Hot Property: A former nuclear bomb factory gets caught in suburban turf wars

  • Locator map of Rocky Flats near Denver

    Diane Sylvain
  • DEADLY: A worker holds a plutonium "button" at RockyFlats

  • MAKING HAY: Charlie McKay

    Jad Davenport

ROCKY FLATS, Colo. - When Charlie McKay's uncle, Marcus Church, was forced to sell 1,250 acres of ranchland to the U.S. government for a top-secret military facility, the deal was sweetened only by the promise of a development boom. The year was 1951, and Denver, which sat 17 miles away, had a population of a little over half a million.

Government officials assured the Churches and other area landowners that the new plant, dubbed Rocky Flats, would attract not only workers from all over the country, but new businesses and residential development as well.

For McKay, now an imposing 60-year-old with heavy black eyebrows, it was both the end and beginning of an era. He continued the family ranching tradition, but turned to real estate, trying to develop chunks of the thousands of acres still owned by the family. It was a tough sell.

"Everybody thought it (Rocky Flats) was going to be this magnet," says McKay. "But that didn't happen."

In fact, it was a repellent. The stigma of the nearby plant kept would-be customers for real estate development far away, and for years the state refused to issue building permits around the site, which eventually grew to 6,400 acres (a 6,000-acre buffer zone surrounding a 400-acre industrial core).

Fears of radiation and contamination were not unfounded. For almost 40 years, Rocky Flats, owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and operated by a series of private contractors, quietly produced bomb pit cores for nuclear warheads. Workers turned liquid plutonium - one of the deadliest substances known to man - into pure plutonium metal buttons that were the "triggers" in nuclear warheads. All told, Rocky Flats produced some 70,000 triggers between 1953 and 1989, as well as thousands of tons of hazardous waste on a daily basis. A series of nasty fires at some of the industrial sites reinforced the notion that Rocky Flats was a place to be avoided (see review of Making a Real Killing, page 13).

But what a difference a few decades can make. Today, the defunct Rocky Flats facility is the subject of an intensive federal cleanup effort. Denver has crept to within eight miles of the site, and sprawling tract home developments have sprung up much closer. Rocky Flats has become a hot property: It is both prime real estate and one of the last significant chunks of untouched prairie on the Front Range.

Momentum is building to declare Rocky Flats a national wildlife refuge. But the increasingly heated politics of growth on the Front Range, where municipalities and counties slug it out over the last sizeable pieces of land, won't make that task easy. The possibility lingers that Rocky Flats will be sold off to the highest bidder.

Changing visions

The battle over Rocky Flats' future had its genesis in the facility's dramatic fall. In 1989, the accumulation of information about mismanagement of hazardous and nuclear wastes at the site became so heavy that the FBI raided Rocky Flats and suspended plutonium production. Two months later, a federal grand jury convened to investigate alleged health, safety and environmental violations. Their findings were officially gagged, but details leaked by jurors revealed gross misconduct, including illegally burned hazardous waste, thousands of poorly labeled barrels of waste, and spreading, underground plumes of radioactive waste (HCN, 3/30/98). Rocky Flats officially shut down in 1992 and has since been designated a federal Superfund site.

In the years that followed, the Department of Energy and the counties and towns surrounding the site came up with a vision for Rocky Flats: a 70-year-long cleanup process during which portions of the facility might be reopened for industrial use. But the seriousness of the contamination (the DOE estimates that 500 acres of the site registers radiation levels above background) combined with the frenzied growth of the Front Range, forced a change in plans, says David Abelson, who heads the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments.

"The nature of the conversation has shifted in the last year for a number of reasons," says Abelson. "not the least of which is growth in this part of Colorado."

In 1999 the Department of Energy signed a closure contract with contractor Kaiser-Hill to reflect this new perspective. It calls for a thorough clean-up by December 2006.

