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Biggest environmental scandal in Colorado history? The little known dumping of plutonium from Rocky Flats at Lowry Landill

In Environment, Plutonium, Rocky Flats on February 11, 2014 at 4:14 am

In 1994 then-Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary revealed that 1.2 metric tons (2,460 pounds) of plutonium, enough to make more than 400 bombs, was missing from Rocky Flats. Studies by various parties say some of it is in the environment on and off the site. A recent DOE report claims that the missing plutonium is buried at DOE’s Idaho National Engineering Lab. But this claim isn’t credible unless confirmed by an independent scientist with access to all pertinent data, because DOE earlier insisted that shoddy records made it impossible to estimate the quantity of plutonium in Rocky Flats waste buried in Idaho.

DOE’s claim to have found the plutonium O’Leary said was lost is countered by a series of three articles published in Westword in April 2001, by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eileen Welsome. Working closely with environmentalist Adrienne Anderson, Welsome showed that a large quantity of plutonium waste from Rocky Flats was illegally dumped at the Lowry Landfill southeast of Denver (http://www.westword.com/authors/eileen-welsome/). She is quite familiar with plutonium, having received the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for reporting in The Albuquerque Tribune on an Atomic Energy Commission program to determine the health effects of plutonium by injecting it into the bodies of unwilling and unknowing people, most of them “poor, powerless and sick.” Her later The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War (1999) provided more information on this secret program.

Rocky Flats plutonium was dumped at the Lowry Landfill from the early 1950s until about 1980. During this period, according to Welsome, most of the large corporations in the Denver area and many smaller ones, disposed of many kinds of waste there. After Lowry Landfill became a Superfund site in 1994, the major polluters formed the Lowry Coalition and worked together to avoid high costs for the Superfund “cleanup.” Much of their activity was purposely off the record to avoid publicity. Lowry Coalition was ready to make Rocky Flats operators pay a high fee to clean up the radioactive materials. But, with the complicity of the EPA and the City of Denver (which for years owned the site), they reversed themselves, paid fees to get immunity from future charges related to the radionuclides, and worked out a “cleanup” scheme to reduce the quantity of plutonium and other toxins buried at the site by moving the toxins in liquid form through city sewer lines more than a dozen miles to the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District plant on the banks of the South Platte River in north Denver.

At Wastewater this sewage is treated, the cleaner water is released into the South Platte, the heavier plutonium-bearing sludge (“biosolids”) is trucked 50 miles east and spread as fertilizer on farmland, and mildly contaminated water is piped to irrigate city parks, parkways and school yards. Among the large polluters of the Lowry Coalition are the two major newspapers, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, neither of which ever carried any story critical about the contamination at Lowry Landfill.  .

In the summer of 2000 the plutonium-contaminated waste began flowing from the Lowry Superfund site at a rate of 20 to 25 gallons a minute. It will continue for 50 years or longer. Rocky Flats authorities denied that radionuclides from the plant were ever dumped at Lowry. But several drivers of tank trucks testified that they delivered liquid waste from Rocky Flats to Lowry Landfill, police officers said they saw some of the deliveries, and trucking company records confirm that the transport happened. A letter addressed by the Lowry Coalition to EPA shows alarmingly high levels of plutonium and americium at numerous wells drilled at the site and concludes that this material could only have come from Rocky Flats. The level of denial about what’s present at Lowry Landfill is high, well nigh universal among the polluters. But when denial meets documentation, documentation prevails. Welsome and Anderson provided the documentation. The extent of the denial makes this perhaps the greatest single environmental scandal in Colorado history.