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Sensi Magazine

Fix A Flats

Aug 30, 2019 09:59AM ● By Leland Rucker
Hemp has been promoted as a remedy for myriad environmental problems, and one of the areas where it’s showing promise is in cleaning up contaminated soil. Northeast of Denver in Jefferson County, the 5,237-acre Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is the innocuous new name for Rocky Flats, a Cold War-era nuclear weapons plant that’s home to some of the most contaminated soil on earth. Now, a local group is trying to find out whether growing hemp might be able to help clean Rocky Flats soil by absorbing pollutants through the root system.

Tiffany Hansen is director of Rocky Flats Downwinders, a community organization she started in 2015 to spread the word to those who live “downwind” of the former nuclear weapons plant. “I found out then that I grew up three and a half miles from Rocky Flats,” she says. “I didn’t have any memories of that. I was really surprised that I lived so close to an area that went through so much history. How could this have gone on and nobody knows about it?”

She began conducting her own research, reached out to others on social media and read Kristen Iversen’s 2013 book, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. Iverson also was raised near the plant without any knowledge of what went on there, and her book inspired Hansen to raise awareness, especially for those people living in the area who don’t know Rocky Flats’ legacy. “There was a missing proponent of activism and advocating for people who might have gotten sick from this place,” she says. “It can be very stressful to find out you moved your family close to an active Superfund site.”

[The US Department of Health & Human Services defines a Superfund site as any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment.]

It’s difficult today to appreciate the fear that motivated American Cold-War behavior towards the Soviet Union after World War II. The Rocky Flats Plant was built on the remote, high prairie, 16 miles northwest of downtown Denver. It played a major role in nuclear weapons production during the Cold War. From 1952 until production stopped in 1992, the plant was known more for efficiency than safety, manufacturing more than 70,000 plutonium pits, commonly called “triggers,” that were used in almost every nuclear bomb made during the US build-up.

The general public was kept in the dark about the activities, and the crimes, until they were exposed years later. For starters, the high winds that frequent the area from the nearby western foothills weren’t taken into consideration when the facility was built. There were numerous fires, incidents, and near-meltdowns that went unreported at the time. In 1957, a fire that began in a glove box area in Building 771, a major production facility, spread through the air-filtering system and blew a cap in the roof that sent contaminated air into the atmosphere.

Another major fire in 1969 took two years to clean up and was the costliest accident in industrial nuclear history. But production continued until the FBI and EPA raids of the plant in 1989. Though the government denies it, many believe that plutonium was released during those incidents. Later, it was revealed that waste created during the industrial process was being stored in more than 5,000 steel barrels haphazardly buried in an open field, which had leaked radioactive material into the ground.

After the plant was closed, the government and its contractors pled guilty to numerous environmental crimes, fines were administered, and an extensive, expensive cleanup began. The Superfund site, where the actual production took place, remains closed off hopefully, forever and overseen by the Department of Energy. But the rest, after being considered uncontaminated in 2005 after a decade-long cleanup, is now called the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge and operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Services. People are now allowed to traverse the refuge on a trail system.

To add to the confusion, subdivisions continue to be built along the eastern and southern periphery. Unlike around most Superfund sites, these areas are high-end developments. The Jefferson County Public Highway Authority, after decades of trying, has been given the go-ahead to construct an extension of I-470 from Golden to Broomfield, part of which would run adjacent to Indiana Street, the eastern boundary of the former plant.

Given the government’s past cover-ups and lack of candor, there are many who still wonder whether all that plutonium contamination was adequately confined and whether those living downwind are still in danger. And as Hansen notes, beyond the plaque at artist Jeff Gipes’ iconic sculpture of a horse dressed in a red hazmat suit and rubber boots on Highway 72 west of Indiana Street, a tribute to those who worked at the plant, there is no mention of its mission or mistakes in the new upscale suburbs being built around the edges.

Hansen believes the health information the government releases is selective and inaccurate. She has had her own medical problems, and has found many others including people who have moved here since the plant closed who are also experiencing health issues. She is particularly concerned about increasing incidents of breast cancer among younger women.

A grand jury empaneled to look at Rocky Flats crimes wound up helping unmask the deception. One member of that jury, a rancher named Wes McKinley, later was elected to the Colorado House. In 2012, he sponsored House Bill 12-1099, which created a framework for the study and use of industrial hemp to clean up contaminated soil.

After meeting McKinley and finding out about the bill, Hansen applied for and got a catalyst grant from the Roddenberry Foundation (named after Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry), which gives small awards for innovative projects that address global challenges, according to its website.

She has assembled a team that includes Dr. Michael Ketterer, a professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry at Northern Arizona University; growers RuBi Hemp Solutions; and Dr. Elizabeth Pilon Smits, biologist and Colorado State University professor, who will advise the venture.

“It’s a small project to study if and whether hemp can work with radiation,” Hansen says.

The group originally sought and was denied four 5-gallon buckets of soil from the Jefferson County Public Highway Authority. After some members of the commission expressed their concerns about the rejection, Hansen says, she was contacted by Jefferson County. “Next thing I know, we get an offer and permits, and then we got the soil. Ketterer will be working with the hemp farm to test soil before, during, and after.”

Hansen, who uses CBD for her own health, is working with a cannabis company to produce a high-CBD cannabis strain called “Rocky Flats.” She hopes that having a Rocky Flats strain besides being a healthy option can spur conversations and help raise more awareness about the former factory.

Though disappointed with the reaction of the highway commission, Hansen cautions that the approach is not driven by advocacy as much as finally getting some real data to work with about the possibilities of now-legal hemp. “I am all about awareness,” she says. “What we find out could be helpful for the highway commission, and thinking more about how we deal with this. We need more research. This is a small pilot project. But if it has value, it’s a start.”