The cleanup can't happen fast enough for both activists concerned about preserving open space and developers eager to build in the area. Rocky Flats sits on a windswept and largely treeless mesa about 1,000 feet higher than Denver, above the smog line, and halfway between the city and the thriving university and high-tech town of Boulder. New or planned development already abuts its northeast and southeast corners, and more is planned. Charlie McKay has finally capitalized on the recent development boom. Currently promoting his 145-acre mixed use Church Ranch Corporate Center, he plans to eventually develop two more parcels around Rocky Flats.

At one point it looked as if McKay might get his hands on some of Rocky Flats itself. A land swap proposed in 1999 would have given him several hundred acres inside the buffer zone in exchange for 160 acres outside its western border. The city of Arvada backed the deal, but the other local governments, supported by local environmental groups, squelched it.

The threat of an endless string of developers trying to get their hands on the buffer zone and digging into its contaminated soils spawned a new idea: Protect Rocky Flats as open space.

A crown jewel

To scientists who know the site, Rocky Flats is an ecological treasure trove. Free from grazing for 50 years, the buffer zone contains one of the last vestiges of tallgrass prairie on the Front Range. Last year, State Attorney General Ken Salazar dubbed Rocky Flats the "Crown Jewel" of the Front Range, and the catchphrase stuck.

Rocky Flats manager John Rampe says employees working on the cleanup often eat lunch on the prairie, amid songbirds, more than 300 mule deer and several other mammal and bird species, including great horned owls and the endangered Preble's meadow jumping mouse. Bordered on three sides by open space, it is the last link in a wildlife corridor from the mountains to the east.

"It's like it was before the white man got here," says Rampe.

Responding to calls for Rocky Flats' protection, Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., introduced a bill in June of 1999 to permanently preserve the buffer zone as open space. Denver area newspapers praised the legislation, as did citizen groups such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Foothills. Udall also largely had the support of the local communities. Last February, the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments voted six to one in favor of the bill. The coalition, which includes Jefferson and Boulder counties, as well as the municipalities of Boulder, Westminster, Broomfield, Golden and Arvada, has no direct authority in deciding Rocky Flats' fate, but politicians and federal agencies regularly consult with it.

The city of Arvada was the lone dissenter, igniting suspicions that it hoped to annex and develop Rocky Flats to benefit its tax base.

Burb battles

To fully appreciate the suburban turf war over Rocky Flats takes some historical perspective. The city of Boulder has often in recent decades reached beyond its boundaries to to purchase open space along the dramatic foothills that rise from the plains.

This has particularly angered Arvada, which has long aspired to become more than just a bedroom community for Denver - a distinction that Boulder, with its vital commercial economy, has. Over the years, Arvada officials have backed a number of large commercial and industrial projects. The most grandiose was the 18,000-acre Jefferson Center, a mixed-use development designed to draw workers to Arvada. The project ran into numerous setbacks, including opposition from neighbors, but the coup de grace came nearly two years ago when Boulder purchased a 1,500-acre chunk of open space that was at the heart of the project.

"If Arvada and Boulder were separate countries, Arvada would have declared war by now," says Dave Chandler, a Sierra Club activist who has run unsuccessfully for the Arvada city council.

It came as no surprise to many that Arvada would resist the idea of a completely undeveloped Rocky Flats. As Chandler says, "There's little space left to develop, and Rocky Flats is one of them."

Last June, Arvada's mayor, Kenneth Fellman, wrote letters to Udall and Republican Sen. Wayne Allard saying that Rocky Flats should be placed under local control so that the surrounding communities could benefit economically from the closure. The city also raised concerns that an open-space designation would translate into a less thorough federal cleanup.

"The feds had it for 50 years and they haven't been good stewards," said Arvada city council member Lorraine Anderson. "It's not going to be a high priority if it remains in federal hands."

"The bottom line is we want a proper cleanup," echoed Fellman. "The designation of open space doesn't maximize that. We ought to keep open a range of options."

Arvada added more fuel to the fire when it hired a powerful Washington, D.C., lobbying firm to represent its interest in Rocky Flats legislation.

