Longreads

The Grieving Landscape

RJ Sangosti / Getty / Fulcrum Publishing

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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 Steingraber, Theo 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.

* * *

I drove the Prius rental from the Denver airport to Boulder and arrived at the Colorado Chautauqua National Historic Landmark in the afternoon, where we were to stay during this visit. The sight of the tall, flat, conglomeratic sandstone unsettled me as we entered the park property. The immense rocks looked unreal, like something biblical or darkly fantastical — a mountain in a science fiction film that contains, within it, a dangerous and secret realm. The sharp upward angle of the earth leading to the tall rocks threw me off balance. Beyond those foreboding crags sits the closed Rocky Flats Nuclear Facility, now a Superfund site and wildlife refuge, a grieving land at the base of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains. The terrain is laced with plutonium, uranium, beryllium, cesium 137, many other forms of ionizing radiation, and a long list of toxicants.

Olivia asked me to stop the car for a moment so she could get out and take pictures of the mountain-scape. She walked toward the trailhead, filled with pretty young families with dogs and small children heading upward on the wide sloped path, leading toward the crags. She snapped photos of the sky and rocks and wildflowers and returned to the car. After, we headed to the big lodge to register and collect keys for a periwinkle-blue, wood-shingled cottage.

The sign over its door said, “Morning Glory.” Our temporary home.

Early the next morning, while Olivia still slept, I hiked in the hills just beneath the crags, through fields of wild grasses and flowers — asters, blazing stars, western wallflowers, stonecrops — and into the cool of the evergreen trees. It was hard to make sense of these two very different but overlapping realities: a stunning Colorado landscape and nuclear horror. As I hiked, I tried to quiet my mind and push away the frightening scientific facts and stories that I had read about Rocky Flats. Mothers, children, and former workers all sick with cancers. Dead-too-soon loved ones. Infertility. Deformed animals. A contaminated land.

After my hike and an early breakfast, Olivia and I met Kristen Iversen in the Chautauqua parking lot. She would be our tour guide for the day, showing us the area surrounding Rocky Flats. Tall and blonde, Kristen wore a long, flowing, colorful skirt and blouse with a wide leather belt and silver buckle cinched at the waist. In her arms, she held her small dog, Emma, a papillon. Kristen looked the part of a Colorado gal who had grown up riding horses. This was her territory. She had seen much cancer in her friends and neighbors. She had also worked at the nuclear plant as a young adult and raised her two sons in Arvada, the town adjacent to the Flats.

Kristen sat in the passenger seat as I drove, and my daughter crouched down in the back with the windows firmly sealed shut. Olivia wore an oversized sweatshirt and red baseball hat with the embroidered words, “Make America Kind Again.” I glanced back and wondered, Should I have brought my daughter here? Is it safe? All it would take is the smallest bit of plutonium to enter her lungs and her health could be compromised, or the health of her children, and their children’s children.

We traveled down Indiana Street, past fields of brown grass, dry scrub bushes, gently rolling hills, and the unmarked property of the former plant. Bicyclists flew by. I wondered if they knew about Rocky Flats and the dangerous air they were breathing.


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Olivia asked Kristen questions: “Those cows, are they contaminated? What are those people doing playing miniature golf? Aren’t they concerned?”

“Studies show that local cows have plutonium in their bodies,” Kristen replied. “And, yes, it’s amazing that people just go on as if everything is fine.”

Kristen pointed to a group of houses. “Over there, that’s where Bini Abbott had a horse farm. Many of her horses had birth defects, organs outside their bodies, and some were sterile. Some of the women in the neighborhood were sterile, too. I told you about the rancher, Lloyd Mixon, who had a deformed pig, Scooter? He would take Scooter with him to city council meetings and try to get the government to tell him what was going on.” We drove on, past more construction. “Oh, look, this was where the Jackson Turkey Farm used to be,” Kristen sighed. “The family who owned it said DOE officials would come by unexpectedly to test the turkeys, and sometimes take them away. No one ever found out what they did with the turkeys or what they discovered.”

