krey and Hardy.
Building the road would affect the environment. In 2004 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service performed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to create the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. But this EIS did not analyze the effect of construction of a highway in an area known to be contaminated with plutonium. Fish and Wildlife nevertheless provided land for the road.
The Camera article says proponents of the highway “cite a letter written by officials with the EPA and the Colorado health department in late 2011 stating that the risk of excessive cancer incidence for people who work at the refuge is below standards set by the state” and the federal government. This letter is meaningless, because there’s a latency period of 20 to 30 years before plutonium taken into the body produces cancer. Not until refuge workers have been at the site without interruption for at least this long will we have a better sense of the incidence of cancer among them.
People who live or work near the Rocky Flats site or who visit there may be unwittingly exposed to plutonium left in soil by those responsible for the ten-year Superfund cleanup completed in 2005. They made no effort to clean the site to the maximum extent possible with existing technology. Assuming incorrectly that plutonium left behind would remain in place, they willingly allowed an unknown quantity of plutonium to remain in the soil, with no limit on the amount allowed below six feet.
Plutonium particles brought to the surface by burrowing animals will be carried hither and yon by wind. They can be readily inhaled. The result decades later may be cancer or some other illness. Children are without question the most vulnerable. There is no certainty that any of us will be exposed or will become ill. But it is a definite risk. The inadequate cleanup done at Rocky Flats gambles with peoples’ lives. Constructing the Jefferson Parkway would up the ante on the gamble. The wise move is to avoid the site and to abandon the highway.
LeRoy Moore, PhD, is a consultant with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. For more on Rocky Flats, see www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org