The nurse buckles ten-year old Nathan onto the narrow, MRI platform, inserts an IV needle into his arm, and places a large metal contraption across his chest. His mother, Elizabeth, steps closer to the boy, whispers comforting words, and tells him that he gets to watch the first Lord of the Rings film until the test is complete. A Panzer family rule: no movie watching unless Nathan and his two brothers have read the book. Then, the wide mouth of the big white apparatus swallows Nathan whole.
Elizabeth follows the nurse to the end of the MRI machine where there is an empty white plastic lawn chair. She sits, places a pair of sound mufflers over her ears, and slips her hands into the tunnel and onto Nathan’s feet. She will stay like this for three hours, awkwardly bent over, arms trading places as they turn tingly and frozen and fall asleep. One arm, then the other. It’s the only way Elizabeth can comfort her son. She won’t let go. Between the loud clacking MRI sounds and the voice over the loudspeaker instructing Nathan to “Breathe, hold. Breathe, hold,” Elizabeth doesn’t know if her son is able to really follow the story on the screen above him, or if he’s able to hear the movie’s soundtrack. She doesn’t know if he’s crying, or if he’s terrified. She whispers, “It’s okay buddy,” again and again.
When the test is complete, Elizabeth gets up and walks toward the front of the machine. She glances briefly to her left and sees faces watching her from behind a large glass window. The observation window runs the span of the hall, overlooking room-after-room filled with MRI machines, making unbearable noises and shooting pictures of sick children’s interiors. This is the Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.
Nathan’s body slides out of the MRI, headfirst. The nurse unfastens his safety belt and pulls the needle from his thin arm. She wipes the needle-wound clean, covers it with a swath of cotton and medical tape, lifts the metal contraption from his chest, and helps the boy down the steps of the narrow pad. The white room is too bright. He rubs his eyes. Elizabeth sees Nathan, her middle son, and thinks about how small and frail he looks in his hospital gown. How quickly he’s changed from a strong, funny, healthy boy over the past few months to a sick child. Let this be his diabetes, or something curable with the right medication. Please, Jesus, please.
The nurse helps the boy onto the gurney and covers him with a sheet and blanket. Nathan shivers, but says nothing. He is weak and uncomfortable. Several doctors in white coats come forward and motion for Elizabeth to look at the images of her son’s heart on a large computer screen. She enters the dark space, unable to see at first. Her eyes slowly adjust to the dim light. The room is filled with doctors and technicians. It’s crowded. They huddle and murmur to each other in front of the screen. Something must be wrong, Elizabeth thinks; there are too many people. With his finger pointing to the screen, one doctor says, “There is a large mass in Nathan’s heart. A tumor. That large dark area. There. Do you see, Mrs. Panzer? There’s a change of plans. We won’t be doing the CAT scan we talked about. The boy needs to go straight to surgery, upstairs.”
A maternal switch is flipped inside Elizabeth. She cannot allow herself to fall apart. She must remain cool. She must protect. She and Nathan had just come from a camping trip in South Dakota, where a Boy Scout troop ran up and down the Black Hills, screaming as they swam and played, cooked and burned their food, washed dishes poorly, put up tents, and learned how to fend for themselves for one week. Elizabeth can still hear the sounds of boy-laughter. With a jolt, she remembers how Nathan was unable to do the swim test in the lake. He fell into a shivering state of shock during the test. Elizabeth wrapped him up, put him in her car and drove to her father’s camper, where the boy slept for many hours. Luckily her father, Nathan’s grandfather, had driven them to South Dakota. Nathan struggled to walk up and down the camp’s dirt paths, but he didn’t want to leave friends and brothers, Drake and Reid, so his grandfather drove Nathan to each activity. Elizabeth had thought it was his diabetes acting up, checked the boy’s blood levels, and gave him his medications, but he only grew worse as the week wore on. Still, it was such a happy time in the mountains, under big South Dakota skies.
