Wednesday, February 02, 2000

Rocky Flats plans controlled burn
DOE announces plan to burn vegetation this spring

By TERJE LANGELAND
Colorado Daily Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Energy plans to go ahead with a controversial plan to conduct controlled burns as part of its vegetation management in the buffer zone surrounding Rocky Flats, the former nuclear weapons plant south of Boulder.

The DOE announced Monday that it plans to conduct the burn in three separate areas, totaling 500 acres, sometime between March 1 and April 30. The exact time and date will depend on weather conditions.

The department initially declared its intention to burn vegetation in the buffer zone in the spring of last year, but no burns took place that year. Rocky Flats spokesman Pat Etchart explained that there is only a short "window" of opportunity to burn each year, during which conditions are satisfactory.

"Part of the reason nothing happened last year was they missed the window," Etchart said.

DOE officials have said the burns will help remove dead vegetation that has built up in the 5,800-acre buffer zone surrounding the 400-acre former weapons plant. Most of the buffer zone consists of grasslands, shrublands, wetlands and riparian habitat. The burns will reduce the risk of out-of-control wildfires and will also help native vegetation that's being choked by weeds, officials have said.

But critics have said the burns could release plutonium in the soil and send clouds of radioactive particles downwind toward residential areas. Portions of the buffer zone are contaminated with plutonium, the radioactive material that was used to produce parts for nuclear warheads on the site until 1989.

The DOE, however, said each area targeted for burns is "at least three quarters of a mile away from known contaminated land."

Air, soil and vegetation monitoring will take place before, during and after the burn, and monitoring results will be made public, the department said. The Colorado Air Pollution Control Division has issued a permit for the burn with special restrictions.