June 6 is best known as the date of D-Day, but it’s also when the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the Department of Energy’s Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility at the end of the Cold War.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of when FBI and Environmental Protection Agency officials raided the sprawling compound on the outskirts of Denver, accusing the DOE of environmental crimes for mishandling toxic and radioactive material.
Rocky Flats workers handled plutonium, uranium, beryllium, americium and many other dangerous materials and chemicals, many of which contaminated both the site and the workers.
Although production briefly resumed the year after the raid, the site was put out of business in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush cancelled the Trident Warhead Program, according to an extensive article by the Denver Post about the site’s history.
“The raid didn’t end Rocky Flats,” Scott Surovchak, Rocky Flats legacy site manager for the Department of Energy, told the Post. “We ran out of a mission. Our main bad guy fell apart. We broke the Soviets. And we essentially went into a mothball situation.”
The Post also reported that it was the first time in U.S. history when two federal agencies raided a third agency. The EPA didn’t exist when the site began operations in 1952 and its practices were out of step with subsequent environmental regulations.
The FBI and EPA agents faced heavily armed DOE guards with shoot-to-kill orders and surface-to-air missiles among their defenses, according to the LA Times, but they got onto the base by saying they were there to conduct terrorism preparedness training.
Rockwell International, the DOE’s main contractor, pled guilty in 1992 to 10 environmental crimes and violations of the Clean Water Act. It agreed to pay $18.5 million in fines. At the time, it was the largest fine for an environmental crime ever levied.
After 10 years and $7 billion in pollution mitigation, the site was cleaned and decontaminated by 2007 — with the exception of a 1,309-acre site containing radioactive soil and concrete, which is still off-limits, according to the Post.
Most of Rocky Flats is now a wildlife refuge, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that Congress recognized the sacrifices of some 40,000 people who worked at the site over the years, many of whom died after suffering serious illnesses due to their close work with radioactive materials.
Those with 22 types of cancer are now presumed to have gotten them due to their work at the plant; previously, workers had to prove their illnesses were related to their employment at Rocky Flats.
Although Rocky Flats stands as a monument to the bygone Cold War, its legacy remains.
“The bombs manufactured there are still in the U.S. arsenal,” Boulder author Len Ackland told the Denver Post.
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