But, now, they are surrounded by white walls, absent exterior windows, and machines—a cold hospital. Elizabeth is terrified, but before tears, she must make Nathan feel safe. Tumor. Mass. Surgery. “It’s going to be okay, buddy,” she says, taking his hand. “They are just going to take something out of your heart and make you all better. You will be fine.” She leans in, places her lips on his damp forehead, and gives him a gentle kiss. His face relaxes.
Elizabeth and Nathan arrive on the bright green-colored floor—children’s cardiology. Elizabeth’s husband David meets them in Nathan’s ICU room. They wait until their son’s surgery begins. As the nurses insert a new needle into Nathan’s arm and set up an IV-drip to keep him stable and hydrated, David motions for Elizabeth to follow him into the hall. “You heard?” he asks. “Heard what?” she replies. “The doctors say that Nathan may not make it through surgery. His heart is so enlarged with the tumor he won’t be able to handle the anesthesia. He probably won’t live.” While Elizabeth had been downstairs with Nathan during the MRI, David had met the physicians on the cardiac floor. Elizabeth feels a scream rising in her throat, but she stops herself. She cannot fall apart.
Elizabeth and David go back to Nathan’s room. These are the last ten minutes all three of them have together before the young boy is wheeled away. The room is like a fish tank, Elizabeth thinks. The doors and walls are all solid glass. The nurses and doctors or anybody walking by look in, observe for a second, and continue on. She leans in to her boy, and David takes what might be their last photograph with his iPhone. They trade places and Elizabeth takes a picture of Nathan with his father. Then, both parents lay their hands on Nathan, close their eyes, and quietly pray to Jesus to watch over the boy during surgery. Nathan prays with them. The nurse re-enters and rolls Nathan’s bed into the hall. His parents follow. They pass big glass window after big glass window of rooms filled with sick young children, babies, and toddlers in cribs. Fish tanks of families. Nathan passes through several sets of doors, each time stopping for the nurse to place a badge against the security clearance box on the wall followed by the doors magically gliding open. They stop in front of the final set of doors, and the nurse says, “It’s time for Mom and Dad to say goodbye.”
“We love you, Nathan,” his parents call out as he passes through the big white doors, “We’ll see you soon.”
When the boy is gone, Elizabeth tears back down the hallway, her long blonde hair streaming behind her. Inside the ICU waiting area, she rushes toward a narrow galley, hidden away from the roomful of adults. This is where she finally crumples to the floor. In the small space, she lets out a loud primal wail, and then another, and another, and another. The adults flee.
David comes in briefly and kneels to touch her back. She hardly notices his presence, and then he is gone. Elizabeth is alone.
I drive my Prius rental from the Denver airport to Boulder, Colorado, and arrive at Chautauqua. The sight of the tall, flat, conglomeratic sandstone unsettles me as we enter the property. The immense rocks look 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 throws me off balance. It’s beautiful and frightening looking all at once. 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 snow-capped Rocky Mountains. The terrain is laced with plutonium, uranium, beryllium, cesium 137, other forms of ionizing radiation, and a long list of toxicants.
As I pull onto the property’s main road, I turn and see a large grassy area with picnicking families at the base of the large lodge. It’s a perfect summer day: blankets covered with baskets of food and toys. Parents and children are eating, frolicking, talking, throwing Frisbees and playing catch. Dogs romp about. A pretty scene at the base of the Flatirons.
My daughter, Olivia, asks me to stop the car for a moment, so she can get out and take pictures of the mountain. She walks toward the trailhead, also filled with young families, walking upward on the wide sloped path, leading toward the crags. She captures the Flatirons on her phone.
I watch Olivia and think, with an aching heart, I’ve become my mother. I’m here—chasing an important nuclear disaster story—because of mom. It’s the closest thing to being with her. Growing up, my mother was an antinuclear, civil rights, and antiwar activist. Now, here I am in Colorado with my teenage daughter to research the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Facility, where triggers for U.S. nuclear weapons were made. It was here in Colorado in the 1980s that my mother’s antinuclear comrades marched and conducted sit-ins to close Rocky Flats. I wonder what she would think of this trip I’m on—with her tall redheaded feminist and environmentalist granddaughter. Though they never knew each other, our maternal line is connected and strong. We are all protectors.
