The Ghosts of Rocky Flats

categories: Cocktail Hour


Last week I dug out an old cartoon about Rocky Flats that I posted here.  That cartoon led to this short essay that I wrote last Friday for my Wild Life blog. Here it is…. 

Twenty-one years ago this month, when I was twenty-nine, I learned that I had testicular cancer. As it happened I had recently returned to live in Worcester, Massachusetts, my hometown, and I joked to friends that I didn’t know what was worse, cancer or Worcester.

It was in Worcester that I underwent an operation to remove the malignancy and then endured a month of radiation treatment. And it was in the middle of that treatment that I, feeling queasy the way I always did during that ugly month, got a letter in the mail that would prove to be a kind of deus ex machina in the story of my life. The letter informed me that I had gotten into grad school in Boulder, Colorado, and less than four months later I left Worcester behind and moved to the appropriately named town of Eldorado Springs, a few miles outside of Boulder.

It was a deliverance of sorts. I would end up writing a book about the re-birth I experienced by moving west, but the short version is that I fell immediately in love with my surroundings. Gradually recovering, I threw myself into first hiking and then running the trails up into the flatirons, swimming in the creek, watching the swifts and falcons carve the sky as they flew down from the canyons, and biking up the roads above the city. Of course this sort of activity is not unusual in Boulder, since being unfit is against the law there, but I approached my own regimen of fitness with the particular vehemence of the recovered. Or, I should say, recovering. Because of course, somewhere in my mind, I feared cancer’s reoccurrence.

“If I’m going to die,” I wrote in my journal. “It will be in the best shape possible.”

There was an irony to my, and the town’s, focus on health. To the south of the city, not far beyond where I lived in Eldorado, stood Rocky Flats, a plant that made plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs. Rocky Flats had only about a year left as an active plant when I moved there, but it already had a history of disasters. Dow Chemical broke ground at the plant in 1951, and by 1957 twenty-seven buildings had spread over the grounds of the facility. That year a fire broke out that released plutonium into the atmosphere, and two years later radioactive barrels were found to be leaking, a fact that was not released to the public until eleven years later, in 1970, when “wind-borne particles were detected in Denver.”

More fires and leaks followed, resulting in the “costliest industrial clean up in United States history to that time.” Some 4,600 acres of land were purchased as a buffer zone around the plant, but water did not respect these borders, and nearby creeks were found to have elevated tritium levels. Meanwhile, topsoil at the plant was discovered to be contaminated with plutonium. The plant closed in 1992, but the plutonium, with a half life of 80 million years, lingers like an industrial ghost, haunting the scarred grounds.

In his brilliant essay, “Technically Sweet,” Reg Saner, a Boulder resident, writes of just how deadly plutonium can be to human beings: “Plutonium doesn’t have to be in a bomb to kill me. Its toxicity in the human system is almost beyond belief. One half of one hundredth of one millionth of a gram isn’t exactly oodles. However, a half-hundredth microgram dose of plutonium 239 per gram of bloodless lung has been shown to produce cancers in 100% of dogs used for experiment. And through Rocky Flats pass tons of the stuff. Since latent cancer may take 20 years or more to announce itself, plutonium is the perfect industrial murder. Two decades from now, if my lung cells betray some long-hidden, accelerating derangement, there’ll be no clue to that cancer’s having begun this afternoon, with a given breath.”

Like me, and like so many Boulderites, Saner was an active biker, and he sometimes pedaled right by the plant. He was well aware of the potentially unhealthy consequences of this healthy activity. This paradox was eventually confirmed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which, in its report on Rocky Flats, concluded: “People who lived near the plant and led active, outdoor lifestyles had the highest level of exposure to airborne plutonium.”

* * *

This week, as I celebrate cancer’s anniversary, I have been thinking about health, both public and personal, and about the need for conscientious oversight and, yes, for clear-sighted regulation in our lives. One of the things I find most troubling in our current national debate is the idea that freedom and regulation are antipodes. “Regulation” may make a nice bugaboo, but can anyone seriously believe that it is a good idea to do away with most of it? Or to put it another way, without it where are we? Any reasonable adult knows that regulation and freedom go hand in hand, that the two rely on each other for balance. What is the personal equivalent of regulation, after all, if not self-discipline? And how can a life be free without restraint?

I can say honestly that I never felt more free than I did during those first weeks in Eldorado Springs, roaming the hills, dipping into the creeks, feeling health surge back into my limbs. I had left dirty Worcester and radiation behind, not yet aware of the potential radioactivity of the neighborhood I was celebrating. To a certain extent, Rocky Flats and I have had parallel journeys in the years since. Five years out from my cancer I was declared “clean,” and ten years later so was the by-then-Superfund site of Rocky Flats. In 2005, the clean-up of the site was declared officially complete, and in 2007, four thousand acres of what had been the plant’s buffer zone became the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

At fifty I feel strong, but like any cancer survivor, I am on not-unfamiliar terms with occasional dread. Meanwhile, mule deer and elk roam the former industrial site, through a habitat containing hundreds of acres of rare xeric tallgrass prairie, and meadowlarks sing from the ground while northern harriers and peregrine falcons fly above. I’m sure there are days when one could look out at the place and it would seem a kind of paradise.


  1. Tommy writes:

    I seem to recall some boat lost a nuclear bomb overboard near the mouth of the Savannah River, about 30 years ago. Never recovered. And every bit of spent nuclear waste that’s ever been produced as the bi-product of nuclear generated electricity, is still stored right on site, where it was produced, at a multitude of sites, all over the country, and I think 30% of the population lives within 40 miles of a nuclear power plant. And guess what – we’re getting ready to build more! Oh and nuclear energy doesn’t produce electricity, it produces heat, which makes steam which turns a generator. Almost all of our electricity, whether coal, gas, or nuclear – is still steam driven!! (And people want to drive electric cars because they think they’re cleaner! Ha!)

  2. Brenda Edmands writes:

    Very powerful and insightful piece. I lived in Boulder from 85-92 as it happens and was part of some of the protests at Rocky Flats (my late husband even went to jail for a few hours because of protesting there). I too wonder if it really is “clean” now or just another cover up–this time with topsoil and native grasses. BTW–I remember when your “Under the Devil’s Thumb” came out–and I think I met you at a book trade show once since I used to work for Westview Press, then the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Assn. Funny the connections between Colorado and Maine. And so true about it being illegal to be unfit in Boulder–an attitude I’m relieved Maine doesn’t share.

  3. Cider Rides writes:

    about “regulation”:

    Do you recall the words over the main entrance to the old Worcester Courthouse?

    “Obedience to Law is Liberty”

  4. monica wood writes:

    So moving, David. Thank you.