For four decades, Rocky Flats operated as a nuclear weapons production facility. Closed in 1992, the uranium contaminated site quickly achieved status as a priority clean-up area – dangerous and close to major population centers. By March of 1992, facility operator, Rockwell International Corporation plead guilty to ten criminal violations including five felonies for negligence in hazardous waste burn-off and storage and violations of the Clean Water Act.
Residents in neighborhoods adjacent to Rocky Flats have always been worried about health and environmental effects of contamination produced by the site, especially for long term illness such as cancer. In 1998, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) reported on cancer rates for areas surrounding Rocky Flats. Their report found no increased incidence for ten types of cancer in areas around Rocky Flats from 1980-1989, compared to Denver cancer rates. This year’s updated report, however, tells a more worrisome story. An examination of cancer rates through 2014 showed an increase in four types of cancer. Lung cancer, colorectal cancer, esophagus cancer and prostate cancer were found at elevated levels in some areas surrounding Rocky Flats. CDPHE notes that each of these types of cancer are exacerbated by smoking, which could be a contributing factor. Still, CDPHE summarized that for all ten cancer types, no elevated levels were detected. Residents aren’t buying it and still consider living near Rocky Flats to be risky.
A group called Rocky Flats Down-winders question that CDPHE report and in an open letter published on their web site, ask that the department do a more thorough job of testing residents who lived near Rocky Flats during the time of operation and/or cleanup. To date, CDPHE has only tested residents who have stayed in the vicinity and Down-winders claim more testing needs to be done, “Until and unless it does so, Colorado is failing to protect its residents.” The letter is signed by Nicholas Hansen, Co-Founder of the organization. The Down-winders have teamed with researchers at the Metropolitan State University of Denver to issue a more comprehensive report which includes evidence of several rare forms of cancer. Further investigation is being pursued before the report is finalized.
Sandra Bornstein and her husband came to a different conclusion. After extensive research on the site and government reports, she writes in her 2014 blog, “I was unable to find any reliable data that pointed to current cancer or disease clusters in the vicinity of Rocky Flats.” In 2013 she bought a house in a development called Candelas on the southern border or Rocky Flats. Bornstein gives, “11 Reasons Why I Feel Safe Living In Candelas” including ongoing soil and water testing, the cancer report issued by CDPHE and existence of wildlife in the sanctuary.
Some current and former residents were recently vindicated when a judge agreed that their property was substantially diminished in value after the contamination became known. In a 25+ year long battle, the class action suit resulted in a $375 million settlement which is to be distributed by this summer. Up to 15,000 residents may be eligible to share in the settlement if they owned property near Rocky Flats in 1989. Though Rockwell International (now owned by Boeing) and Dow Chemical were found liable, they are indemnified by the U.S. government for work they completed on the site and the bill will likely be paid by taxpayers.
Risk assessment at Rocky Flats is conducted every five years by the Department of Energy. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) study is conducted to ensure environmental and human health at the site. Public comment is accepted for each of these reviews but that time period recently closed (December 2016). The EPA website houses substantial information regarding the CERCLA process for Superfund sites: www.semspub.epa.gov. The Rocky Flats report is due by August, 2017.
The efficacy of future Superfund reviews has been called into question since the new presidential administration proposed deep cuts to the EPA. The Superfund Initiative currently holds a $1.1 billion budget, but a full one-third of the funds are proposed to be cut. In addition, 20 percent cuts in EPA personnel will further cripple monitoring efforts. Despite the proposed EPA cuts, Director Scott Pruitt told the U.S. Conference of Mayors that he wanted to continue the EPA’s work on environmental issues, “I want you to know that with the White House and also with Congress, I am communicating a message that the Brownfields program, the Superfund program and the water infrastructure grants and state revolving funds are essential to protect.” With hundreds of sites from across the country on the Superfund list since the 1980’s, Trump may have challenges in Congress getting those deep budget cuts passed.
New Jersey environmental activists and elected officials have already come out strongly against any Superfund cuts. New Jersey Congressmen Pascrell and Gottheimer appeared with the Sierra Club to underscore the importance of Superfund support for the state. New Jersey has the most Superfund sites of any state with 100.
Rocky Flats is split into two major areas. The central facility area was designated a Superfund site in 1989 and remains under the purview of the Department of Energy for regular testing by that department as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. After a $7 billion effort, the clean up of this site was officially concluded in 2005. The 5,000 acre peripheral area, created in 2007 as the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge area, is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and slated to open to the public with a new visitor center in 2018. Because the area has been closed to visitors or business for the past several decades, wildlife thrives on site; elk and deer are joined by a variety of birds and smaller mammals. Rocky Flats is planned to be connected to the other two National Wildlife Refuges in the Denver metro area and Rocky Mountain National Park through the Rocky Mountain Greenway Trail. The walking and cycling trail will connect Denver to the mountains.
The EPA divides national coverage into 10 regions. Colorado is part of EPA’s Region 8 which includes Utah, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota. 406 sites are on the Superfund National Priority List. Of the 77 sites on the Region 8 Superfund National Priority List, Colorado accounts for 24 of the sites, only surpassed in the region by Utah with 25, and followed by Montana with 19. Wyoming and the Dakotas each have fewer than 5 Superfund sites each. The vast majority of the contaminated sites are remnants of the mining industry.