The Ballad of Rocky Flats

categories: Cocktail Hour


While I was digging out the cartoon of Newt Gingrich from my old Ballad of Boulder files, I also came across this one.  Boulder, the healthiest town on the planet, is right down the street from the spot where a fairly unhealthy Nuclear Trigger plant called Rocky Flats thrived in secrecy for 40 years.

For more about Rocky Flats, scroll down……



For some scary reading, just check out Wikipedia’s account of Rocky Flats.  I’ll start here in the 1980s, just before I arrived, but with a little digging around you can get the whole spooky story.



Rocky Flats became a focus of protest by peace activists throughout the 1980s. In 1983, a demonstration was organized that brought together 17,000 people who joined hands in an encirclement around the 17-mile (27 km) perimeter of the plant.

A perimeter security zone was installed around the facility in 1983 and was upgraded with remote detection abilities in 1985. Also in 1983, the first radioactive waste was processed through the aqueous recovery system, creating a plutonium button.

A celebration of 25,000,000 continuous safe hours by the employees at Rocky Flats happened in 1985. The same year, Rockwell received Industrial Research Magazine’s IR-100 award for a process to remove actinide contamination from wastewater at the plant. The next year, the site received a National Safety Council Award of Honor for outstanding safety performance.

In 1988, a DOE safety evaluation resulted in a report that was critical of safety measures at the plant. The EPA fined the plant for polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) leaks from a transformer. A solid waste form, called pondcrete, was found not to have cured properly and was leaking from containers. A boxcar of transuranic waste from the site was refused entry into Idaho and returned to the plant. Plans to potentially close the plant were released.

In 1989 an employee left a faucet running, resulting in chromic acid being released into the sanitary water system. The Colorado Department of Health and the EPA both posted full-time personnel at the plant to monitor safety. Plutonium production was suspended due to safety violations.

[edit] FBI/EPA Investigation

Insiders at the plant started to covertly inform the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) about the unsafe conditions in 1987. Late that year the FBI commenced clandestine flights of light aircraft over the area and noticed that the incinerator was apparently being used late into the night. After several months of collecting evidence both from workers and via direct measurement, the FBI informed the DOE on June 6, 1989 that they wanted to meet to discuss a potential terrorist threat. When the DOE officers arrived, they were served with a search warrant. Simultaneously, the FBI and EPA raided the facility. They discovered numerous violations of federal anti-pollution laws, including limited [2] contamination of water and soil. However, none of the original charges which led to the raid were substantiated. In 1992, Rockwell was charged with environmental crimes including violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and the Clean Water Act. Rockwell pled guilty and paid an $18.5 million fine. This was the largest fine for an environmental crime to that date.

Dubbed “Operation Desert Glow,” the DOJ-sponsored raid began at 9 a.m. on June 6, 1989[6] after the FBI got past the DOE’s heavily armed, authorized to shoot-to-kill security—whose armament included surface-to-air missiles—under the ruse of providing a terrorist threat briefing and served its search warrant to Dominick Sanchini, Rockwell International’s manager of Rocky Flats, who as it happened died the next year in Boulder of cancer.[7][8]

After the June 1989 FBI raid of Rocky Flats, federal authorities used the subsequent grand jury investigation to gather evidence of wrongdoing and then sealed the record. The court allowed the Rocky Flats operators to withhold from the public data about the nature and extent of contamination on and off the site. In October 2006, DOE announced completion of the Rocky Flats “cleanup” without this information being available.[4]

The FBI raid led to the formation of Colorado’s first special grand jury in 1989, the juried testimony of 110 witnesses, reviews of 2,000 exhibits and ultimately a 1992 plea agreement in which Rockwell admitted to 10 federal environmental crimes and agreed to pay $18.5 million in fines out of its own funds. This amount was less than the company had been paid in bonuses for running the plant as determined by the GAO, and yet was also by far the highest hazardous-waste fine ever; four times larger than the previous record.[9] Due to DOE indemnification of its contractors, without some form of settlement being arrived at between the U.S. Justice Department and Rockwell the cost of paying any civil penalties would ultimately have been borne by U.S. taxpayers. While any criminal penalties allotted to Rockwell would not have been covered, for its part Rockwell claimed that the Department of Energy had specifically exempted them from most environmental laws, including hazardous waste.[10][11][12][13][14][15][16]

Regardless, and as forewarned by the prosecuting U.S. Attorney, Ken Fimberg/Scott,[17] the Department of Justice’s stated findings and plea agreement with Rockwell were heavily contested by its own, 23-member special grand jury. Press leaks on both sides—members of DOJ and the grand jury—occurred in violation of secrecy Rule 6(e) regarding Grand Jury information, a federal crime punishable by a prison sentence. The public contest led to U.S. Congressional oversight committee hearings chaired by Congressman Howard Wolpe, which issued subpoenas to DOJ principals despite several instances of DOJ’s refusal to comply. The hearings, whose findings include that the Justice Department had “bargained away the truth,”[18] ultimately still did not fully reveal the special grand jury’s report to the public, which remains sealed by the DOJ courts.[14][19]

The special grand jury report was nonetheless leaked to Westword. According to its subsequent publications, the Rocky Flats special grand jury had compiled indictments charging three DOE officials and five Rockwell employees with environmental crimes. The grand jury also wrote a report, intended for the public’s consumption per their charter, lambasting the conduct of DOE and Rocky Flats contractors for “engaging in a continuing campaign of distraction, deception and dishonesty” and noted that Rocky Flats, for many years, had discharged pollutants, hazardous materials and radioactive matter into nearby creeks and Broomfield’s and Westminster’s water supplies.[20]