Olivia returns to the car and we head to the big lodge to register and collect keys for a periwinkle blue, wooden-shingled cottage. The sign over its door says, “Morning Glory.” This is our temporary home.
Still lying on the floor, curled in a ball, Elizabeth opens her eyes. The room is bright with artificial light and cheery Children’s Hospital colors. The space is empty except for her and her husband. She hears David’s voice behind her. He taps her shoulder and says, “We need to call the family, tell them something. They don’t know Nathan is in surgery. They don’t know he might die.”
Elizabeth gingerly rises. Her body aches. “You tell them, David. Please. Call them,” she whispers. “I cannot do it. But don’t tell the boys. Don’t tell them that Nathan might die.”
David leaves to make the call and the heavy waiting room door slams behind him. She cringes at the loud noise. Everything hurts now. Every sound.
Elizabeth pulls a tissue from her bag and wipes salty snot and tears from her face. Get yourself together, Elizabeth tells herself. The boys will be here soon. They can’t see you like this.
Elizabeth is an expert at putting others first, sweeping away her pain, and making things right for her boys. She heads to the bathroom in the parents’ waiting room and scrubs the roadmap of tears from her cheeks, loosens the top button of her damp shirt, and wipes her neck clean. Elizabeth pulls a make-up bag from her purse and applies foundation, mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick. She shakes out and brushes her hair and smooths the crinkled edges of her blouse. Elizabeth inspects herself in the mirror before leaving the bathroom. She thinks, I look human again.
The dining room table in Ann Fenerty’s Boulder Hills home is rimmed with people and covered with files of information about the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Facility. Three grey-haired scientists sit at one end: chemist Fenerty, meteorologist Gale Biggs, and biologist Harvey Nichols. Next to Biggs, sits Sandy Pennington, City Councilwoman of the Town of Superior.
Seated next to me, on each side, are two former Rocky Flats employees: Larry Hankins, a retired radiation technology specialist, and Ted Zeigler, a retired machinist and safety officer. Both men are sick. They believe their illnesses stem from ionizing radiation and Beryllium exposures at the former plant.
For the next three hours, I sit there and listen to the group tell me the story of Rocky Flats.
Operating from 1952 to 1992, the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility was located approximately fifteen miles northwest of Denver, a city built by an influx of miners during the gold rush in the 19th century. During its forty years of operation, the plant constructed over 70,000 plutonium 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. The first was in 1957. The second, in 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. Dr. Gale Biggs tells me, these winds continue to pose a problem today. Buried contamination is brought to the surface by animal and plant life and then blown downwind. Just downwind, it so happens, families live in large neighboring communities.
Most locals never knew that Rocky Flats was a weapons factory. Its workers were forbidden to speak of their jobs and often did not comprehend the full extent of the factory’s activities. Many workers would become sick with cancer and die far too young. The families living in the neighborhoods surrounding Rocky Flats were and continue to be filled with cancers and strange illnesses, and many of their pets were born with deformities, developed cancers, or both. A preliminary report from a recent study shows a high rate of cancers in humans in the area and, of those reported, 48.8% are rare cancers. Dr. Carl Johnson’s research also indicates high rates of cancer in the neighboring communities. More health studies should be done, but funding for research independent of nuclear industry influence is very hard to come by.
