Wednesday, July 12, 2000

Wildfire at Flats
Lightning sparks blaze near area contaminated by plutonium

Colorado Daily Staff Writer

Lightning sparked a wildfire Monday evening in the vicinity of a highly contaminated region of the Rocky Flats buffer zone, but Energy Department officials maintain that no radionuclides were transported aloft by the blaze.

The fire burned about 10 acres of short-grass prairie southeast of the so-called 903 Pad area, where thousands of leaky and corroded waste drums containing plutonium-laced solvents were stored outside for more than a decade.

Air samples of the wildfire’s smoke plume that were captured by monitoring equipment located downwind of the blaze are currently being analyzed for radioactive contaminants, DOE officials said Tuesday. It will take two to three weeks to analyze the samples, officials said.

But DOE officials were confident Tuesday that the samples would show no evidence that radionuclides were transported aloft by the wildfire, noting that the firefighters who were called in to combat the blaze showed no signs of radioactive contamination.

"We did have our radiation control technicians out there, and they did do (radiological) swipes on the firefighters, their gear and the equipment," said John Rampe of the DOE’s Rocky Flats Field Office. "We found no contamination."

Rampe said that those findings — or the lack thereof — are consistent with the DOE’s characterization of the known contaminants in the vicinity of the 903 Pad.

"The fire was in an area where we do have pretty good coverage from historic samples," Rampe said. "The area is well-characterized."

However, Rampe acknowledged that the wildfire may have scorched an area that has never actually been comprehensively characterized for radioactive contaminants.

"I don’t know if we have any historic samples that were actually in this burn area or not," he said.

Based on the distribution of the known contaminants in the vicinity, the wildfire probably burned an area where the land is contaminated with about 10 picocuries of radiation per gram of soil, Rampe said.

The average soil contamination level for radionuclides in the 6,000-acre Rocky Flats buffer zone is less than 1 picocurie per gram of soil, Rampe said. The average level for the Front Range of Colorado is about .04 picocuries per gram.

Rampe noted that even if the fire did burn an area with a soil contamination level of 10 picocuries per gram, that area would still be considerably "cleaner" than the most stringent clean-up level that has been proposed for the now-mothballed nuclear weapons manufacturing plant.

"Although the fire burned an area that’s (contaminated) higher than background, it’s below the level proposed by the soil action level oversight panel and well below our current clean-up levels," Rampe said.

The DOE and its Rocky Flats contractor, the Kaiser-Hill Company, have proposed cleaning up the former bomb factory to a level of 651 picocuries of radiation per gram of soil. A team of independent scientists earlier this year said that the level was far too high, recommending instead that it be set at 35 picocuries per gram of soil.

While firefighters were able to contain Monday’s fire in about an hour, the blaze may simply re-ignite the contentious debate regarding the DOE’s controversial plan to conduct prescribed burns in Rocky Flats’ 6,000-acre buffer zone. Officials say it’s imperative to reduce the buildup of fuels in the buffer zone so that a catastrophic wildfire won’t race out of control towards the plant’s highly contaminated industrial area.

"We can’t stop the lightning from striking," Rampe said. "This fire was a good example of what we were concerned with. Although we were able to control this fire quite quickly, we want to take all the steps we possibly can to make sure that something doesn’t get out of hand."

The DOE had hoped to burn about 500 acres in the Rocky Flats buffer zone this spring. A relatively small 50-acre "test burn" was conducted in April, but subsequent burns were called off when the site’s vegetation became too lush and green to burn.

The prescribed burning program drew harsh criticism from thousands of area residents, who feared that radionuclides would be lofted into the air during the fires. The DOE maintained that the areas slated to be burned contained no such contaminants, but critics countered that the site was not adequately characterized for unidentified "hot spots."

Rampe said that the area scorched by Monday’s wildfire was not included in the prescribed burning program.

"It’s too close to areas of known contamination," Rampe said.

The objective of the Rocky Flats prescribed burning program is to establish a "buffer" around the contaminated areas at the facility — including its buffer zone — so that a catastrophic wildfire won’t have the fuel to race unchecked across the site, Rampe said.

According to DOE officials, the air monitoring samples that were taken during the 50-acre "test burn" in April showed radionuclide contaminants that were "indistinguishable from zero."

Some critics have rejected those results, noting that their personal radiation monitors showed high levels of airborne radioactive contaminants on the day of the Rocky Flats test burn.

"There was a fraud perpetrated on the state of Colorado," said Paula Elofson-Gardine, director of the Lakewood-based Environmental Information Network.

Elofson-Gardine said that her "RadAlert" radiation monitor, which is manufactured by the International Medcom Corp., typically reports average readings of between 10 and 33 counts per minute of radiation. On the Day of the Rocky Flats test burn, the instrument reported average readings of 4,268 counts per minute, Elofson-Gardine said.

"I can’t really speak to that," Rampe said. "What I can speak to is the fact that we sampled the air, and we sampled the soil, and we found nothing of consequence."

Elofson-Gardine has demanded that the DOE collect and analyze the actual ash that resulted from the April test burn. The DOE has refused to do so.

"I really don’t know what ash would tell you," Rampe said.

Officials from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have asked to review the data collected by Elofson-Gardine and other local residents with RadAlert monitors. The health department has not yet released any conclusions on the citizens’ data.

Rampe said that the DOE would give the public the opportunity to comment on the prescribed burning plan if it is to be implemented next spring.