The DOE itself, in a study released in December of the year prior to the FBI raid, had called Rocky Flats’ ground water the single greatest environmental hazard at any of its nuclear facilities.[21]

[edit] Withheld records

The final contamination levels of Rocky Flats itself as measured by the U.S. government after the Superfund cleanup, and those reported to an impanelled grand jury, are sealed records and have not been reported to the public. Denver area key leaders in both educating the public and pursuing contamination information that remains withheld by the U.S. Government include Dr. Leroy Brown, a Boulder scientist, retired FBI Special Agent Jon Lipsky,[20] who led the FBI’s raid of the Rocky Flats plant to investigate illegal plutonium burning and other environmental crimes and Wes McKinley, who was the foreman of the grand jury investigation into the operations at Rocky Flats and is today a Colorado State Representative.[10][22][23]

Former grand jury foreman McKinley chronicles his experiences in the 2004 book he co-authored with attorney Caron Balkany, The Ambushed Grand Jury, which begins with an open letter to the U.S. Congress from Special Agent Lipsky:

I am an FBI agent. My superiors have ordered me to lie about a criminal investigation I headed in 1989. We were investigating the US Department of Energy, but the US Justice Department covered up the truth.I have refused to follow the orders to lie about what really happened during that criminal investigation at Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. Instead, I have told the author of this book the truth. Her promise to me if I told here what really happened was that she would put it in a book to tell Congress and the American people.Some dangerous decisions are now being made based on that government cover-up. Please read this book. I believe you know what needs to happen.


[edit] 1990s

Rockwell International was replaced by EG&G as primary contractor for the Rocky Flats plant. EG&G began an aggressive work safety and cleanup plan for the site that included construction of a system to remove contamination from the groundwater of the site. The Sierra Club vs. Rockwell case was decided in favor of the Sierra Club. The ruling directed Rocky Flats to manage plutonium residues as hazardous waste.

In 1991, an interagency agreement between DOE, the Colorado Department of Health and the EPA outlined multi-year schedules for environmental restoration studies and remediation activities. The DOE released a report that advocated downsizing the plant’s production into a more streamlined facility. Due to the fall of the Soviet Union, production of most of the systems at Rocky Flats was no longer needed, leaving only the W88 warhead triggers.

In 1992, production was discontinued of submarine-based missiles using the W88 trigger, leading to the layoff of 4,500 employees at the plant. 4,000 others were retained for long-term cleanup of the facility. The Rocky Flats Plant Transition Plan outlined the environmental restoration process. The DOE announced that 61 pounds (28 kg) of plutonium lined the exhaust ductwork in six buildings on the site.

Starting in 1993, weapons-grade plutonium began to be shipped to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site.

In 1994 the site was renamed the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site, reflecting the changed nature of the site from weapon production to environmental cleanup and restoration. The cleanup effort was contracted to the Kaiser-Hill Company which proposed release of 4,100 acres (16 km²) of the buffer zone for public access.

Throughout the remainder of the 1990s and into the 2000s, cleanup of contaminated sites and dismantling of contaminated buildings continued with the waste materials being shipped to the Nevada Test Site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, and the Envirocare company in Utah, which is now EnergySolutions after merging with three other waste disposal companies.

In 1999, 800 acres (3 km²) were turned over to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service creating the Rock Creek Reserve.

[edit] 2000s

In 2000, Congress proposed transforming Rocky Flats to a wildlife refuge, setting aside 6,400 acres (25 km²) after cleanup and closure. The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act passed in 2001.[25]

The last contaminated building was removed and the last weapons-grade plutonium was shipped out in 2003, ending the cleanup based on a modified cleanup agreement. The modified agreement required a higher level of cleanup in the first 3 feet (1 m) of soil in exchange for not having to remove any contamination below that point unless it posed a chance of migrating to the surface or contaminating the groundwater.[26] About half of the 800 buildings previously existing on the site had been dismantled by early December 2004.

The site is contaminated with plutonium due to the several fires experienced on the site and other inadvertent releases caused by wind at a waste storage area. The other major contaminant is carbon tetrachloride (CCl4). Both of these substances affected areas adjacent to the site. In addition, there were small releases of beryllium and tritium, as well as dioxin from incineration.[27][28]

Clean-up was declared complete on October 13, 2005. About 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) of the new wildlife refuge, the former industrial area, will remain under DOE control to protect the ongoing environmental monitoring and remediation.

In July 2007, The United States Department of Energy transferred nearly 4,000 acres (16 km2) of land on the Rocky Flats site to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to establish the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.[29] Surveys of the site reveal 630 species of vascular plants, 76% of which are native.[30]

In September 2010, after a 20-year legal battle, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a $926 million award in a class-action lawsuit against Dow Chemical and Rockwell International.[31] The three-judge panel said that the jury reached its decision on faulty instructions that incorrectly stated the law. The appeals court tossed the jury verdict and sent the case back to the District Court. According to the Appellate Court, the owners of 12,000 properties in the class-action area had not proved their properties were damaged or they suffered bodily injury from plutonium that blew onto their properties.[31][32]








  1. Beckie writes:

    I have been doing research on Rocky Flats, I just moved from the area, I thought you would be interested in this petition to stop a Toll Road on Rocky Flats

  2. Tommy writes:

    Wow! I love how a great cartoonist can say so much with just one panel! “Don’t eat green snow!” Love it.