Thursday, March 23, 2000

Flats soil-cleanup meeting tonight

Colorado Daily Staff Writer

The esoteric-sounding issue of “soil action levels” at Rocky Flats may not be as sexy as the other current controversy surrounding the former nuclear weapons plant — whether or not controlled vegetation burns should be conducted in the plant’s buffer zone.

But what’s at stake, in the words of Broomfield City Council member Hank Stovall, is whether or not the site eight miles south of Boulder should be turned into a low-level nuclear-waste dump.

“The people in the community don’t want a low-level dump out there,” Stovall said.

Tonight, Stovall and other members of a citizens group that has been studying the soil cleanup issue will hold a public meeting to present their findings. The meeting will take place at 7 p.m. in the Broomfield City Council chambers, 1 DesCombes Drive.

The group, called the Rocky Flats Soil Action Level Oversight Panel, recently recommended that the site be cleaned up more thoroughly than site officials themselves have planned.

The recommendation was based on a scientific study by the Risk Assessment Corp. The study, commissioned by the oversight panel with funding from the Department of Energy, concluded that Rocky Flats should be cleaned up to a level of 35 picocuries of plutonium per gram of soil, far lower than the DOE’s current “interim” level of 651 picocuries.

The DOE has in the past expressed concern that a stricter cleanup level could mean big cost increases for the cleanup work. Stovall said the Environmental Protection Agency is currently studying the cost implications of a stricter soil cleanup standard, but added that he doesn’t believe the cost difference will be unreasonable.

Moreover, Stovall argued, a more thorough cleanup in the short run will save money in the long run, because the site will require less safeguards after it closes.

Jeremy Karpatkin, a spokesman for Rocky Flats, said Wednesday that while cost is an issue, it would not be the primary factor in the DOE’s eventual decision.

“The first question is, ‘What is a safe level?’” Karpatkin said.

Karpatkin said the DOE, the Colorado Health Department and the EPA will take RAC’s research into consideration, along with other recent findings and public input, when it conducts its annual review of the Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement later this year.

He said the DOE will also follow RAC’s recommendation to gather additional data on the potential release of radioactivity in the event of a grass fire at the site. Experiments to gather such data may be part of the planned vegetation burns at the site, Karpatkin said.

In the mean time, DOE scientists at the Argonne Laboratory in Illinois are reviewing RAC’s findings. Stovall said he was confident they would find it sound.

“In my judgment, this is an airtight study,” Stovall said.

John Till, an RAC scientist, will be on hand at tonight’s meeting to present his findings. Representatives from Rocky Flats, the Colorado Health Department and the EPA will also be present to answer questions from the public.