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Federal Probers Sound Alarms : Rocky Flats: Boon Turns Into Ecological Nightmare

June 20, 1989|TAMARA JONES and DAN MORAIN | Times Staff Writers

ROCKY FLATS, Colo. — Don Gabel would have turned 40 the other day.

A decade ago, when he was trying hard to make his mortgage and feed a young wife and three small children, he earned $8.35 an hour at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, including an extra 15 cents an hour in "hot pay" for handling radioactive plutonium "buttons."

When the headaches began, Gabel took aspirin and kept working. When he suffered a seizure and lost consciousness, doctors found the malignant brain tumor. When he was dying, Don Gabel tried to warn everyone about Rocky Flats.

His hair gone and head disfigured by the surgical removal of part of his skull, Gabel spoke out about carelessness and incompetence at one of the most secret defense plants in the nation. He told of repeated radiation leaks. Not many people listened.

But now, nine years after Don Gabel died in the first proven case of radiation-caused cancer at Rocky Flats, federal investigators are sounding similar alarms.

Nearly 100 federal agents are combing the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant in search of evidence of serious environmental crimes and governmental cover-ups that allegedly spanned years.

After learning that the plant generates thousands of pounds more hazardous and radioactive waste than its operators have publicly estimated, the FBI and Environmental Protection Agency this month accused Rocky Flats of illegally dumping and burning the excess.

Owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and run by Rockwell International Corp., Rocky Flats continues to function, even as investigators cart off boxes of documents and samples of air, soil and water.

"It's really business as usual," said Rocky Flats spokesman Jeff Kraft.

Now, however, communities that welcomed Rocky Flats as an economic boon and patriotic duty 38 years ago are digging ditches around their drinking water supplies to divert streams carrying toxic chemicals dumped at the plant. Whistle-blowers and furious citizens keep an FBI hot line ringing with tips about more alleged wrongdoing at "the Flats." New revelations and charges keep surfacing:

--A memo from a briefing of Rocky Flats managers last October reports that an average of 32 "contamination incidents" occur each month, ranging from possible inhalation of radioactive fumes and skin contact, to radiation releases.

'Criticality Infractions'

Officials at Rocky Flats say no uncontrolled fission has occurred at the plant. But the memo reports an average of more than two "nuclear criticality infractions" monthly. In the extreme, such incidents if not checked could lead to uncontrolled fission of plutonium and significant releases of radiation.

--In a paper released Sunday, a congressional subcommittee says its investigation shows that Energy Department "assurances about the adequacy of health and safety at Rocky Flats (and other critical nuclear weapons sites) are simply not true."

The Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, chaired by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), cited ventilation holes drilled into supposedly solid fire doors, and said: ". . .The nature and pervasiveness of these problems clearly indicate a systematic breakdown in DOE's programs to ensure adequate health and safety at other sites as well."

Federal and state officials responsible for protecting the environment agree with the Energy Department assessment that there is no "imminent danger" to public health or safety.

But the Colorado congressional delegation has demanded immediate action to clean up Rocky Flats, which the Department of Energy concedes is the most-polluted facility in the country's nuclear weapons complex. Gov. Roy Romer has threatened to shut down Rocky Flats immediately if any evidence of such "imminent danger" emerges.

Behind this unprecedented criminal investigation and its political fallout is a story of how patriotism turned to outrage, how secrecy turned into conspiracy and how a cow pasture in Colorado turned into an environmental battleground.

"There's Good News Today" trumpeted the headline in the March 23, 1951, edition of the Denver Post. "U.S. to Build $45-Million A-Plant Near Denver."

Atomic Era

It was the second year of the Korean War. A month earlier, a Los Angeles construction company had broken ground for one of the nation's first underground family fallout shelters, and an atomic bomb was exploded above-ground at the brand-new Nevada test site. That same year, two scientists at UC Berkeley shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering plutonium and other transuranic elements.

And on a peaceful plateau in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Colorado, no one seemed to realize what was about to happen just 16 miles northwest of the state capital of Denver.

When the Atomic Energy Commission chose Rocky Flats over 35 other sites for its newest production plant, community fears focused mainly on the risk of an enemy air attack. There was not much talk about radioactive waste, let alone where it might end up.

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