When Jacque Brever worked in “the snake pit,” one of the most hazardous areas in Building 771 at Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, a structure later designated the most dangerous building in America, leaks and spills were such regular occurrences that Brever and her co-workers made a joke about it.
Every time there was contamination in the building, facility staff would quickly determine the hottest area of airborne contamination. While workers cleaned up the leak, often a lengthy process, staff would cordon off the section with a yellow chain and a sign warning workers that they must wear a full-face respirator anywhere within the fenced-in area.
“We used to joke that we were glad the contamination knew to stop at the sign,” says Brever.
Today Brever says she sees the same mentality driving the cleanup and reuse of the now-closed Rocky Flats–but this time, she isn’t laughing.
“We were just a big, happy dysfunctional family, and you didn’t piss each other off,” says Brever. “And once I decided to go forward with speaking to the FBI, it was too late to turn back. I knew [my co-workers] would never accept me back after that.”
Brever agreed to dozens of interviews with the FBI, during which she detailed possible mismanagement and illegal activity at the facility. She became the first Rocky Flats employee to testify in front of the special federal grand jury empanelled in August 1989 to investigate the charges at Rocky Flats. Along with other whistleblowers at the facility, Brever’s story was spread far and wide by the media. And then the harassment began.
People would call Brever on the phone and say, “Shut up, stupid bitch,” or “We’ll kill you.” Her fellow workers, who blamed her for threatening their jobs, protested at and threw rocks at her house. She discovered her house was bugged and her phone was tapped. Someone tried to run her car into a tanker truck. Her daughter was almost kidnapped from school. Brever’s workplace was sabotaged, causing her to inhale plutonium.
Brever and another employee facing harassment filed a lawsuit in 1991 against DOE and Rocky Flats’ operators, but the case was thrown out. When her employer offered her her resignation papers in exchange for settling a worker’s compensation claim, Brever accepted.
“I finally couldn’t take it anymore, and I packed up my kid and my pets and sold everything I owned and went into hiding,” says Brever.
In 1992, Brever severed all ties to Boulder and Rocky Flats and quietly moved with her daughter to Grand Junction. There, she earned her bachelor’s of science degree in environmental restoration and waste management with a minor in chemistry, and then a master’s degree in environmental policy and management.
In 1992, DOE changed the goal of the still-shutdown facility from production to cleanup. But the more Brever learned about the cleanup, the more she became concerned it was not as thorough as it should be. Then, in 2001, Congress passed the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act, which stipulated that much of the site would become a national wildlife refuge once the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certified the cleanup was complete. Last month, USFWS released its draft comprehensive conservation plan and environmental impact statement (CCP/EIS) for the refuge.
The Buffer Zone is still decorated with signs proclaiming, “Be safe! Go home healthy!” and “You are entering the Demolition Zone,” and the occasional drain pipe and voltage box, but soon that will all be gone. Most of the asphalt roads will be replaced with dirt tracks or trails. Even the complex of buildings, smokestacks and power lines in the middle of the Buffer Zone, the remains of Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, will be gone. Soon, the entire Rocky Flats site will look similar to how it appeared long before there were plutonium pits or W-88 Trident Warheads or Superfund National Priorities Lists.
“It will be all grassland out there,” says Shannon.
But Jacque Brever believes that, even once all the buildings are gone, Rocky Flats will still have its ghosts. And she’s not referring to bad memories.
“We used to do some really bad stuff,” says Brever. “Nobody knows how contaminated Rocky Flats is.”
Brever says she and her co-workers used to “feed the ducks,” dumping chemical solutions into unlined ponds. They would also drain contaminants leaking from an overburdened spray irrigation system right into the Buffer Zone, says Brever. For fun, she says, workers would catch rabbits and other small animals around the site and check them for radioactivity. The animals were consistently screaming hot, off the charts.
“A lot of the experimental products and the chemicals and things I worked with, they’re not even listed anywhere. So nobody is even going to go looking for them, because they are not even listed,” she says. “I know what’s there. I helped put it there.”
Brever remembers one experimental product she worked with that caused her to lose some of her hair, drop 30 pounds and become extremely sick for three weeks. The product is not listed on any current lists of contaminants of concern, and Brever says an anonymous DOE official told her that since the product was experimental, officially it didn’t exist.
But the real danger at Rocky Flats, says Harvey Nichols, is from particles so small many can’t be seen by the naked eye. Nichols is a professor of biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department. In 1975, he was hired to study airborne radioactive materials at Rocky Flats. After a snowfall that winter, Nichols collected snow samples from eight or nine locations around the Buffer Zone and found that they were highly radioactive.
Nichols suspected the culprit was tiny particles of plutonium, one of the main bomb-making ingredients at the facility. Plutonium has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. While plutonium radiation doesn’t penetrate the body like gamma or X-rays, microscopic plutonium particles can be inhaled or ingested and become lodged in the body, where they will repeatedly bombard cells. The resulting radiation is considered to be on average 20 times more harmful than gamma radiation of the same dose, possibly leading to immune system malfunctions, cancer and gene pool pollution.
Nichols estimated that that single snowfall had laid down 14 million airborne radioactive particles per acre on the site. He believes these airborne particles had been dispersed from the facility from several accidental releases, such as fires at the plant in 1957 and 1969 and plutonium leaks from storage drums, as well as through routine operations. When he extrapolated his findings to estimate contamination over the facility’s total period of operation, the numbers were astronomical.
Kaiser-Hill, taking over where another cleanup company left off, was responsible for completing the demolition of 805 buildings, many of which were contaminated with radioactive materials. More than one million drums of uranium had to be removed from the site, as well as 16,000 pounds of plutonium–including 1,100 pounds of plutonium that could not be accounted for. And there were the 13 infinity rooms, sealed-off chambers on the site so heavily contaminated that radioactive measurements of them went off the scale, towards infinity.
In 2000, the project was two years behind schedule. Many people believed a cleanup goal of 2006 was a long shot. But all that’s changed. Last year Kaiser-Hill announced the last of Rocky Flat’s weapons-grade plutonium and enriched uranium had been shipped off the site. By the end of the year 80 percent of the project was completed, with only 330 facility buildings still standing. On Nov. 10, 2003, workers demolished the most symbolic structure on the site, the 50-year-old, 155-foot water tower. By all accounts, the project is now ahead of schedule.
Further suspicion was recently cast on the cleanup process when DOE fined Kaiser-Hill $522,500 for safety violations in 2002 and 2003, including two releases of radioactive materials and a fire.
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