We headed to Kristen’s childhood home, which looked like a 1960s Disney movie set: barn, bridge, creek. “That barn and field over there held my horses,” she said. “But the water in the creek, the whole area, has been affected by off-site plutonium contamination. New people live here now. I guess they don’t know…” We gazed at the bubbling water that ran under a small wooden bridge — a tempting area for children to play in — potentially polluted with plutonium. There were no “stay out” signs or warnings.

“I don’t get it,” Olivia said.

“Yes,” Kristen sighed. “It’s very sad.”

Further on, we approached Standley Lake. The water was wide and still, bounded by land covered with the dry grasses and scrub bushes, and a few thin, sickly looking trees. Kristen told us the lake was a drinking water source for the cities of Westminster, Northglenn, and Thornton, even though plutonium is in the sediment. There were signs for boat rentals — paddleboard, canoes, and kayaks.

“People aren’t supposed to swim here,” Kristen noted. “It’s dangerous to kick up the sediment. But they waterski and fish.”

Olivia asked, “Do they eat the fish?”

“Yes, many do.” Kristen replied.

We angled up a bit further and parked on the side of the road, with a view of the lake, near a white clapboard home. An older man exited the front door and carried a box to the rear of the house. Kristen said he was the father of her childhood friend, Tamara. Tamara grew up in this lakeside house, Kristen explained. Tamara had been diagnosed with brain cancer, but her parents didn’t believe the plutonium had anything do with it. I watched, with disbelief, as Tamara’s father walked back into his house, not wiping off his feet or removing his shoes.

The final stop on our tour was the new housing development, Candelas. Candelas looked like new suburbia in Anywhere, USA, with wide roads, and large houses in muted colors. Kristen pointed out that many of her scientist colleagues believe the community isn’t safe for residence. Plutonium has been detected in the soil, although real estate brokers were not required to inform prospective buyers about this contamination or about the history of Rocky Flats. Plutonium had also been detected in a nearby drinking water source.

As I parked the car in front of the sales office, I realized just how close we were to the Refuge. Too close.

“I wouldn’t live here in a million years,” Olivia blurted out incredulously.

I turned my head around and saw fear in my daughter’s sky-blue eyes. I debated getting out of the car but decided to go for it — I would not be giving birth to more children, so I convinced myself it would be okay. Olivia would stay in the car.

Kristen and I stepped out of the vehicle and walked toward the office. The entry door was only a few feet away, but with each step, the invisible plutonium in the air or on the sidewalk made my heart beat faster. Might I bring it back into the car and endanger Olivia? No turning back now. But then I thought with shame about all the children born and raised here. Surrounding us were homes filled with families and playgrounds and recreation areas. These families live with plutonium contamination from birth to death. Innocent new people move in every day. They come to new developments like Candelas, where it is less expensive to buy a house than in Boulder. They have no idea of the history of Rocky Flats. Or if they do, they know only of the official (incorrect) announcements declaring the contamination has been cleaned up. The location appears pristine — ideal, a playland for the rich and outdoorsy. There are no signs, no indications of the past anywhere. The only marker of the dark history is artist Jeff Gipes’ ‘Cold War Horse.’ But many drive by that eerie symbol, not knowing what it means. How ironic that this snowcapped land of hikers, climbers, skiers, bikers, the culture of Patagonia, Black Diamond, Marmot, should be laced with invisible plutonium and other contaminants.

The cheery real estate agent greeted us with brochures as we entered the model ‘homes-for-sale’ office. She cheerily played up the benefits of raising kids here in Candelas: the excellent new schools, a new swimming pool and rec center, the hiking trails running from the development through the “natural habitat” of the refuge of Rocky Flats with its “elk, deer, owl.” Standley Lake, she said, was a great place to boat and fish, right nearby. We could “rent boats or bring our own.” Kristen and I exchanged glances.