"Arvada's cards are finally on the table," said Doris DePenning of Friends of the Foothills, an activist group that supported the Udall legislation. "They never met a developer they didn't like."

By the end of the summer, though, Arvada's isolated position met pressure it couldn't resist. In September, Udall joined forces with Allard to introduce a revised bill that would designate Rocky Flats as a national wildlife refuge. It was backed by the entire Colorado congressional delegation. After enduring blistering criticism in the local newspapers, Arvada retreated. The city recently passed a resolution in support of the bill, saying that it adequately addresses Arvada's concerns over cleanup.

The proposed bill would keep Rocky Flats in federal hands, turning it over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for management as a national wildlife refuge. It specifically prohibits annexation of buffer-zone land, and stresses that the wildlife refuge designation will not affect cleanup.

Supporters of preservation are banking on the bill, expected to be reintroduced early this year - as the answer to Rocky Flats' future. Udall policy advisor Doug Young says other members of Congress should view this legislation as a wilderness bill and defer to the wishes of the state's congressional delegation.

Another snag

But the road to legislation may be long and tedious. Young acknowledges that other states will be keeping a close eye on Rocky Flats legislation because it will set a precedent for how other federal nuclear facilities may be managed in the future.

Then there is Arvada. Though city officials say they no longer are interested in developing the buffer zone, in October the Arvada city council passed a resolution calling on Allard and Udall to include in their bill a right-of-way through the southeastern corner of Rocky Flats for the eventual construction of a segment of Denver's beltway.

Not allowing a beltway through Rocky Flats buffer zone, Fellman says, "would foreclose the option that to the naked eye, if you look on a map, is obvious: the safest possible curve, the shortest distance between two points. If we don't have that option, maybe we need a new bill."

Fellman says that without a beltway, all the growth generated by Arvada's neighbors will funnel through Arvada city streets. "It's a traffic issue for us."

Once again, Arvada's position is opposed by the other local governments, who agree with a recent study they commissioned that shows a beltway is unnecessary. Their stance is bolstered by the widely held notion that digging up soils in the buffer zone for a highway is unsafe.

Doug Young, Udall's advisor, says his boss is not philosophically against a beltway, but insists that "there are many alignment possibilities that wouldn't touch Rocky Flats."

The price of failure

If legislation to preserve the Rocky Flats open land falters, the federal government will still hold the keys. After closure, the land would be turned over to the Energy Department's real estate arm, which has the authority to transfer the land outright under the Atomic Energy Act. Rocky Flats managers have no official position on future land use, but they support open-space designation, and expect legislation to be passed before the transfer.

A little-noticed rule, published on the Federal Register on Feb. 29, 2000, has some people worried that Rocky Flats will be sold to the highest bidder. It gives the Energy Department the authority and guidelines to sell or lease property at its defunct nuclear weapons facilities to boost economic development in local communities.

"Without Congress saying what ought to happen," says Doug Young, "the risk is the whole site can be disposed of. DOE is not a land-management agency."

If that happens, developers like Charlie McKay might be there with check in hand. Despite battling for years the public perception of a highly contaminated Rocky Flats, he's no longer worried.

"Rain, snow, wind and time erase contamination," says McKay. "The problems get dissipated over time."

Most people wouldn't agree with that assessment, especially given the evidence of serious contamination uncovered by the FBI and the grand jury investigation. But Rocky Flats officials insist that the whole site will be safe by closure. A $650 million per year budget and a team of about a dozen environmental scientists will ensure it.

"The vast majority of the industrial area is uncontaminated or little contaminated," says Rocky Flats' John Rampe, "so that it won't pose any risk under any land-use scenario."

As for Charlie McKay, he says "the wind is finally blowing the other way."

Catherine Lutz is a former HCN intern who now works for the Roaring Fork Sunday in Basalt, Colo. HCN Senior Editor Paul Larmer contributed to this report.

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