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

Times Staff Writers

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.

"It was asserted that the plant will offer no threat whatever to the health of residents of nearby communities, and that workers on the project will be safer than downtown office workers who have to cross busy streets on their way to lunch," the Denver Post reported in October of 1951.

With that, a cloak of secrecy was dropped over Rocky Flats. Officials would say only that it would be "a secret processing production plant which will handle radioactive material," run by Dow Chemical Co. under government contract. Rockwell would win the contract in 1975, reporting to the Atomic Energy Commission's successor, the Department of Energy.

The plant's primary mission, then and now, was to smelt plutonium, purify it and fashion the metal into triggers for nuclear warheads. The triggers are sent to a plant near Amarillo, Tex., for final assembly of the weapon. In a warhead, the triggers explode in an atomic blast. That in turn sets off a hydrogen explosion.

Rocky Flats is a foundry, a largely blue-collar link in the nuclear warhead assembly. Like any other big, industrial operation, it produces waste, both radioactive and non-radioactive, including dust, ashes, liquids and used equipment such as filters and gloves.

Two Injured in Blast

By 1953, Rocky Flats was ready to begin operations. But the public would not find out what kind of operations until June 15, 1957, the day after two workers were injured in an explosion at the plant. Plutonium, the Atomic Energy Commission acknowledged, was a routine part of Rocky Flats' business.

That first, unexplained explosion at Rocky Flats was followed by more accidents, leaks and unsafe disposal of its waste. But the overriding concern for secrecy and security at this important link in the assembly of this nation's nuclear arsenal resulted in a pattern of misinformation.

In 1970, for example, James D. Kelly, a longtime leader of the United Steelworkers union local at the plant, told a congressional hearing that 1,400 barrels of radioactive waste were buried near a main road at the plant in 1958. Plant executives, he said, had led him to believe that no underground dump existed.

"The company knew that stuff was there while they were watching me make the statement on the TV that these things didn't exist," Kelly told the committee.

The FBI and Environmental Protection Agency have revealed internal memos from the Department of Energy that point to a disregard for regulations designed to protect public health and safety that continued through the late 1980s.

"Send . . . a message to EPA that DOE and its management contractors are willing to 'go to the mat' in opposing enforcement actions at DOE facilities," said Raymond Romatowski, then manager of the DOE Albuquerque office, which oversees Rocky Flats, in a Nov. 13, 1987, memo to a high-ranking Energy Department official in Washington.

Romatowski did not return repeated phone calls from The Times.

'Bunch of Paper Work'

"These guys at the DOE are lost in a 1950s time warp of patriotism that what they're doing is important to national security and defense and that all of this is just a bunch of paper work that doesn't apply to them," charged Melinda Kassen, a Boulder-based attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund.

What occurred at Rocky Flats, she said, amounts to "environmental anarchy."

In an affidavit filed to justify the Rocky Flats search, the FBI and EPA also quoted an internal DOE memo of July 14, 1986, when an agency official acknowledged that Rocky Flats "is in poor condition generally in terms of environmental compliance."

The startling memo called Energy Department applications to the EPA for permits to dispose of its waste "grossly inadequate." Some of the waste disposal practices at Rocky Flats are "patently illegal" and result in "serious contamination," it added.

All along, as questionable environmental practices continued, the Department of Energy was awarding Rockwell millions of dollars in performance bonuses for "excellent" management--an estimated $41 million over the years.

On Friday, the DOE said Rockwell's six-month "award fee" of $4 million to $5 million was being withheld. And, said Deputy Energy Secretary Henson Moore, the era of secrecy was over.

Under a new philosophy, Moore told a Denver news conference, the DOE would place "environmental, safety and health" above production at its nuclear weapons facilities, and give state inspectors high security clearances to enable greater oversight of operations at Rocky Flats.

But the plant should not be shut down, the department said. Troy E. Wade II, the Energy Department official in charge of defense programs, said: "We are unaware of any danger, imminent danger, to public health and safety."

"We wouldn't be operating it if we weren't comfortable with it," Wade said in an interview.

Internal Memos

However, when it was suggested that the internal memos revealed in the FBI affidavit challenge the Energy Department's credibility, Wade conceded: "I certainly can't argue with that."

"We have been trying to reach an agreement with EPA about definitions," he continued. "That has been a very difficult thing. . . . We have never, as the affidavit would suggest, taken the position that we would not comply with the regulations."

According to allegations in the affidavit, Rocky Flats:

--Illegally burned waste in an incinerator that was supposed to be shut for safety reasons in December. Wade denied the charge.

--Discharged wastes into creeks feeding drinking water supplies for 285,000 people after the DOE and Rockwell International told the EPA in 1980, 1983 and 1985 that there were no such discharges.

--Mixed incompatible chemical wastes that could result in the release of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

--Underreported to the EPA and state health officials--by thousands of pounds--the amount of waste it generates annually, and failed to explain how it disposed of the remainder.

Not in Firm's Report

In Rockwell International's glossy, 48-page annual report, the $12-billion-a-year defense and aerospace giant boasts of its contracts for the space shuttle, orbiting space station, missiles, jets and the Strategic Defense Initiative. No mention is made of Rocky Flats, save for a note at the end saying information will be provided upon written request.

Many Coloradans, including several residents living less than a mile from Rocky Flats, believe that a shutdown would spell economic disaster for the state as it struggles to recover from the oil and energy slump.

With nearly 6,000 jobs and a payroll of $220 million, Rocky Flats is the state's eighth-largest employer. The supplies it purchases pour another $59 million into the economy.

