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Plutonium found in air near former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant

Courtesy USFWS - Kayt Jonsson
Sara Wilson

(Colorado Newsline) There are measurable levels of plutonium in the area planned for recreational trail development near Rocky Flats, experts warned in a recent court filing.

Chemist Michael Ketterer and retired FBI agent Jon Lipsky measured levels using air filters at three locations near Rocky Flats during a high winds April 6, when dirt was visibly blowing through the air, they said.

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They reasoned that two plutonium isotopes originating from the former nuclear weapons plant and current Superfund site were present in the air.

“It is concluded, to a reasonable level of scientific certainty, that Rocky Flats plutonium is being dispersed under episodic high-wind conditions prevalent at the site, from contaminated source areas on the (Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge), and is being transported eastward towards non-Federal lands and populated areas,” Ketterer wrote in a May 21 affidavit in federal court.

Rocky Flats operated in the later half of the 20th century as a manufacturing plant for nuclear weapon parts, but the FBI raided the site in 1989 on suspicion that a private contractor violated environmental laws. It shut down and was then designated an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, undergoing a clean-up that wrapped up in 2005. Much of the site is now a national wildlife refuge.

A proposed Rocky Mountain Greenway project in the area would connect Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Two Ponds and Rocky Flats — all national wildlife refuges — through a trail system and further open the land up for recreational use.

Watchdog community groups, including the Physicians for Social Responsibility, are seeking a preliminary injunction against construction through the contaminated area of Rocky Flats. They argue that opening the area to the public threatens “irreparable harm” to neighbors due to the presence of plutonium. Plutonium exposure can lead to bone, liver and lung cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Once construction begins and people begin walking on the site, the court filing says, the soil will be more susceptible to erosion and it will be easier for wind to pick up and spread contaminated particles.

“A prompt ruling could alleviate many of the irreparable injuries alleged by Plaintiffs by preventing the dispersal of additional soil-based plutonium into the air from the forthcoming construction work,” the June 6 filing, notifying the court of Ketterer’s work, says.

The lawsuit brought by the Physicians for Social Responsibility is pending. The case is in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

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