“Rocky Flats” – In Conversation with Filmmaker Nancy Wolfe

Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge (Photo: Nancy Wolfe)

Recently, I stumbled upon an upcoming documentary entitled Rocky Flats by Nancy Wolfe, simply by chance. Ever since learning about the nuclear facility, which originally opened in Colorado in 1952, operating under the control of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and then under the United States Department of Energy (DOE), as well as its alarming history of mismanagement — mismanagement that has since been linked, by some, to some rather serious illnesses and negative environmental impacts — I wanted to know more. Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with Nancy. Read on to see what she had to say about how she first learned of Rocky Flats (which shut down in 1992, following a raid on the facility by the FBI and EPA in 1989, and has since become a wildlife refuge) and its history, what happened at the plant and what ultimately lead to its closure, the secretive way in which the plant operated, the subsequent grand jury investigation, the impact of the Price-Anderson Act and much more.

Filmmaker Nancy Wolfe (Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Wolfe)

Andrew DeCanniere (AD): When I first found out about the story of Rocky Flats, thanks to your documentary, I was shocked. I certainly thought it’s an important story and yet, it seems like it is one of those things that has gone under-the-radar for many people.

Nancy Wolfe (NW): Yeah. And I just feel the entire way that history had spoken of the Cold War and the industry as a whole has evaded so much. It’s been talked about in such a way that it doesn’t provide any sort of context or reality. It’s mostly propaganda. It’s something you don’t really learn about — not really. 

AD: I’m just kind of curious, how did you get into this whole thing? It’s kind of crazy to think there are people who live there — or who have lived there — who don’t seem to be aware of what went on or what the Department of Energy plant at Rocky Flats was producing. They seemed to be anything but clear on the fact they were living near a nuclear weapons plant.

NW: Yeah. So, I produced a film called Fit to Print. We were covering the decline of watchdog journalism in the U.S. and we were looking at a number of different newspapers and their reporting, and we considered whether it is possible to do long-form investigative reporting if folks don’t have the backing of a major newspaper. So, we focused on a number of stories. One we found out about was Rocky Flats. We went to Colorado as the Rocky Mountain News had just shut down during this turmoil. We focused on a story that Laura Frank had written — it was a series called ‘Deadly Denial,’ and it was about workers [who’d worked at Rocky Flats] having a really hard time getting compensated. We went and interviewed those people and we interviewed some widows whose husbands died. They were still trying to get compensation and were having a really hard time of it. I was starting to learn little morsels here and there. There was just this pride [the workers] had in their work, but they couldn’t talk about it. Then, their surviving spouses just had to figure out what they were doing. It was just a very difficult thing. So, that’s what kind of hooked me. 

AD: Talk about random, to say the very least.

NW: Yeah. It was just like ‘Woah! Okay. This is here? I had no idea. I’m intrigued.’ Then I also had a friend who was watching my film with me and she realized she’d just read a book — Kristen Iverson’s Full Body Burden — and she just said ‘I just read this book and it’s about this site.’ I read the book and I was like ‘This is so much more than just workers. There are a whole host of issues [here].’ I honestly found the story very riveting. You had government corrupution, you had citizens taking action when the government wouldn’t do so, you had land owners who were profiting. 

AD: And the story of the place is shocking, too. You say it was one of the most mismanaged Department of Energy sites. While I can’t say I’m an expert, you certainly know much more than I do — but I came upon something that said that the lab was only shut down as the result of an investigation and subsequent raid on the facility. The whole thing was disconcerting.

NW: So, that’s essentially what happened. I’ll start at the beginning. There’d been a couple of whistleblowers and they had talked about things that were going on at the plant. Then, after getting that information, the FBI had infrared cameras that went over Rocky Flats — because they were told there were these midnight burnings of plutonium, which was concerning, of course. What they did is they took these cameras over the area in order to find out whether this was really going on. With that, they raided the plant in June 1989. The raid was the first time one U.S. department raided another U.S. department — the Justice Department raided the Department of Energy. It was pretty crazy. There were a number of news programs that covered it — Current Affair, for instance. It was kind of all over the news. Workers who had worked there and had no idea any of this was going on saw it that night. It was quite a scene. Then, I believe what ended up happening the following year was that George Bush cut off nuclear programs, the plant was done and they needed to start clean up. So, that raid was pretty much the end of the plant as the workers knew it. 

AD: And I guess, in the end, it had a 40 year long history — or thereabout — of producing these weapons in people’s backyards. So, it was in operation for a very long time — which is a pretty troubling, particularly when you think about all of the people who have potentially been exposed to these unhealthy radioactive materials. 