The average worker at Rocky Flats is 41 years old and has worked there nine years. Only 32% of the employees have college degrees, but the average gross pay--including benefits and reportedly fat bonuses for management--is $48,000. Two-thirds of the jobs are blue-collar.

Jump in Jobless Rate

In the unlikely case of a complete and immediate shutdown, Denver's unemployment rate would jump from 6.6% to 7.1%.

"It's not as bad as it's made out to be," said William Weida, a former Pentagon colonel who now teaches economics as a professor at Colorado College, specializing in defense issues.

"A cleanup effort would generate more jobs and last longer than Rocky Flats," Weida said.

Due to be phased out anyway over the next 20 years because of its proximity to Denver, known ground water contamination and aging equipment, Rocky Flats will take, according to government estimates, 30 years and more than $1 billion to clean up.

Protest Fading

Despite a steady stream of unfavorable reports and revelations, public protest against Rocky Flats has faded considerably in recent years.

"It's not so much apathy as a sense of powerlessness," said Maggie Fox, regional director of the Sierra Club. "The whole national security issue is daunting to take on. It's difficult, if not impossible, to get any facts. There has been a long history of concern."

Although environmentalists long have called on officials to shut the plant, the more urgent demands for its closure in the wake of the investigation have heightened the concern of those who depend on it for their livelihood.

"Certainly, the workers are worried about their jobs being taken away unnecessarily," said Kelly, of the Rocky Flats steelworkers union. "It would be deplorable if 5,600 workers get thrown out of work because of the actions of five or six guys."

The union has campaigned for three decades for safer working conditions at Rocky Flats, butting up against what Kelly calls a "brick wall" of "delay and evasion" by Rockwell and the DOE. Maybe now, he hopes, things will change.

"This has to be monitored by someone who doesn't have a vested interest," Kelly said, hoping that the federal government will create an independent board to oversee Rocky Flats and other DOE plants.

"There is no reason to close it down. If these allegations are true, then some people have to go, maybe a company, an agency, but not the plant."

Radiation is not the only hazard workers face at Rocky Flats. In addition to industrial accidents that result in crushed legs and sliced-off fingers, workers are developing a lung ailment from inhaling beryllium dust.

A light, strong metal, beryllium is an important part of the trigger device. As the plutonium fissions in the first nanoseconds of an explosion, a beryllium sheath reflects the neutrons back into the trigger, making it explode more completely.

The first case of beryllium disease at the plant was diagnosed in 1984. The American Review of Respiratory Disease this month reported signs of chronic beryllium disease in another eight workers.

Symptoms are minor for now, and the disease can be controlled if diagnosed early. But in advanced stages, victims become so short of breath they must rely on oxygen.

Many who contract the condition ultimately die of respiratory failure, said Dr. Lee S. Newman, who led the study done at the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine in Denver.

At least two workers have won partial worker compensation awards for disabilities attributable to beryllium. Joseph M. Goldhammer, attorney for several of the beryllium victims, said one of his clients can no longer walk up a flight of stairs without resting.

Company officials maintain that they try hard to keep workers safe. Once a worker collects too much radiation, he or she is transferred to a job away from radioactive material to "cool off." But despite all precautions, the fact remains that the workers must handle substances that are among the most toxic known to man.

A government study contends that the rate of cancer deaths among workers at Rocky Flats is lower than in the general population. But Denver lawyer Bruce DeBoskey, who represented Gabel, has hired experts who say the figures show that brain cancer, for example, is two to four times more prevelent among Rocky Flats workers.

"They are important cases in the sense that they demonstrate that the people who are calling this safe have been proven wrong," said DeBoskey, who has won two cases on behalf of families of cancer victims and has two more pending.

A few months before his death in 1980, Don Gabel testified in a worker's compensation hearing about how he would work on the plutonium, using leaded gloves. The metal supposedly was safely enclosed in a leakproof "glove box."

But as he molded the plutonium "buttons," the six-inch discs sometimes would slip from their containers and fall to the floor, Gabel said. He would pick them up, his only protection being a surgical glove.

He told a hearing officer, who later ruled that his tumor resulted from his work at the weapons plant, that when he touched an especially "hot" piece of equipment, radiation detectors would show that neutrons had bombarded him. He would go to the medical department, where technicians would scrub him with Clorox.

He also told of the steel exhaust pipe leading from furnaces used in the smelting process. He spent as much as 40% of his workday with his head six inches from the pipe. He recalled his boss's assurances that there was no danger "so long as you don't get your body close to it; that's where your organs are."

Good pay, good benefits and the need for steady work to support his wife, growing family and mortgage drew Gabel to Rocky Flats and kept him there. He was a fry cook when he got the call in 1970 that he had passed the security check and could start at the Flats.

"They get sucked into it," said Kae Gabel Williams, his 37-year-old widow, who since has remarried. "They just try to ignore it (the danger) and pretend it is not really there. They don't really have a choice."

She continued to press the worker's compensation case her husband began, though she had little hope of collecting any money. She simply thought it important that what happened to her husband become public and serve as a warning to others.

"This may be the one and only thing I ever do in my life to make a difference," she said in an interview.

Two years ago this month, a state appellate court finally declared that although she could collect no money, radiation did cause Don Gabel's death. Now, his widow watches with special interest as word spreads of problems at Rocky Flats.

"I've known this for years. When it started coming out, I thought, my God, it's about time. It is about time and a long time coming," she said. "It is a good feeling but it is also scary."

Scary, she thinks, because of what may be revealed.

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