By 1989, the FBI and EPA suspected criminal negligence at Rocky Flats, which led to a raid focused on investigating broken safety regulations. Prosecutor Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken R. Fimberg began an investigation, a settlement was negotiated, the court documents were sealed, and the plant closed. The results of this investigation are fraught and complex, and cover-ups are suspected in the sealing of the documents and lack of full prosecution. The Rocky Flats cleanup by the EPA was officially completed in 2004; however, numerous scientists, nuclear experts, local citizens, and antinuclear activists argue the cleanup is far from finished. Large amounts of plutonium and other contaminants remain on the land in what has been declared 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 and continues to leak. 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 restored to a safe condition; contamination has been detected there by scientists Edward Martell, Harvey Nichols, and others. Nichols’ research shows that “there [are] over 20 million potentially fatal doses of plutonium per square mile” at the refuge. Groundwater located on the southeastern corner of the refuge and tested by the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council has elevated levels of plutonium and americium.
The refuge is slated to open in fall 2018 for use by the general public. Local activists and scientific experts have protested the opening to no avail. In 2018, school field trips to the site were banned by Denver and some other local school districts. “No one should be on that land, and the very idea of bringing families onsite—children—it’s outrageous,” Nichols says to all of us. He and the others are also very concerned about Candelas, the new housing development built beside the refuge, where plutonium-contaminated soil has been found, though the developers deny this. There are houses going up all over the area downwind of the former plant, not just Candelas. “We know those houses are not safe,” Nichols says, “but there’s a lot of money to be made in real estate.” He and the others begin to discuss Jefferson Parkway, a two-lane road slated to run through a highly contaminated section of the refuge. “That should never happen,” he says. The soil should never be stirred. It’s a danger to the community and to the road workers.
We are getting older, Nichols says to me, while motioning to the others at the table. “Who will do this work when we are gone?”
Elizabeth walks with David to the large waiting room outside the children’s cardiology ICU. They scream, cheer up. It feels like Nathan and she arrived days ago, but it has only been a few hours. She feels heavy and numb. She sits with her husband on a couch near the back wall. In a few hours, their family will fill the empty seats and couches that surround them. She prays and waits.
Slowly, relatives arrive—grandparents, aunts and uncles, Nathan’s brothers and cousins. The children have not been told about the tumor, or that Nathan might die. All they know is that Nathan is in surgery. The adults keep the mood light.
An aunt and uncle take the young ones for snacks on the first floor of the hospital, where there are food courts and areas to play. Naive and colorful paintings hang on the walls. Trucks. Animals. Flowers. Children playing. The hospital is flooded with light from enormous windows that reach the high ceilings. On the ground floor, there’s a working TV studio where sick children play with microphones and cameras. Emotional support dogs wear red and white polka dot jackets and walk around with cheery volunteers. Parents pull their children to medical appointments in red wagons provided by the hospital.
Upstairs, in the waiting room on the fourth floor, Elizabeth shuts her eyes. David sits by her side. She just wants Nathan. She slips into prayer.
Elizabeth has a history of prophesies—moments that reveal the future. God tells her things. She doesn’t hear a voice or specific words, rather she experiences moments of knowing. She receives something. But, she recognizes that she can’t tell everyone about this. She’s careful to keep it close. Some might think she’s crazy. As Elizabeth prays, waiting for Nathan, she draws herself inside the message she received from God a year ago. Something dark and bad was coming. She prayed and begged for the entire year that no one in her family would die. Now, she knows the prophecy was about Nathan.
Please don’t let Nathan die, she prays from the hospital waiting room. Please don’t let Nathan die. Please.
Hours pass and the sleepy boys and their cousins, hanging onto grandparents and aunts and uncles, return home to their beds. All of the relatives file out. After midnight, Elizabeth, her father, and David are the only three left.
A nurse appears at the door and walks toward them. She holds a cell phone screen out for Elizabeth and David to see. “That’s Nathan’s heart,” the nurse explains. Elizabeth sees something that looks like a wet red ham surrounded by liquid. It is the inside of Nathan’s chest, his heart. She sees tubes and steel implements attached. Nathan’s face and the rest of his body are not visible. “He’s made it through,” the nurse says. “There’s more to go, but he’s alive. Nathan’s made it.” Then the nurse shows them a photograph of a reddish-black creature—the tumor. Tears stream down Elizabeth’s face. She grabs David’s hand.
