Friday, April 07, 2000

Smoke wafts from a controlled burn conducted by federal authorities Thursday morning in the buffer zone of the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site . No protesters were present in the vicinity, but a sign critical of the burn (inset) was posted across from the site.

Flats test burn successful, feds say
But critics say controversial plan still poses risks

Colorado Daily Staff Writer

That was no mushroom cloud seen towering above the mothballed Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant Thursday morning -- it was a taxpayer-funded, tallgrass-prairie-ecosystem-management experiment.

After three weather-related delays, federal officials on Thursday successfully conducted a controlled "test burn" inside of the Rocky Flats buffer zone, completing the first step in a larger -- but controversial -- plan ostensibly designed to reduce the threat of wildfire and to enhance the ecological health of the weed-choked, 6,000 acre site.

Thursday's prescribed burn was conducted on about 50 acres of grasslands southwest of the plant's (now former) production area. According to John Rampe, the U.S. Department of Energy official in charge of the prescribed burning program, Thursday's "experiment" went well.

"It really went off without a hitch," Rampe said of the test burn, which began shortly after 9 a.m. and lasted for about 40 minutes. "We are calling it a success."

According to the DOE, the purpose of Thursday's exercise was to gather air samples during the duration of the burn, which will be analyzed and discussed with concerned parties before larger parcels of buffer zone land are burned. Hundreds of citizens and scores of organizations have spoken out against the plan, fearing that plutonium and other radionuclides that may be spread about the site will become airborne during the burns.

DOE officials steadfastly deny the charge, noting that the proposed burn sites have been analyzed extensively, and that they contain no radionuclides beyond normal "background" levels.

But that's not good enough for Tom Marshall of Boulder's Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, one of many groups that monitors activities at Rocky Flats.

"One of our large concerns is that the characterization of the site is not adequate, and there may be (radioactive) hot spots throughout the site that they have not yet identified," Marshall said.

Moreover, Marshall said that his group is also concerned that there may be radioactive waste buried in shallow trenches within the buffer zone, as has been alleged in lawsuits brought against the DOE and its contractors.

"The past practices at Rocky Flats, as many people know, were very sloppy," Marshall said. "There are many references in lawsuits to random acts of dumping ... in the general vicinity of the burns that are scheduled this year."

Consequently, Marshall said that his fears won't be assuaged if the samples taken during Thursday's test burn indicate no elevated presence of radionuclides.

"We do not assume that 50 acres (burned Thursday) is representative of the entire site," Marshall said. "They are beginning the burn program in areas of lower known contamination. They plan, at this point, on burning into areas of higher known contamination."

The DOE says it will publicize the results of Thursday's test burn as soon as possible. Rampe said that the samples would probably take several days to analyze.

If the samples indicate no problems, officials will move quickly to try and burn an additional 500 acres before the end of the month, Rampe said. Rampe said that the burning needs to be completed soon, before the flourishing prairie grasses become too green to burn.

"We're running out of time (because) the prairie is greening up, the birds will start nesting soon, and we don't want to disrupt all of that, either," Rampe said. "I'm thinking that we maybe have a week or 10 days, practically, to get going here."

But Marshall, like many Rocky Flats critics, doesn't understand the DOE's rush to proceed with the controversial prescribed burning program.

"We're rather mystified," Marshall said. "Their job out there is supposed to be cleaning up the site and closing the site, and this is certainly not critical to that mission."

Marshall speculated that the program is part of an effort to "greenwash" the site, which is one of the most highly contaminated parcels of land in the world.

"It's not a contaminated Superfund site -- it's an ecological preserve or a pristine prairie ecosystem," quipped a skeptical Marshall. "Those are the sorts of terms they like to use."

According to the DOE, the prescribed burning program is an effective strategy to manage the rare xeric tallgrass prairie habitat that is found in the Rocky Flats buffer zone. The burning program will also aid in the control of noxious weeds, and will reduce the risks of a catastrophic wildfire, federal officials say.

Marshall acknowledges the need for a management strategy -- but not one that introduces fire to the grounds of a highly contaminated former nuclear weapons plant.

"We think that the issue of reducing the chances of a wildfire is a very important issue, but we don't believe that controlled burns are necessary to mitigate the chances of a large, uncontrolled wildfire," Marshall said. "We think it's very important that the public understand that this is not a one-time shot. We're not talking about 50 acres in a test burn or 500 acres this year -- we're looking at burning, potentially, 5,000 acres."

Marshall's group, along with the Sierra Club, have called on the DOE to delay the burning program until more studies can be conducted. The groups want the DOE to convene a panel of experts to analyze alternatives to the burning program.

The DOE says it will hold public meetings when the results of Thursday's test burn are available. To read more about the DOE's Rocky Flats prescribed burning plan, log on to