NW: Yeah. The crazy thing is that when they built the plant, they didn’t even say what it was. It was so secret that people who lived in Arvada — which was right next to it — didn’t know. I talked to the Mayor, and the Mayor talked about how the plant essentially made the town. If it weren’t for this major employer, a lot of these areas wouldn’t have had the life they have now. But, as I said, the plant was built in secret. There were fires that were never reported. For instance, there was a fire on Mother’s Day 1969. When investigators went in for that, they discovered the remains of another fire that had never been reported. That one had taken place in 1957. It was never reported to the media at all. If you were living in the area, that’s something that you would want to know, because there had been a fire involving radioactive materials. That was something the public should have been made aware of. So, not reporting these incidents to the public, and not letting them know about any of this stuff, is part of the secretive way in which they were operating. 

From “Rocky Flats” (Photo: Nancy Wolfe)

AD: It definitely makes you wonder how much — if anything — the local government knew. If they didn’t report the fire — which I can only assume was an attempt to prevent the local fire department and, thus, the rest of the local government, from knowing about it — I can only assume that the local government was more or less in the dark regarding much of what went on at the plant as well. That’s pretty disturbing when you think about it, since the plant was built in the town, but it seems that they were deliberately keeping local officials out of the loop as well, along with the townspeople. 

NW: Well, they didn’t report it. They kept it inside. But what we’re talking about — the Department of Energy was not releasing any information to the public. If we’re talking about local government, the local government may very well not even have known what was going on, because these plants are top secret and nobody is supposed to know about any of it. Of course, there is a web of secrecy in many ways.

AD: I had also read that there was a grand jury investigation that looked into the goings on.

NW: Yes, there was. However, those files are still sealed, just like all grand jury documents. However, there is currently a lawyer who is attempting to get some of those files released. Basically, the current issue right now is whether the wildlife refuge is safe. Is the buffer zone around the original EPA Superfund site safe? Many experts don’t believe it could be, because there is no way to block the contamination from getting to surrounding areas. However, all of the studies and measurements that have been done of the area are sealed. Many attempts have been made to open these files. It’s precedent not to open them. Hopefully, however, they will manage to get them open. The grand jury went on for quite a while. In the end, they met and the Justice Department decided not to indict.

AD: Which is also troubling, to say the least, given that there were many people who were complicit in the mismanagement of the plant — and who were potentially complicit in contaminating the surrounding areas and in sickening residents. 

NW: Agreed. There was a fine.To me, it all kind of goes back to the Price-Anderson Act, which was a law that was enacted that basically means any nuclear company is not liable because they are doing what they’re doing for the federal government. There was a Class Action lawsuit, and I think that the money is still being dispersed at this point. The money had to come from the contractors. So, that would be Dow and Boeing — because Rockwell is now Boeing. However, the contractors are getting paid back by the Department of Energy because of the Price-Anderson Act. That’s kind of the whole thing here. It’s cover-up upon cover up. You know? It’s a crazy system. 

AD: Based upon my understanding, it seems that, to this day, if someone builds a nuclear facility of some kind and something goes wrong, the company isn’t really held liable. Even after an incident like this.

NW: Exactly. And the thing is that when it comes to the Price-Anderson Act, there is a sunset provision, but each time it is up for a vote, it passes again. It’s packaged well. It’s packaged in defense spending, usually. I think that the last time it was up for a vote was in 2017. I know it had a revote and it was pushed through. It’s just really under-the-radar. It’s not an issue that many people are talking to their elected officials about, and they’re not saying ‘Don’t push forward the Price-Anderson Act. We don’t need to cover an industry that is causing a lot of problems for folks all over the country.’ It’s still not really known of. People don’t know about it, so they don’t know they may want to do something about this. They don’t realize how corrupt it is.

AD: And I guess that’s not entirely surprising, unfortunately. I think that, for the average individual going about their daily life, coupled with the rather tumultuous time that this country is going through right now, I think it really just is an issue that unfortunately tends to fall by the wayside as many other issues do — even though it shouldn’t. 

