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Book: Doom With A View: Historical and Cultural Contexts of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant.

The Grieving Landscape, LONGREADS, Heidi Hutner | Fulcrum Publishing | June 2020 | 16 minutes (4,305 words)

We’re delighted to bring you an excerpt by Heidi Hutner from the anthology Doom With A View: Historical and Cultural Contexts of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. Edited by Kristen Iverson, with E. Warren Perry and Shannon Perry, the anthology arrives from Fulcrum Publishing in August, 2020.

At thirty-five, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. One year before my diagnosis, my mother died from complications after heart surgery. At the time of her death, my mother had cancer — lymphoma. Five years prior to Mom’s death, my father passed away from a brain tumor, a metastasis from the cancer melanoma.

Two years after I had completed my chemotherapy treatment for cancer, I gave birth to Olivia. My miracle baby.

At first, I was ecstatic about the pregnancy. I had always wanted children, and with my cancer, I feared this would never happen. My doctors said I was lucky to give birth to a biological child after chemotherapy (my treatment left me with a 50 percent chance of remaining fertile afterward). But now, a mother-to-be, I was also afraid. How could I protect my child from our family cancer blight?

My desire to protect my daughter from a future cancer diagnosis drove me into a rabbit hole of reading and learning about the reasons for my family’s affliction.  I began with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and moved forward to more recent literature by Sandra SteingraberTheo Colburn, and numerous others, including the President’s Cancer Panel Report. I learned that the cancer rates today are off the charts: one in two men and one in three women will get cancer in their lifetimes. Carson predicted this plague in 1963. She warned us of humankind’s “hubris” in carelessly polluting our earth with toxic chemicals and ionizing radiation. The epidemiologist Alice Stewart’s study on the grave danger of X-rays on babies in the womb in the 1950s, sounded the alarm about ionizing radiation as well. Today, our world swirls with pollutants — these carcinogens penetrate mothers’ wombs and breasts. Mother’s milk is a toxic cocktail. Newborns today are born with hundreds of synthetic chemicals in their umbilical cord blood. Synthetic chemicals and ionizing radiation change our makeup, harm our genes, and cause mutagenetic damage. More than 80,000 unregulated pollutants fill our environment.

We are guinea pigs.

Fast forward about eleven years: one summer day, in 2009, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, at lunch with a close friend (and cousin) of my deceased mother, Phyllis Resnick, I stumbled upon a story about my mom that I had never heard before. The tale Phyllis told would radically change my life. My then-preteen daughter, Olivia, was by my side. She listened rapt with me as we learned of our maternal nuclear legacy.

Phyllis described how in the early 1960s, my mother and she, along with their good friend Thalia Stern Broudy, had been a members of Women Strike for Peace (WSP), an antinuclear group led by Dagmar Wilson and the future congresswoman, Bella Abzug. During the Cold War 1950s and early 60s, the U.S. had detonated one hundred above-ground nuclear test bombs in the Nevada desert and one hundred and six atmospheric test bombs in the South Pacific. The government claimed these test bombs posed no harm and the fallout had not spread, but scientists and medical professionals were concerned. A team of experts in St. Louis, MO, directed by Dr. Louise Reiss, initiated a survey to determine the extent of the impact of the bomb testing. With a chemical makeup similar to calcium, strontium-90, a radioisotope found in fallout, is easily absorbed in teeth and bones. Thousands of baby teeth from across the U.S. were collected between 1958 and 1971 for the St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey. In 1961, preliminary results showed high levels of strontium-90 in baby teeth of children born after 1945 and these levels increased over the time period, as the test-bombing continued. When the mothers of Women Strike for Peace learned the results of the survey, they banded together to stop atmospheric bomb testing. 50,000 WSP members from across the U.S. wrote letters, gathered petitions, lobbied congressional representatives, initiated lawsuits, and protested through marches and street demonstrations. My mother and her cohort of 15,000 WSP members traveled to D.C. to protest, lobby, and meet with their legislators November, 1961. In 1963, the United States, the U.K., and the Soviet Union signed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, an agreement to halt atmospheric, under water, and outer space bomb testing. The signing of this treaty has been attributed to the efforts of WSP.

The government claimed these test bombs posed no harm and the fallout had not spread, but scientists and medical professionals were concerned.

After discovering this remarkable story about WSP, I became obsessed with feminist nuclear history. I wondered: Why had I never been told this tale when my mother was alive? What other vital nuclear histories involving women had been buried? So began my journey of exploring women’s antinuclear tales, traveling to nuclear disaster sites, and meeting with members of impacted communities. On this path, I met Kristen Iversen, the author of Full Body Burden, an investigative memoir about growing up next door to Rocky Flats, the former nuclear weapons facility in Arvada, Colorado. Kristen invited me to visit her in Colorado. She would introduce me to experts, scientists, and community members there. I brought my then eighteen-year-old daughter, Olivia, with me. She was about to leave for college. I wanted to share our maternal antinuclear and activist legacy with her before she left home. ………….

Operating from 1952 to 1992, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility was located approximately 15 miles northwest of Denver, a city built by an influx of miners during the gold rush in the nineteenth century. During the years of its operation, the plant constructed more than 70,000 triggers for nuclear bombs. Rocky Flats would be the site of two major secret plutonium fires, blowing radioactive poison into sections of Arvada and Denver in 1957 and 1969. Hundreds of smaller fires also took place, as well as regular leaks, spills, and atmospheric plutonium releases. Plutonium clouds blew over houses, swimming pools, schools, churches, farms, fields, and streams. Rocky Flats is known for powerful Chinook winds — winds that would blow plutonium dust into local neighborhoods. Locals did not know that Rocky Flats was a weapons factory for most of its years of operation. Workers employed there were forbidden to speak of their work and often didn’t comprehend the full extent of the factory’s activities.

By 1989, The FBI and EPA suspected criminal negligence at Rocky Flats, which led to a raid, led by FBI agent Jon Lipsky.

A federal grand jury began an investigation, a settlement was negotiated, the court documents were sealed, and the plant closed. The story of this federal grand jury is fraught and complex, and cover-ups are suspected in the sealing of the documents and lack of full prosecution. The Rocky Flats cleanup was officially completed in 2004; however, numerous scientists, nuclear experts, local citizens, and antinuclear activists argue the cleanup is far from finished. Unknown but large amounts of plutonium and other contaminants remain on the land in what has been turned into a Superfund site, a designation made under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980. The primary industrial site (the Superfund area — 485 acres) was never completely remediated. There is a buffer zone, also heavily contaminated, although the EPA claims this area is fully remediated. The surrounding area, now called a National Wildlife Refuge, was not remediated. Significant contamination has been detected there in the soil and groundwater. Many other toxic and radioactive contaminants have also been found at Rocky Flats in addition to plutonium: americium, uranium, cadmium, PCBs, beryllium, and more. A 2019 study found plutonium “hot particles” in the soil frighteningly close to the homes abutting the Flats………

Rocky Flats is “a national sacrifice zone,” says Robert Alvarez, associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior policy advisor to the secretary at the US Department of Energy“That’s what it is, although no one will say so officially. How much remains buried there? A tremendous amount — plutonium doesn’t go away. No one has done this yet — it’s costly and complex — but someone needs to go into those houses nearby in Arvada and take samples. We don’t know how much plutonium is in them.”…….. 


July 13, 2020 - Posted by | environment, health, resources - print, USA, wastes

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