Out in the Cold
They are America's Cold War veterans, who forged weapons from a fearsome energy source and bravely endured years of radiation for a country that pledged to take care of them. Instead, government loopholes and evasions are making sure those promises are never kept.
Tom Haverty recently called me with some bad news. He'd sat down on the toilet and lost, by his own estimation, a pint and a half of blood. Doctors performed a colonoscopy and found another tumor. When I visited Tom at Good Samaritan in Lafayette, he was groggy from blood loss and four days on an IV. He told me he had three choices, each a slow version of certain death. First was complicated surgery that would require prostate and colon removal. As he put it, "They'd have to scoop out pretty much everything down there," leaving him to go through life with a colostomy bag. Choice number two was another round of intravenous chemotherapy. Option three: nothing at all. Tom told me, "I'm still deciding between extension of life and quality of life."
I stayed at Good Samaritan for an hour. Tom told me more stories about Rocky Flats with his usual understated wit. When the room grew quiet, we watched grizzly bears on TV with no volume. A chaplain stopped by, and Tom explained to her why I was in the room. The chaplain asked Tom if he thought his many cancers were the result of his 16 years at a nuclear weapons facility. Tom just smiled. She then asked Tom if he'd like her services. Tom, a Catholic, said yes. The chaplain, a Lutheran, asked if her denomination was a problem. Without so much as a pause, Tom smiled at the chaplain and said, "God doesn't check your passport."
It's all gone now. Buildings 707, 771, 371, all of them. The barrels and the two-seater carts and the glove boxes and the trailers and the guard towers. All of it was deconstructed and demolished. Tens of thousands of cubic yards and containers full of radioactive waste—the secrets and ghosts
of a bygone era. Some of it was buried out there. Some of it was shipped to New Mexico for deep-earth storage. Contamination levels in the ground are debated, inspected, and may still cause further damage in a few years,
or a few decades. Today, in a twist that seems plausible only in an episode of The Simpsons, Rocky Flats is being turned into a wildlife refuge.
On a recent summer day, Judy Padilla's husband, Charlie, steered their old Ford Bronco onto a narrow shoulder on Indiana Avenue, where the east entrance to Rocky Flats used to be. The three of us hopped out of the vehicle and took in the view—Arvada and Broomfield to the east, the foothills to the west. A breeze blew tall grass over barbed wire decorated with old DOE signs. Judy pointed to the spot where the old checkpoint area stood, just before a small hill that concealed the little city of Rocky Flats. We took a walk along the shoulder of the road, past a small creek that once carried contaminated waste off the plant site. She pointed out the old Broomfield Reservoir, which had gotten so crapped up from the Flats that it could no longer be used as a drinking water source.
It was hard to imagine that this tiny woman once made the weapons that threatened to destroy the world. She looked like a little old lady in the making, someone who would chase off hooligans with an umbrella. Eight years after her cancer diagnosis, she finally felt healthy and strong. And nothing about Judy revealed how sick she once was, or so easily could be tomorrow. "I feel like a ticking time bomb," she said. "I could go off at any minute."
Mike Kessler is an editor-at-large for 5280. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to find links to the government agencies that oversee and participate in the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA), former Rocky Flats manager and undersecretary of Energy Robert G. Card, and the science of dose reconstruction.