NW: 100 percent. And I think that if we could look at it from a local perspective, it’s much easier to understand. Going straight into Colorado, for instance, you see the environmental effects on these folks who are living right there and may be having some issues as a result. It may be their family member, or a friend of a family member, or someone they know who has gotten some odd illness and they’re wondering why that is. Then they kind of go down the rabbit hole [and learn about what happened]. I think those ways are effective in helping people understand the larger [implications] because it’s not just in Colorado that people are sick from toxic waste. There are plants all over the country and there’s waste all over the country as well, because there’s waste at every single [nuclear] power plant as well. It’s a different kind of waste, of course. These chemicals are all over, and they have also traveled all over, being shipped from one site to the next. When Rocky Flats closed, waste was shipped all over the country — California, Texas, out west — and it’s just been dispersed. We’re just full of it and there’s nowhere to put it. There’s nowhere to safely put it at all, and yet we keep producing it. So, this can really affect anyone. I live in New York, and if something happens at Indian Point, we’re going to be in a bad place. From my point of view, the local issues are much easier to comprehend when you’re in that area. You can kind of understand [it easier]. If you look at it from this larger issue, it can be a lot harder to understand where you fit in. To me, it’s a good story — the national story is a very interesting one, especially when you look at where these plants were put, how they were designed. To me, the entire history of them is very fascinating. When you’re actually sort of facing the issues with it, that’s when people can connect.

From “Rocky Flats” (Photo: Nancy Wolfe)

AD: I think it’s very similar to any other environmental issue. If everybody focuses on doing something about the issues that exist right where they live, it’s more likely to result in something being done. 

NW: Absolutely. I know that when it comes to a lot of the groups I’ve been in touch with, part of their mission is to bring together some of these disparate groups working on various issues in their area to come together and say ‘Well, what can we do as a collective?’ Take Saint Louis, for instance. There was this documentary called Atomic Homefront and that was about the nuclear waste dump. So, you connect the dots and say ‘Did Rocky Flats waste go to Saint Louis? Let’s find out and see if those two can work together and say that is where their waste came from and that it is a problem.’

AD: Another thing that I thought was important — and which you alluded to as well — is how it is affecting the health of the people who worked with the nuclear material firsthand, as well as how it is impacting the health of those living in the surrounding communities. It seems as though many people have experienced some very serious health issues. It does seem as though there have been some disconcertingly high rates of various illnesses — including, predictably enough, various forms of cancer. Additionally, it sounds as though people in the surrounding communities are getting the same kinds of cancers and other diseases, though it seems like the government is refuting that or has attempted to link it to other factors. Personally, though I am not a medical expert, I’m inclined to believe there is some link between the activities undertaken at the Rocky Flats plant and the diseases these people are seeing. It’s just more plausible from my point of view.

NW: There was a health study conducted in 2016. That produced some numbers, but it was just anecdotal. Right now, they’re working on some healthcare studies — another anecdotal health survey and then some more scientific studies about various issues related to the care that folks are getting. There is a whole host of studies. There is going to be more information that will be coming out. There hasn’t really been a very comprehensive study of the area to find out the effects. People really want to know what is going on and how it is affecting people. 

AD: And the whole situation is really bizarre, because you have some sources of information — like the State of Colorado’s own website — that talks a little bit about Rocky Flats and claims the surrounding land is safe for any use. On the other hand, you can find others who say just the opposite. For instance, I found an Op-Ed from a local librarian in Westword magazine. In it they say that, at closing, people are getting notices not to plant root vegetables in their gardens. So, I feel like both just cannot be true. The land cannot both be safe for any use but, at the same time, you should avoid planting root vegetables. The fact that you need to use caution and not plant certain things is, to me, indicative of something going on — that, for instance, there could very well be contamination of the area. It’s kind of the same thing with the grand jury investigation. Though there may be precedent to keep documents or evidence sealed, there is still this sort of mixed message. It’s like ‘Trust us, everything is fine. There’s nothing to see here. Or there would be nothing to see here, if we were to allow you to see the information, which we won’t do.’ 

NW: Absolutely. For instance, Standley Lake still has plutonium in it, yet it’s the source of drinking water for the area. They’re like ‘Well, the plutonium sediment isn’t going to be in the drinking water.’ However, if anyone knew that the water they were drinking was coming from a lake that had sediments of plutonium, I don’t think they’d want to drink it. So, there are things like that, where there is this cognitive dissonance. Then there’s the way in which these studies are done as well. This stuff reminds me of the situation in Flint. Essentially, what a lot of these government studies will do is they will say ‘We took samples here, here, here and here. Then we averaged out the area, and we believe that this area has an average amount of whatever the substance may be, which is safe.’ So, it’s this way of just kind of lowering these numbers — of having a larger area and, thus, lowering the average. It’s the way these local health departments and the EPA will do it. So, the practice of the way these things are done is ‘Here is an answer that is very vague and very confusing, but don’t look over there at this other thing that is also a fact.’ 

From “Rocky Flats” (Photo: Nancy Wolfe)

AD: It’s almost cherry-picking the data that suits the narrative they want to tell.