Fear rose up in me as the agent spoke, and my hand flew automatically to my neck — checking my lymph nodes — where a mark remains from having tissue removed when I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. My cancer ties me to Rocky Flats, even though I am not from there, but so many local residents have the same blemish on their neck from having tumors or biopsy tissue removed. The proverbial downwinders’ scar.

How the hell do they allow people to live here? My mind raced, as the agent continued her monologue. Not one word was mentioned about plutonium from the former plant site. Or the risks of raising kids here. Or the rare cancers in the community. I trembled quietly with rage as she smiled her Teflon smile, handed us paperwork with price points, and pointed us toward the entrance of one model house. It had the standard stainless-steel kitchen, large walk-in closets, large picture windows, and high ceilings. Through the window glass, I could see the snowcapped Rocky Mountains in the distance. If the mountains could speak, I was sure they would be screaming.

This is the American Dream.

* * *

Suburban enclaves, and the freeways that take us to them, were built in large part in response to Cold War atomic anxiety. The government feared nuclear attack could wipe out American cities and our primary population. So, freeways were built and suburban communities were erected “safely” away from major population centers. Strangely, some of these dream communities were developed to support bomb-making factories, as Kate Brown writes in Plutopia. These shiny new houses and shiny new communities, it was thought, would make workers’ wives happy and happy wives would make happy and productive workers for the weapons’ plants. We saw this in Hanford, WA, Oakridge TN, St. Louis MO, and in the towns surrounding Rocky Flats in Colorado. Families living in these shiny locations were kept in the dark about the dangers that lurked. Cold War domestic secrets.

My cancer ties me to Rocky Flats, even though I am not from there, but so many local residents have the same blemish on their neck from having tumors or biopsy tissue removed. The proverbial downwinders’ scar.

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.

Like a mother’s womb, we like to think of the home as a safe space. Radiation pollution undoes all that. Ingested and internalized radiation travels through the mother’s bloodstream and crosses the placenta. External radiation, such as X-rays and gamma rays, penetrates the womb. Wombs and homes, as permeable spaces, put the unborn and children at grave risk. Science shows us that women and children are most vulnerable to ionizing radiation exposures. Women are twice as likely to develop cancer from exposure to radiation and almost twice as likely to die from these cancers as adult males. Boys are five times more likely to develop and die cancer from radiation exposures as adult males, and girls are seven or more times likely to develop and die from cancers as adult males. Baby girls are most at risk. Yet safety standards are all based on an adult male body — “reference man” — a white, twenty-something adult male.

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.”

Houses and families do not belong next to radioactive sacrifice zones.

Home sweet home. Home is where the heart is. Home, home on the range. Home is where it starts. Dream home. Don’t sit home. Love starts at home. Home, home is where I want to be / pick me up and bring me down. My home is my castle. This space in which we live and raise our families occupies so many cliché, trite, and nostalgic phrases and song lyrics, yet we know home may be a place of horror, where domestic violence remains hidden. We long for the perfect dream home, but we know secret dangers lurk there. Post-World War II, those dangers include toxic and radioactive contamination.

* * *

Denial is rampant in the community around Rocky Flats. History erased. No signage. Too little public information. Misinformation. It’s all about dollars and cents and real estate. But there is community team of active folks working to protect the families. They recently halted the construction of a parkway that was to run through Rocky Flats, and they have worked with schools to halt children’s field trips. There’s more to go. The Refuge is now open to the public for recreation, despite tremendous evidence indicating that people should stay out. New housing continues to go up on contaminated land next door. Scientists like W. Gale Biggs, Harvey Nichols, and Anne Forgarty, who have been studying the soil, water, and air on the flats for years, are deeply concerned. But they are aging. Nichols, now retired from university teaching and research asks, “Who will do this work when we are gone?”

Houses and families do not belong next to radioactive sacrifice zones.

