Wednesday, April 12, 2000

Burn plan shelved
Rocky Flats buffer zone too green to burn, say Feds

By BRIAN HANSEN
Colorado Daily Staff Writer

Federal officials announced on Tuesday that because of rapid spring "greening," they are temporarily suspending plans to continue with the controlled burning program that was launched last week in the 6,000-acre Rocky Flats buffer zone.

Meanwhile, the preliminary results from the air samples taken during last week's 50-acre "test burn" showed a maximum alpha radiation level of 0.2 picoCuries per cubic meter of air sampled, a level only "slightly above" minimum laboratory detection limits and "low" in terms of radiation dosage potentially administered to humans, officials said.

According to officials, the warm and wet spring weather has created conditions that are unsuitable for continuing with the prescribed burning program, which they maintain is necessary to manage the vegetation throughout Rocky Flats' 6,000 acre buffer zone.

"We have said all along that we would only do this if it made sense ecologically," said Paul Golan, acting U.S. Department of Energy manager at Rocky Flats. "We knew we had a short window of opportunity for prescribed burning this season, (and) we have concluded that the window has closed on us."

DOE deputy assistant manager John Rampe echoed Golan's point, explaining that the "early spring greening" of the site's buffer zone would reduce the effectiveness of more prescribed burning.

"With too much green material, we cannot get an effective fire, and we cannot generate enough heat to burn off the thatch, which is the main point of the burn," said Rampe, who added that additional burning would also disrupt the seasonal nesting patterns of migratory birds. "Overall, the best season for burning has ended."

Federal officials had hoped to burn about 500 acres in the Rocky Flats buffer zone this spring. They say they'll begin planning now for another prescribed burn during the next "favorable" season, possibly this fall or next spring.

"Prescribed burning remains a key element to managing the natural assets of the buffer zone," Rampe said. "Rocky Flats contains thousands of acres of some of the last remaining xeric tall grass prairie in the Front Range. DOE has an active responsibility for managing and preserving it."

Federal officials contend that the prescribed burning program is the best management strategy for controlling noxious weeds and otherwise maintaining the "ecological value" of the 6,000-acre Rocky Flats buffer zone. The controlled burning program will also reduce the buildup of fuels in the Rocky Flats grasslands, thus reducing the risk that a catastrophic wildfire would race uncontrolled towards the plant's highly contaminated industrial area, officials maintain.

But critics say that the plan is not protective of public health, noting that plutonium and other radionuclides that may be spread about the site would likely become airborne during the burns.

DOE officials maintain that the buffer zone has been extensively studied, and that the areas slated to be burned lie a safe distance from any areas of known contamination.

Critics aren't convinced. They say that the site has not been adequately characterized for unidentified "hot spots," and that there may be nuclear waste buried in the buffer zone -- as has been alleged in lawsuits filed against the DOE and its contractors.

Those fears prompted a group of Boulder residents to appeal on Tuesday to a high-ranking independent federal investigator, despite the DOE's same-day announcement that it would shelve the prescribed burning program for at least a few months.

Robert Martin, the Hazardous Waste Ombudsman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, agreed on Tuesday to take a look at the controversial Rocky Flats controlled burning program after Boulder resident Jyoti Wind presented him with a stack of petitions signed by more than 1,300 concerned people.

"I'll look into it," said Martin, who spoke Tuesday to CU environmental ethics students. "I'd like to see any primary documents you have."

Martin, who played a key role in exposing the deception associated with the now-remodeled plan to remediate the Shattuck Superfund site in Denver, acknowledged that he knows little about the DOE-backed plan for burning the Rocky Flats buffer zone.

But Martin -- whose 11th-hour intervention halted a controversial plan to incinerate dioxin-contaminated soils in Times Beach, Missouri -- said he'd try to bring himself up to speed on the Rocky Flats case.

"The truth is always there, and can be gotten to if you're willing to search for it," Martin said at the end of his talk. "Nothing is as it seems, but facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored."

For more information on the DOE's prescribed burning plan at Rocky Flats, log on to www.rfets.gov.