NW: Finally, what’s happening is there is going to be testing at the wildlife refuge. That was just announced about a week or two ago, so it was pretty big news. We went and filmed one of the soil scientists I’ve been in touch with — Dr. Michael Ketterer — and we filmed on the 6th, and they were collecting samples. There is a contractor who will be testing for radioactivity, so that’s good news. That hasn’t happened in over a decade, so that’s progress. Hopefully, there will be data they can dig into and can figure out how they move forward — and hopefully people can make a decision of ‘I’m not going to go to the refuge,’ or ‘I think the refuge should be shut down,’ or ‘The refuge is fine. I’m going to go.’ A lot of the people in my film are trying to get that information out to the public. Candelas is a big part of my film. That’s a housing development that is right up against the buffer zone for the plant. So, that is where Michelle — who is in the film — started her activism. Figuring out what was going on out there and what they were building. It turned out they’re building the largest housing development in the state of Colorado. They’re doing a tiered approach, but in the end it will be the largest housing development — and it’s right next to a Superfund site. Michelle and others believe that’s concerning information that, when you are looking for a home and you are living out of state and don’t know much about the area — you should be made aware of before you sign any papers.

AD: I agree, and one thing is for sure. If I ever do make a move anyplace, I will definitely be inclined to research the area I’m contemplating moving to much more closely as well.

NW: One thing I’ve learned after all of my research with nuclear waste is there is a policy that the Department of Energy has begun, and they call it ‘From Weapons to Wildlife.’ That means that they are trying to turn all of these former weapons sites into national wildlife refuges. Many times, if you go and look at these sites, they may have been former nuclear weapons sites. They’re greenwashing the situation here and not showing you the history. They’re not saying ‘This is a memorial. Do not enter or you may get sick, because plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years.’ They’re not saying that. They’re saying ‘Come in,’ but what I think most Americans don’t understand — as I don’t and as most humans don’t, unless you are specializing in it, is how you clean up a nuclear weapons site. How, exactly, are you able to safely store waste without any movement? Particularly with climate change and more earthquakes and fracking? How can you possibly believe these sites are safe when you have all this flooding and don’t test for a decade? When I hear about a national wildlife refuge, I’m like ‘OK. What’s the history here?’ Because in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal was also a chemical site. That one is also a national park and people aren’t happy about that one, either. A lot of the times, these are old industrial sites. So, you kind of have to dig in and ask ‘Why? Why is it a national park? What happened that makes it a national park now?’ 

AD: Right. I think it really emphasizes the need to do your due diligence. However, the responsibility, in my view, really rests with the government. That said, if the government will not act responsibly, and will instead just withhold information and will try to refute any suggestion that the land may still be unsafe — or any suggestion that higher rates of illness have anything to do with activity that took place on the land — then it is also arguable that you are missing a lot of important information.

NW: Well, there’s a piece that hasn’t been released publicly and, in it, a lawyer I spoke with actually described the process of consumers and how, basically, the government says they need consumers to tell them when some corporation or business does something wrong. But the public thinks the government is protecting them. However, the government doesn’t protect them until they receive a complaint. So, this consumer review process is very confusing. Also, some people don’t want to get involved. There’s stuff like that, where we expect the government will do something and then the government goes ‘Well, we expect the public will let us know something is wrong, so that we can do something about it.’ 

AD: Right. And you can only do your due diligence if the information is out there for public consumption, and cases like Rocky Flats really prove that the information isn’t always out there. 

NW: And a lot of times the studies — like, for instance, the studies on the Colorado site you mentioned — are mathematical models. It’s more ‘We believe this many people will get cancer in this area due to these conditions.’ 

AD: It almost seems like little more than a prediction based upon past results — at best.

NW: One of the scary things is that kids are still getting sick out there, and they weren’t alive during the plant’s operation. That’s concerning. Hopefully people will really have their eyes opened when we’re finished. The plant is closed, but these chemicals don’t go away. There’s not much you can do with something that doesn’t lose its power after 24,000 years. We need to do something to protect the future. Opening the land up for development is not it. 

AD: You’d think there’d be a law in place that would prohibit development in and around the area for any use — like, for instance, a subdivision — and it doesn’t sound as though there is much that would prohibit such uses now. 

NW: This is the thing. It used to be a no-build zone. Then, it stopped being a no-build zone. Why? 

AD: It truly is shocking because, based on what I read, in 2003 there was a decision that said the area ought to be off-limits in perpetuity. Then, in 2018 — 15 years later — they open it up. That’s quite the reversal.

