Tuesday, May 09, 2000

Burn plan probed
Federal investigators request information from activists about Rocky Flats burn

By BRIAN HANSEN
Colorado Daily Staff Writer

An independent federal investigator has asked local activists for help in scrutinizing the controversial controlled burning program that was launched — and then promptly suspended — at the mothballed Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant last month, the Colorado Daily has learned.

Ray Madden, a Washington, D.C.-based investigator with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General, three weeks ago began asking local Rocky Flats critics about the 50-acre "test burn" that was conducted in the plant’s buffer zone on April 6, according to the Daily’s sources.

The information gathered by Madden — which was shared with other federal investigators in Washington late last month — has been used to formulate a set of prescribed burning recommendations that will soon be forwarded to Rocky Flats officials, the Daily’s sources said.

"He (Madden) said that they had some recommendations and directions that they were sending to Rocky Flats, and that they were referring specific action items to (acting Rocky Flats site manager) Paul Golon," said Paula Elofson-Gardine, a Lakewood resident who was contacted by federal investigators shortly after the April 6 test burn.

Elofson-Gardine said she doesn’t yet know what the OIG’s recommendations will entail.

"I asked them if I could get a copy, but they said I’d have to (file a Freedom of Information Act) or get it from Paul Golan, Elofson-Gardine said.

Golon could not be reached for comment by press time Monday. But his spokeswoman, Karen Lutz, said that Rocky Flats officials have heard nary a word about the prescribed burning program from the Office of Inspector General.

"Certainly, we’ll get a draft copy at some point," Lutz said. "But we haven’t received anything yet."

Lutz said that Rocky Flats officials are still planning to continue with the prescribed burning program as soon as conditions permit — possibly this fall or next spring.

DOE officials had hoped to burn about 500 acres in the Rocky Flats buffer zone this spring, but the program was suspended on April 11 when officials announced that the area had become too green to burn.

DOE 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 prescribed burning program will also reduce the buildup of brush fuels in the buffer zone, thus reducing the risk that a catastrophic wildfire would race uncontrolled towards the plant’s highly contaminated industrial area, officials add.

Elofson-Gardine doesn’t buy that explanation.

"I don’t think it has a damn thing to do with weeds," she said. "This is a real handy way to do an ‘out of site, out of mind,’ quick and dirty remediation."

Elofson-Gardine said that her fears about the plan have not been assuaged by the release of the isotopic air monitoring results from the April 6 test burn, which indicate that the dosages of plutonium, americium and uranium that were sampled in the smoke plume were "indistinguishable from zero."

"That’s completely incongruous with the 45 years of releases to the immediate fallout zone, Elofson-Gardine said. "It fails the common-sense test."

Elofson-Gardine complained to OIG investigators that the smoke plume from the April 6 test burn could not be properly characterized, because it rose straight up into the air and "leapfrogged" the monitoring equipment. If the DOE really wanted to conduct an accurate isotopic analysis, it would have collected about an acre’s worth of buffer zone samples and burned them in a laboratory under "controlled conditions," the Lakewood activist added.

Elofson-Gardine also asked OIG investigators to review the method by which the DOE characterized the buffer zone areas slated to be burned, suggesting that not nearly enough samples have been taken to ensure that the site is not contaminated with radioactive hot spots.

The Lakewood activist also called for the intervention of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Hazardous Waste Ombudsman into the case, saying that local officials "don’t appear to be up to the job" of overseeing Rocky Flats.

"Apparently, the DOE, EPA, and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment are so desensitized from too many lunches together (that) they have an inability to recognize the problems and cannot penetrate the culture of corruption and careless disregard at (Rocky Flats)," Elofson-Gardine wrote to Madden.

Rocky Flats officials will hold a public meeting on Wednesday to discuss the isotopic air monitoring results from the April 6 test burn. The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the community room of Red Rocks Community College, located at 5420 Miller Street in Arvada.

To view documents pertaining to the DOE’s prescribed burning program at Rocky Flats, log on to www.rfets.gov.