Rock. Ionizing radiation was first discovered by Henry Becquerel in 1896. Madame Curie and her husband Pierre built upon the Becquerel’s work and isolated polonium and radium. But, Curie did not understand the dangers of handling radioactive materials and she would eventually would die from leukemia.
Water. During the Nazi-era, Lise Meitner, an Australian Jew and physicist, was exiled from Berlin, the location of her laboratory and home. While in exile, she lived in Sweden, where she conceived of fission, the splitting of the atom. It happened one day while out with her nephew in the snow. She sat with him in woods and took out her pad and drew a picture of a drop of water elongating and growing smaller at its center, expanding, and then eventually splitting into two drops. This image, when applied to uranium with neutron irradiation, would become fission. Fission is the process by which a chain reaction may be set in motion. It begins with the impact of a single neutron.
Fission. Meitner applied Einstein’s E=mc2 to her formulations and found that two nuclei (split from a single uranium nucleus) could exist separately and create energy. Meitner shared this discovery with her collaborator Otto Hahn, who remained in Berlin. He continued the work on fission in his laboratory. Hahn published their findings in the journal, Nature, and did not give Meitner credit. He would go on to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944. Fission was the tool that enabled the explosion of a nuclear bomb, and electrical power from uranium fuel.
Plutonium. The discovery of plutonium was shrouded in secrecy. It was first created in 1940 in Berkeley, California, when scientists were attempting to design the atomic bomb. Plutonium is made in a nuclear reactor when uranium atoms absorb neutrons. The five most common isotopes of plutoniun, Pu-238, Pu-239, Pu-240, Pu-241, and Pu-242, are fissionable when an atom’s nucleus is struck by a neutron. Plutonium primarily emits alpha particles, a type of radiation that has a short range and may be stopped externally.
Cancer. A microgram of plutonium, or one millionth of a gram, when absorbed through breath, drink, or food, lodges in the body for thirty to fifty years and damages cells and genes. When inhaled, one millionth of a gram of plutonium may be lethal. Plutonium is the most toxic and dangerous element on earth. It is mutagenic, meaning genetic damage from the radiation may be passed down generationally. Plutonium also emits neutrons, beta particles, and gamma rays. Pu-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years. In other words, plutonium remains highly toxic for up to one million years. A single plutonium pit—one of the tens of thousands of triggers produced at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Facility—has enough plutonium in it to kill every single human being on earth.
My daughter Olivia and I meet Kristen Iversen in the Chautauqua parking lot. She’s our tour guide through Arvada. This is her home, her history. She has seen so much cancer in her friends and neighbors. She also worked at the plant as a young adult and raised her two sons here in their early years. Today, she is known for authoring Full Body Burden, an investigative memoir about Rocky Flats.
As I drive, Kristen sits in the passenger seat and Olivia crouches down behind us with the windows firmly sealed shut. She’s wearing an oversized sweatshirt and red baseball hat with the embroidered words, “Make America Kind Again.” I glance back and wonder, should I have brought her here? Is it safe? All it would take is the smallest bit of plutonium entering her lungs and her health could be compromised, or the health of her children, and their children’s children.
As we drive down Indiana Street, past fields of brown grass, dry scrub bushes, gently rolling hills, and the unmarked property of the former plant, bicyclists fly by. I wonder if they know about Rocky Flats and the dangerous air they are breathing. Olivia asks Kristen questions: “Those cows, are they contaminated? What are those people doing playing miniature golf? Aren’t they concerned?”
“A recent study shows local cows have plutonium in their bodies,” Kristen replies, “and, yes, it’s amazing that people just go on as if everything is fine.” Then, Kristen points to a group of houses. “Over there, that’s where Bini Abbott had a horse farm. Many of her horses were sterile. Some of the women in the neighborhood were sterile, too. I told you about the farmer who had deformed turkeys, pigs, and horses, right? Government officials would come by and take them away. We never found out what they did with them or what they discovered.”