NW: Definitely. They just suddenly decided ‘Oh, right. We should just use it.’ I asked if there’s a reason, and I never get any reason. I never get anyone telling me what the reason is. They’re just like ‘We’re supposed to. We were supposed to do that.’ 

AD: Right. It’s like ‘Okay, but based on what? What sound, unbiased study says this is suddenly alright?’

NW: Based on the Refuge Act — which is basically when the plant was closed down, it was decided it was going to become a refuge. People felt if it were limited to human activity, that would be the best case scenario. Just let it be, but don’t have humans come into contact with it. Then, they decided to open it up to the public. You have to think about it this way, when they say it isn’t safe for human contact, that means it doesn’t have to be cleaned up to a standard fit for a housing development or an industrial development. They don’t have to clean it up to a certain level, because if it’s just existing out there and no one is going out there, they don’t have to clean it up to a certain level. Then they went back and it’s like ‘It’s actually fine. I know we said that we only have to clean it up to a certain level, but we actually cleaned it up so great that it’s perfect.’ 

AD: Sounds fishy, to say the least.

NW: Right. There’s a lot that’s very fishy in the history of all of this because it’s so secretive, and secretive in such a way that’s thoroughly confusing. I can’t get to a lot of the why’s here. Why do they want this to be a recreation area? This area has so many places people can use for hiking and recreation. Boulder has this open space in just the other direction — tons of it. Why do we need more of this open space in an area that has tons of it?

AD: I mean, it would’ve been nice if it hadn’t been contaminated. Now that it has been, the wisdom of opening it up to human activity is definitely questionable and, it seems to me, totally ill-advised. I just think it’s so great you’re bringing this to light, because I do feel like so many people just aren’t even aware of Rocky Flats or of what went on there — and I think it’s so great there are these activists who you’re focusing on and who are advocating on behalf of the community, because I think it’s pretty clear the government has fallen short here. I think it’s pretty clear that the government isn’t going to do anything. At least, in my view. I think it’s pretty clear the government isn’t going to step in. 

NW: Movements are what change government. That’s what changes things, little by little — and, hopefully, more than little by little.

About Nancy Wolfe

Nancy Wolfe, founder of Wherewolfe Productions, is a producer, director, writer and editor. She has produced both feature-length films and news programs, and has extensive editing experience on a variety of projects.

Willing to boldly confront uncomfortable issues for large audiences, Nancy works on projects that ignite our collective social conscience and take a stand. Topics include the environment and nuclear testing, investigative journalism, voting rights and beyond.

Nancy works full-time as an imaging specialist at Columbia University Libraries and has served on the committee for the Strategic Initiative on Time-Based Media. She is also the co-founder of Documentary Filmmakers Anonymous, a support group for NYC-based documentary filmmakers.

Nancy studied filmmaking at The New School in New York City.

About Rocky Flats

What happens when a massive nuclear weapons plant closes in your neighborhood? ROCKY FLATS is the story of a Colorado community as it faces-off against big government over the toxic legacy of the Cold War.

Scattered around the United States, and unknown to most Americans, hundreds of thousands of tons of nuclear waste lie buried under former nuclear plants or sit in temporary storage sites. How is this toxic legacy of the Cold War impacting our environment, our health and our communities? This film travels to Rocky Flats in Colorado where an ongoing story of the Cold War dramatically unfolds—and stands to reveal the truths of one of the major environmental stories of our time.

Wherewolfe Productions is proud to announce that ROCKY FLATS was selected for “fiscal sponsorship” by Women Make Movies, an organization that champions women filmmakers and their stories. To make a tax-deductible contribution, you may donate to the project via our fiscal sponsor Women Make Movies.

Associated Events

August 4, 2019 2:00 PM – 4:00 PM MDT 

Arvada Library – Jefferson County Library

7525 West 57th Avenue

Arvada, CO 80002

Filmmaker Nancy Wolfe will present a teaser of her upcoming film, “Rocky Flats.” She is looking for additional funding to finish her film.

ROCKY FLATS was selected for “fiscal sponsorship” by Women Make Movies, an organization that champions women filmmakers and their stories. To make a tax-deductible contribution, you may donate to the project via our fiscal sponsor Women Make Movies.

Established in 1972, Women Make Movies is a 501(c)(3) non-profit media arts organization registered with the New York Charities Bureau of New York State. As the fiscal sponsor, WMM accepts donations or grants on behalf of the filmmaker and takes the responsibility of administering the funds received in support of the development and completion of the film.

In addition, we will view short films about Rocky Flats by local filmmakers.

Tickets are free and available by clicking here.

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