A look at Rocky Flats 25 years later

Crews still monitor contaminated ground water

Amy Woodward
Scott Surovhak, site manager at Rocky Flats, answers questions about the site's history and cleanup.
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It was 25 years ago that officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, along with the FBI, raided Rocky Flats, one of North America’s most notorious nuclear weapons facility, known for manufacturing plutonium triggers.

Today, workers from the Department of Energy’s Legacy Management are still present on the 6,550 acres of open space that once housed 800 structures, some saturated with radioactive contamination, specifically plutonium. In the decades it took to clean up the site, infrastructure was demolished, cleaned, and removed while building foundations were vaulted and buried in the ground with their highest point at six feet below the surface, the bottom resting anywhere from 65 to 80 feet.

Most of the buildings at Rocky Flats were determined to be “low-level” which meant they were cleaned and sent by train to Envirocare, now known as EnerySolutions, located in Utah. Clean demolition debris which was eligible for “free release” was sent to the local landfill.

“Remarkably where the production took place in these buildings, they’re actually — at the end of the day, it was low-level waste,” said David Abelson, member of the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council.

Along with foundations, old process waste lines, which were cleaned out and filled in with a grout, still remain as well as contaminated ground water.

But doubt and controversy still surround what is now vacant grassland, overcome by wild flowers and frequent visitations from wildlife. Many question the level of plutonium contamination at the site, with critics considering the land to be unsafe such as Boulder’s Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center who commissioned a study two years ago resulting in what they say were elevated levels of plutonium that were as high during the days of operation at Rocky Flats.

Still, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy maintain the site is safe, including the 300 feet of right-of-way adjacent to Indiana St. that will be used for the proposed Jefferson Parkway.

“That property outside of this fence area was released for any and all uses,” said Scott Survochak, site manager at Rocky Flats. “The reason we’re here is to keep people from damaging the remedy,” he said. “The intent is not to protect the people from the remedy.”

The “Circle of Remedy” or the central operable unit encompasses around 1,309 acres. It includes all infrastructure and waste lines left over from the clean-up that could not be removed due to cost and its impact on the soil which would have shifted the way ground water moves, Abelson said.

Monitoring ground water in order to protect surface water is the primary focus of DOE’s presence, Surovchak said.

“The biggest risk is that somebody would excavate down into that buried structure, that contaminated ground water, that’s what the risk is.”

Currently, workers from DOE are primarily treating organics, nitrate plume and small uranium plumes as well as natural uranium commonly found through the mountain region.

To date, of the approximate 6,550-acre federal property, around 4,750 acres of it has been dedicated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to become a wildlife refuge.

For now, DOE officials will continue to maintain the remedy.

“Hopefully, sometime in the future we can transfer that,” Surovchak said. When asked how long the remedy will last, Surovchak answered, “Your guess is as good as mine.”