Everything looks so normal, it’s hard to grasp the damage. Plutonium is invisible to the naked eye and hard to read without proper study and instrumentation. I think of the warnings that Harvey Nichols, Ann Fenerty, and Gale Biggs shared about the volume of plutonium buried here, lost here, and how the tiniest spec is potentially lethal. No one knows exactly how much plutonium remains out there on the Rocky Flats Refuge, but we know it’s a lot, they tell me. No one knows how much plutonium is in peoples’ houses.
We drive to Kristen’s childhood home, which looks like a 1960s Disney movie set: barn, bridge, creek. “That barn and field, over there, held my horses,” she says. “But the water here, the whole area, may well be polluted with plutonium. New people live here now.” We gaze at the creek that runs under a small wooden bridge—a tempting area for children to play in. What a frightening thought. We are so close to Rocky Flats. There are no signs or warnings. Families live here, kids grow up here, life goes on as if everything is normal.
“I don’t get it,” Olivia says.
“Yes, it’s very sad,” Kristen replies.
A short drive from Kristen’s neighborhood, we approach Standley Lake. The water is wide and still, bounded by a flat-covered landscape of the same dry grasses and scrub bushes as on the flats, and a few thin, sickly-looking trees. There’s a well-worn dirt path leading to the shoreline. In the distance, I see the mountains with a touch of snow over their crests, like icing. Kristen tells us the lake is a drinking water source for the cities of Westminster, Northglann, and Thornton, even though plutonium is in the lake sediment. I see signs for boat rentals—paddleboard, canoes, and kayaks.
“People aren’t supposed to swim here,” Kristen notes, “but they waterski and fish.”
Olivia asks, “Do they eat the fish?”
“Many do. Yes.”
We park on the side of the road, with a view of the lake, near a white clapboard home. An older man exits the front door and carries a box to the rear of the house. He doesn’t look our way. Kristen says that the man is the father of her childhood friend, Tamara. She tells us how Tamara grew up in this lakeside house, how her parents were deeply committed to their Mormon faith. She was eventually diagnosed with brain cancer, but her parents didn’t want to believe the plutonium had anything do with it. I watch Tamara’s father walk into his house while listening to Kristen speak. I wonder about the safety of the soil and the dust on the soles of his shoes.
In 2013, during a massive rainfall, Michelle Ramon Gabrielle-Parish, a mother who lives nearby in Superior, took her video camera and filmed the flooding water run from Rocky Flats into Standley lake. The turbid liquid overflowered and bubbled up at the lake’s edge. Residents whose source of water comes from Standley were never warned by authorities to avoid drinking, bathing, or recreating in the water. I think of this story now and worry about the health and safety of the people here.
Our final stop on our tour is the new housing development, Candelas. I’d first heard of it from Michelle and then again when I sat with Nichols. Developers constructing various unit styles with an eerily familiar look to them. This could be suburbia in Anywhere, U.S.A. Kristen points out that many of her scientist colleagues believe the community isn’t safe for residence. Plutonium has been detected in the soil, although no one tells this to prospective homebuyers. Real estate brokers are not required to say anything. Plutonium has also been detected in a nearby drinking water source. And, as we stand there, I realize just how close we are to the refuge. Too close.
“I wouldn’t live here in a million years,” Olivia blurts out incredulously. I turn back and see fear in my daughter’s eyes. I debate getting out of the car but decide to go for it—I’m not of childbearing age, so I convince myself it will be okay.
