25 years after raid, reflections on Rocky Flats


Outside the Arvada Center not far north of Denver, Colorado, this past weekend stood a larger-than-life-sized sculpture of a horse in a respirator and hazmat suit. Activists, scientists, academics, ranchers and local citizens young and old – but mostly older – walked past the horse, an artist’s interpretation of the toxic legacy of the long-closed Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, and filed up the stairs into a large auditorium, where the opening session of Rocky Flats Then and Now: 25 Years after the Raid conference was about to begin.

The Rocky Flats plant, located between Golden and Boulder, Colorado, was once at the core of U.S. efforts to develop nuclear bombs, but its secretive operations also served to galvanize anti-nuke and anti-pollution protesters for decades. Plutonium, toxic waste, near meltdowns – these threats and more made Rocky Flats famous. But no one event was more renowned than “the Raid.” On June 6, 1989, agents of the FBI and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency entered the plant and cited its operators for numerous violations of health and safety codes, setting the stage for its eventual closure, in 1992, and a subsequent Superfund cleanup. Today, the plant is no more, and what remains is a national wildlife refuge at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. But the memory of the plant and what it represented remains, all these years later.

The opening panel last weekend at the Rocky Flats conference in Arvada, Colorado. Photo: Christi Turner.

And so, on Friday night, they came to the Arvada Center, filing past the hazmat horse. They sat down for the opening panel, “Personal Memories of the June 6, 1989 Raid” – Rocky Flats plant workers, government employees, activists, academics and local residents – not to argue, but to reflect.

Keeping the dialogue civil is no easy task: Even 25 years after the raid, the first-ever instance when two federal agencies raided a third (the plant belonged to the Department of Energy), Rocky Flats is still a source of intense controversy. Between 1952 and 1989, the top-secret plant mass-produced around 70,000 plutonium cores – tiny nuclear bombs that trigger bigger thermonuclear bombs. The process exposed thousands of workers to untold doses of radiation and contaminated the soil, air and groundwater through contentious nuclear waste management.

Kennette Benedict, executive director of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a publication addressing the threats of nuclear weapons and facilities, was tasked with keeping the opening panel from becoming contentious. “Citizen participation is key,” she said in an interview. “Citizens (should) feel interested enough in what their government is doing that they persistently ask questions…They certainly have a right to know.”

Driving along Highway 93 between Golden and Boulder, it's easy to miss Rocky Flats to the east. Photo: Christi Turner

The conference, Benedict said, was emblematic of a legacy that extends beyond Arvada. The nuclear weapons complex is dispersed throughout the U.S., and questions surrounding environmental contamination and long-term disposal should be, too. A reminder of this was the recent fire and leak in the country’s only permanent nuclear waste repository, in New Mexico.

“We really need to think harder as a country of the legacy of nuclear weapons,” Benedict said. “I think that in the coming years, we’ll find more and more – as secrecy is challenged, as records are opened up after the Cold War – I have a feeling the damage is going to be more extensive than we think.”

On Friday evening, Benedict sat beside an activist, a rancher and a retired plant manager, sharing the stage but representing differing sides of the questions at the heart of the Rocky Flats story. In the quiet, attentive audience, was a live representation of the spectrum of public concern over the plant’s legacy. Even 25 years later, some clamor for more stringent environmental safeguards and oversight, some say environmental risks are outweighed by economic benefits, and others are focused on worker health and ambivalent about environmental impacts.

When it was his turn to speak, Jack Weaver, former deputy assistant general manager of plutonium operations at Rocky Flats, with hands folded, spoke of an intense day of FBI interrogation during the June 6 raid. When the plant was later ordered to shut down, Weaver requested that the closure order be delayed, he said, to finish inventory of plutonium and prevent the risk of leaks. That request was denied, a sign for Weaver that although the raid and shutdown were intended to prevent further safety hazards, they themselves could have been implemented more safely. Weaver has since become an advocate for former Rocky Flats workers whose health has suffered (in particular through cancer) as a result of exposure to radiation, although he himself, who worked for the plant for 41 years, is healthy. Safety was a priority at the plant, he stressed, but information on “the long-term effects of the chemicals on human health” was sparse.

LeRoy Moore, 82, a committed anti-Rocky Flats activist, spoke next. An activist since the 1970s, Moore arrived in Colorado to teach at the University of Denver, but when he caught wind of illegal waste disposal and dangerous fires at the nuclear weapons facility, he quit teaching and put his energy into the closure, clean-up and follow-up of Rocky Flats. Moore said he was “willing to die” to halt nuclear production and described a Gandhi-inspired fast at the Denver Capitol to draw attention to the issue. He continues to advocate for full disclosure of government documents regarding Rocky Flats, many of which remain sealed. Rocky Flats, he said, combines the three greatest threats to humanity: nuclear holocaust, environmental disaster and an authoritative and secretive government.

And finally, Charlie Church McKay spoke as a neighbor, a fourth-generation rancher and owner of land adjacent to the controversial 6,400-acre site. McKay’s concerns over the years, he said, were more about government violation of his property rights than environmental hazards; he spoke of regularly accompanying scientists to sampling sites adjacent to his property and trusting their reported findings.

He reminded the audience that before Rocky Flats was built in the early 1950s, “everyone wanted it,” the local public included, despite its proximity to Denver’s urban center. The fires, the other problems – these added a lot of “confusion” to the public view of Rocky Flats, McKay said. And yet, he added, “The worst thing to do is pretend like it didn’t happen” – something the whole panel could agree on.

Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @christi_mada.