Tuesday, March 21, 2000

Rocky Flats burn plan sparks growing criticism

Colorado Daily Staff Writer

A groundswell of opposition appears to be building against a proposed plan to conduct controlled vegetation burns in the buffer zone surrounding Rocky Flats, the former atomic-bomb factory south of Boulder.

A local citizens' group staged protests Sunday and Monday against the burn, which critics say could send a cloud of plutonium-contaminated smoke drifting downwind toward residential areas.

Meanwhile, members of the Sierra Club and the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center kicked off a two-day "call-in" Monday, urging their members and supporters to contact Rocky Flats, their local city governments and Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., to express their concerns.

Burns in the buffer zone, part of the site's overall vegetation management plan, could start as early as this weekend if conditions are right. The purpose of the burns, according to site officials, is to remove buildup of dead vegetation. This would help native plants regenerate and would also reduce the risk of accidental, out-of-control fires, officials say.

The site conducted a risk analysis and found that the chance of significant airborne contamination was negligible, according to Pat Etchart, a Rocky Flats spokesman.

Nonetheless, an increasingly vocal group of citizens, organizations and municipalities are urging the site to hold off on any burns, saying public input on the plan has been insufficient.

"There has been little or almost no dialogue," said Joan Seeman of the Sierra Club. "There are still so many unanswered questions."

Etchart disagreed, pointing out that the site's vegetation management plan was approved about a year ago after a draft environmental assessment was released for public comment.

In addition, Rocky Flats officials gave briefings to area municipalities, he said. The plan was also discussed at a recent meeting of the Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board, which was open to the public.

"We have been trying to be very open and upfront with this," Etchart said. "We think we've done a lot."

But Sam Dixion, a Westminster City Council member, said the briefing Westminster received from Rocky Flats officials wasn't satisfactory.

"We had a lot of questions," Dixion said. "They did not answer them."

According to site officials, the burn will take place at least 500 yards from any "known" contamination in the buffer zone. It will be carried out by experienced U.S. Forest Service personnel and will be closely monitored for any potential radioactive releases, Etchart said. Moreover, the Air Quality Control division of the state Health Department has reviewed the proposed burn plan and issued a burn permit.

Etchart said the buffer zone has been extensively surveyed and sampled and that there are no indications that the areas targeted for burns are contaminated.

"We know where the contamination is," he said.

Critics, meanwhile, say they aren't so sure. The technology simply doesn't exist to verify with 100-percent certainty that there is no contamination in the area, said Tom Marshall of the Peace and Justice Center.

"We are not confident that their characterization is complete or accurate," Marshall said.

Based on historical documents and testimony, there is a significant likelihood that past radioactive releases occurred in the area targeted for burns, Marshall said.

"There may actually be buried waste in the area that they have not found," he said.

The Peace and Justice Center and the Sierra Club are asking Rocky Flats to postpone any burns and agree to set up a panel of scientific experts and community members to investigate the issue further and possibly develop an alternative to the burning.

"We're begging them to stop and give us a committee," Seeman said. "They're ramroding this thing through."

In the short run, they have persuaded officials from the site, from the Environmental Protection Agency and from the state Health Department to meet with them today in Denver.

"We really are going to be rolling up our sleeves and asking some hard questions," Seeman said.

Etchart, meanwhile, said the DOE may hold a public meeting in response to the heightened interest in the issue.

"We're actually considering right now, tentatively looking at having another public meeting to answer questions," Etchart said. "If there are some valid issues that we need to look at, we certainly will."