Olivia stays in the vehicle as Kristen and I step out of the car to ask the real estate agent a few questions. It’s only a few feet from the car to the office, but with each step on the ground, I think of invisible plutonium and the soles of my shoes. No turning back now. I’m exposed. But, then, there’s my daughter. I worry (again) that perhaps I should not have brought Olivia with me on this trip. Yet, around us are playgrounds and recreation areas and homes and schools—all within range of the strong Chinook winds and the former plumes from the weapons plant. The families in the surrounding communities live with plutonium contamination from birth to death. New people move in every day. They are relocating to Arvada and these new developments like Candelas, where it’s much cheaper to buy a house than in nearby Boulder. They have no idea. It’s Colorado. The good life. Land of hikers, skiers, bikers. Land of the wealthy, healthy, and athletic. It looks so safe.
We enter the small office in the model house. The sweet agent greets us with brochures and asks us our names. She plays up the benefits of raising kids at Candelas. She boasts about the excellent new schools being built, a new swimming pool and rec center, soon-to-be opened hiking trails running from the development through the Wildlife Refuge of Rocky Flats. Then she tells us about Standley Lake, “a great place to boat and fish, right nearby.” I feel my cancer cells dividing as she speaks. My body jolts with fear and my hand gravitates toward my neck—automatically checking my lymph nodes—where the scar remains from having tissue removed when I had Hodgkin’s disease. My cancer ties me to Rocky Flats, even though I’m not from here; but so many residents have the same cut on their neck, their biopsy or tumor removed, the proverbial downwinders scar. My mother, like me, had cancer in her lymphatic system, too. How the hell are they allowing people to live here? My mind races. Not one word is said by the agent about plutonium or the other isotopes from the former plant site. Of the rare cancers in the community. She smiles her plastic smile and hands us paperwork with price points and we take a tour of one model house. It has the standard big stainless steel kitchen, huge windows, and high ceilings. I see the snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the distance. If the mountains could talk, I’m sure they’d be screaming.
After Nathan’s surgery, the nurses call Elizabeth and David to see their son inside his ICU fishbowl. Nurses surround him and tend to machinery. Lights and numbers blink and there are beeping sounds from the machines. Tubes, like unruly snakes, come out of his arms and neck. His chest is wrapped. His throat is intubated. Nathan is unconscious.
Elizabeth stifles a sob. He’s alive.
A young doctor leads them to the small waiting room where Elizabeth had collapsed earlier. They go to the table by the glass doors leading to the patio outside and sit. The doctor explains that Nathan’s cancer was mostly removed from his heart, but not entirely, and there are over twenty smaller tumors in his lungs, which they could not take out. That means there will be some kind of treatment, probably a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. The details are not set yet; the physicians will run tests on the primary tumor. There will be meetings with many experts. This is a complicated case: heart tumors are so rare, only .001% to .03% of the general population are reported in most studies.
“Why couldn’t they take the other tumors out?” David asks.
“When there’s over twenty tumors in an organ, they don’t remove any,” the doctor explains.
David wants to understand. “Why,” he keeps asking, “Why?”
The doctor gently repeats, “It’s just how we do it—protocol. When we get the full test results back, we will meet with a team about this. We will have more information soon.”
Elizabeth looks out the large sliding glass door and sees the sky. She gasps, jumps up from her seat, runs to the door and shouts out, “Look! Look! It’s a double rainbow!” Thank you, Lord, Elizabeth says to herself, tears streaming down her face. It’s a sign, she thinks. It’s a message from Jesus. She feels God say to her: Your boy will be saved. He won’t die. Not yet. He’s sick for a bigger reason. You will come to see.
David pulls out his phone and takes picture after picture, capturing the panoramic view. He will eventually print these photos and Elizabeth will tape them together and hang them in their house across the family room wall.
D.D. Had two children born with hydrocephalus, and her ex-husband has a brain tumor. She asks that I not use her name. Her ex-husband wants to keep his cancer private.
N.W. went fishing regularly as a teenager with her friends on Standley Lake. They caught fishes with three eyes and two heads. She had cancer, and many of her friends have had cancer. Many are dead. Her horses had brain tumors. Her dog had cancer.
