Residents Near Rocky Flats Fret Over Nuclear Leaks

OMAR JOSEPH of Arvada has enjoyed his view of the Rocky Mountains for more than 20 years. But he and other residents of Denver's northern suburbs are uneasy these days as investigations continue at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant just down the street from Mr. Joseph's house. ``We're all concerned, naturally,'' Joseph says. ``But what are you going to do? You just hold your breath and hope for the best.''

Arvada, Broomfield and Westminster are Denver suburbs that surround the Rocky Flats plant, a government facility that makes the plutonium bombs used as triggers for much larger hydrogen weapons in the US arsenal.

Although public concerns over the potential for environmental mishaps at the plant had been voiced since its establishment in 1953, the most concrete evidence of such a problem came in early June when 75 FBI and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agents raided the plant. The raid was organized after rumors surfaced that the plant was generating thousands of pounds more hazardous and radioactive waste than its operators had admitted. Although owned by the US Department of Energy (DOE), the plant is operated under contract by Rockwell International Company.

The results of the raid have not been made public. Since it occurred, communities in the area have expressed sharp concern about contamination of their drinking water and even the air they breathe. The DOE has made assurances that, at present, water supplies in these areas are safe. But citizens are skeptical.

``We can't stand idly by and watch our brothers and sisters suffer in a militarized economy that makes women and children the biggest sufferers,'' said the Rev. Gilbert Horn, an area minister. The Rev. Mr. Horn was among several speaking out at a rally of more than 400 Denver area residents last week.

Colorado Gov. Roy Romer also is skeptical of the DOE assurances. He said he will not accept the DOE promise that the plant is adequately monitoring air and water conditions around the facility.

``I'm not relying on [DOE Secretary James Watkins's] word,'' said Governor Romer, who has taken independent action to verify radiation and toxicity. ``I knew we needed an independent, scientific panel to give us the best advice. The public in the state needs this - they don't know who to believe. We've got to reestablish credibility.''

The governor last month formed an independent, 13-member panel to report to him at least weekly results of ongoing monitoring of the plant, expanded since the June raid. Meanwhile, the DOE has just completed the second phase of an aerial survey to see if large amounts of radioactivity have escaped from the site.

But monitoring efforts by Romer and the DOE are not enough for some local environmental groups and Rocky Flats critics. The Rocky Flats Alliance, a coalition of 15 groups, has been waging a massive campaign to close the plant. On August 6, the group plans to encircle the plant with protesters.

``We do not know with certainty that the plant is safe,'' explains Joe Tempel, an alliance spokesman. ``Therefore, it should close until an independent authority can verify that public health is not at risk.''

Governor Romer, however, who has been open to the environmentalists' requests, reiterated that his powers are limited.

``That plant should operate only if it is safe and if it is clean for the environment, based upon standards that are acceptable,'' he said. ``If we can't show that, it's got to close.''

Some within Colorado's environmental community are backing the governor, who has gotten more state access to EPA and DOE findings as well as access for his newly-formed panel. The panel's findings will be open for review this month.

Surprisingly little mention has been made of the economic impact on the area should Rocky Flats be closed. The plant pumps about $600 million into the struggling Colorado economy each year, employing 6,000 workers at an average of $50,000 each.

But plant critics probably will not see a shutdown soon. The role of the facility in producing nuclear weapons is particularly important now because environmental concerns have forced DOE to close down reactors in South Carolina and Washington - both of which produced plutonium and other radioactive material. That makes Rocky Flats the only source of plutonium triggers.

Meanwhile, the controversy continues. A state grand jury investigation of the plant begins today.

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