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U.S. Vows to Lift 30-Year Veil of Secrecy at Weapons Plants

June 17, 1989|TAMARA JONES | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — Facing a massive criminal investigation at its Rocky Flats facility, the Department of Energy vowed Friday to end more than 30 years of secrecy and silence cloaking its nuclear weapon plants and to place "environment, safety and public health" above production concerns.

Deputy Secretary of Energy Henson Moore refused to discuss specific allegations of wrongdoing at Rocky Flats, but announced a $1.8-million plan to beef up monitoring and oversight at the plutonium-trigger-making facility 16 miles northwest of Denver.

"You cannot operate these plants as we have in the past," Moore told a joint news conference at the state Capitol with Gov. Roy Romer.

Moore also said the Energy Department shuffled top management at Rocky Flats and sent a stern letter explaining "this change in philosophy" to its contractor, Rockwell International Corp.

Rockwell's regular "award fee" of "$4- to $5 million" also was being withheld for the six-month period ending in March, Moore said. The DOE has routinely paid Rockwell millions of dollars in performance bonuses over the last 14 years despite the department's own ranking of Rocky Flats as the most dangerously contaminated site in the nation's nuclear weapons complex.

Aerial Surveys

The DOE also said that next month it will begin aerial surveys of Rocky Flats "to obtain background radiation levels for the entire area to identify any possible health or safety hazard."

The move appeared to be in response to FBI allegations that hazardous waste was illegally burned at Rocky Flats late last year.

The new agreement, which Romer said was hammered out at 2:30 a.m. Friday, gives state health officials better access to top-secret areas of Rocky Flats and more extensive methods to monitor the air, soil and water for contamination.

Among the steps taken was shutting down the incinerator under FBI investigation until state inspectors are satisfied that waste is being burned both legally and safely.

"These plants were built in the 1950s and the philosophy was this is a secret operation, not subject to any laws by the state," Moore said. The pervasive attitude, he said, was "just butt out."

"Nothing will be kept secret with regard to environment," the DOE asserted in a written statement released at the news conference.

The wide-ranging agreement with the state, similar to one at the Savannah River nuclear facility in South Carolina, apparently was struck to quell public outrage and demands that Rocky Flats be shut down.

Moore reiterated that the FBI and Environmental Protection Agency search of Rocky Flats, which is still under way, as well as an internal DOE investigation, has turned up no evidence of any "imminent danger" to public health or safety. Approximately 2 million people live within a 50-mile radius of Rocky Flats.

A 116-page affidavit filed by the FBI to support its request for search warrants at the plant accused the Department of Energy and Rockwell of illegally dumping and burning hazardous waste and then lying to cover up the environmental violations.

The affidavit said exotic, toxic chemicals were dumped into two creeks leading to the drinking water supplies of 285,000 citizens.

But, "tests show absolutely clean, drinkable water," Romer said.

After nearly 100 federal agents raided Rocky Flats on June 6, Romer angrily declared that he would close the federal facility at the first sign of any threat to public health or safety. It is not clear whether the governor has that authority when issues of national security and defense come into play.

In the two-page letter to Rockwell Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Donald Beall, Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins said "any surreptitious actions" to dodge environmental laws and regulations "cannot be tolerated."

Watkins admitted dissatisfaction with management of Rocky Flats. "As a result, I have effected significant management changes there and expect that others will follow after my team completes its review."

Watkins replaced the top DOE manager at Rocky Flats, Rush Inlow, on the morning of the raid. Inlow returned to DOE operations offices in Albuquerque, which normally has jurisdiction over Rocky Flats.

During the investigation, Albuquerque has been removed from the chain of command, Moore said, with Rocky Flats reporting directly to Washington.

In his letter, Watkins also warned that Rockwell would be in breach of contract if "any incinerator, designed and constructed for the purpose of reclaiming special nuclear material, were instead used intentionally as an expedient means for disposal of hazardous waste, a function for which such incinerators are neither designed nor permitted to carry out."

Watkins demanded that Rockwell submit a plan within 60 days to prevent "management shortcomings."

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