Mothers like the women of Women Strike for Peace from back in the early 1960s, carry on the work today, in Colorado. They are at the forefront of precautionary actions to protect the children and the families living near Rocky Flats. Over cups of coffee and tea, at kitchen tables, in cafes, the mothers told me their stories.

Elizabeth Panzer’s son Nathan has a very rare heart cancer, only seen in .05 percent of the population. There is no cure for his disease, he had surgery, and spent years on chemo, and his family lives with no certainty of his future. Shaunessy McNeely’s father died of the same very rare heart cancer as Nathan and lived only a few blocks from Nathan and was diagnosed in the same year. Elizabeth Panzer explains: “When we moved here, nobody warned us that this housing and land might be polluted with plutonium. So many people in Arvada don’t want to think about the dangers here. The government says it safe and they want to believe it. I wanted to believe it, too. But my son could die any day and I think there may be a cancer cluster here. We need studies. People need to know.” Panzer and her family chose to stay in their house so Nathan could continue to live a normal life during his illness. Sometimes she questions that decision. “What about the health of my other children? And if I sell my house and move away, what about the next family? What about those kids?” For a long time, to protect Nathan, Elizabeth remained silent. Over time, she became more outspoken, more involved in local actions to protect the community. Nathan, miraculously, continues to live. It’s several years since his diagnosis.

“I grew up under four miles from Rocky Flats. I had a pillow seat in my bedroom window growing up,” Tiffany Hansen explained. “I spent many nights looking out at the plant’s lights, but I had no idea what was really going on.” It wasn’t until a few years ago, after developing an ovarian tumor and experiencing other “debilitating health” symptoms (including Graves’ disease), that she Googled and discovered the Rocky Flats’ contamination story. Hansen then read Kristen Iversen’s memoir and became deeply upset with the news that she had grown up next to a bomb factory: “We played outside all day in that stuff, exposed, unaware. I was hysterical when I found out. I called many of my old friends and discovered too many stories of cancer.”

“We thought we were living the dream,” Hansen continued. Her father owned an electrical contracting company that did work at the Rocky Flats site. He was well compensated. They had a nice house with a pool, she had fancy toys like “four wheelers,” and her mother drove a Corvette. In addition to her ovarian tumor, Hansen has had one miscarriage (common to women who live nearby), and she had a benign lymph tumor on her neck as a child. In her youth, Hansen was often hospitalized for mysterious debilitating symptoms. She bears the downwinder’s scar on her neck: “Just like Kristen describes in her book about her own scar.” Her brother, who worked at the plant, has heart and thyroid problems. Hansen’s childhood best friend had a brain tumor in the third grade. Another friend had ovarian cancer and passed away at forty-three. Hansen’s high school boyfriend had stage four thyroid cancer and he survived, as did his mom; his dad passed away from thyroid cancer.

Tiffany knew had to “do something to help.” She set up the Rocky Flats Downwinders group, initiated two health surveys and a hemp soil remediation project. Tiffany is joined in these efforts by Elizabeth, Shaunessy, Shaunessy’s mother, Elaine, and others like physician Dr. Sasha Stiles.

“I cannot stay silent anymore and let such suffering happen to more children,” Elizabeth told me. “The denial must end.”

Again and again, I hear my daughter’s words, “I wouldn’t live here in a million years.”

* * *

Heidi Hutner, PhD, teaches, speaks, and writes about ecofeminism and environmental justice. Hutner’s writing has been featured in the New York TimesMs. Magazine, DAME, Tikkun, Spirituality and Health, Yes!, Common Dreams, Garnet News, and Proximity Magazine. She has written for academic journals and books published by Oxford University Press, University of Virginia Press, Palgrave, Rowman and Littlefield, and others. 

 

Excerpted from the anthology Doom with a View, edited by Kristen Iversen. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Fulcrum Publishing. All rights reserved.

Editor: Sari Botton

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