J.L. had cervical cancer, and now she has leukemia. She lost one baby in utero while living near Rocky Flats. She lived there for five years but moved her family as soon as she learned about the plant. Despite the good housing prices, J.L. would never live close to Rocky Flats again.
T.T. recalls playing in the snow as a child in the area close to Rocky Flats and playing outside all day. Now she bears the Downwinders scar . She fears for her child because of genetic damage. “Why didn’t they tell us? I remember playing out there with cuts on my hands and knees, rolling in dirt, playing in snow—the plutonium goes right into your body that way.” So many of her friends have had cancer: “My best friend had a brain tumor in third grade. She didn’t die of it, but she died of a secondary cancer in her forties.”
L.T. describes two different virulent cancers in her body. Her father is ill and dying in California. He was a worker at the plant. She remembers him coming home and taking off his work clothes from the plant every day. “Talk to my mother,” she tells me, “She can tell you more.”
A.P. lost her 40–year-old daughter to cancer. Her other daughter (42) had epilepsy (common to people in the area) and is under watch for cancer. Her husband (59) recently died from prostate cancer. She sent her two girls to a small private Christian School in Arvada, near Standley Lake. “So many children at that school are dead now, and the teachers, too. We thought we were protecting those kids by sending them there, but we marched those little angels to their deaths.”
O.P. lives in a wheel chair in constant pain. She’s lost her sight. The doctors do not understand what is wrong with her. She’s had cancer, but it’s more than that. Her body, her organs are falling apart. She’s not angry, she says. “Anger does me no good. I just want to be here for my kids.” She spent her childhood downwind of Rocky Flats, playing in the snow, playing in the dirt. It was a happy childhood, she says. She prays for her children and hopes they don’t get sick. Many of her friends are ill or dead.
We meet Kristen in the Arvada library for a Rocky Flats Downwinders meeting. The group gathers every few months to share legal updates, learn about current news related to the former Rocky Flats plant, hold workshops with experts, and share personal stories of illness and death. The group was founded by Tiffany Hansen, who grew up in Arvada. After a benign tumor in her neck was discovered and removed, she reached out to her high school friends and found out that many of her peers from that time were ill with cancer or had died from cancer. She read Kristen’s book, learned all about Rocky Flats, and decided she “had to act.”
The building is nondescript—a cement structure built in the 1970s, set in the center of town. The library smells of years of dust. I send Olivia to a reading room to wait. She’s heard enough of these sad stories. Kristen meets me at the door on the basement level and we enter a conference room. Inside, twenty-five people sit in a circle of folding chairs.
The meeting starts with a male resident giving an update about the lawsuit concerning compensation for homes downwind of Rocky Flats in eastern areas of Arvada, Westminster, and Bloomfield. Only those residents who had purchased their houses before June 7, 1989—the day of the FBI raid on Rocky Flats—but had not sold them before, or purchased homes there after, were to be compensated. One woman asks, “What about those residents who purchased their houses after 1989, and those who lived in these towns before but sold before June 7, 1989? Is there nothing for us? What if we want to move, but don’t want to sell to new families because of the contamination? It’s not right. No one should live up there! We should all be moved, compensated.” There’s a lot of murmuring and then group discusses how the lawsuit doesn’t address cleaning up the area, current inspections, or the health of residents.
Two women from the Naropa Institute then lead us in Joanna Macy’s practice of healing and participation from her book, The Work that Reconnects. We are each paired with a partner and are supposed to share personal stories related to Rocky Flats.
I am partnered with a deeply lined weathered-face man who looks at his hands as he speaks. His sister and brother-in-law lived with him on the family property, passed down through the generations, a piece of farmland near Rocky Flats. First, his sister developed a brain tumor. Then, his brother-in-law developed a brain tumor. Together, they decided to leave the family property in 2015. They believe the cancers were caused by Rocky Flats’ plutonium dust on the family land. His sister died this year.
“I’m still living on that land,” he says with tears in his eyes. “I can’t leave for some reason. I just can’t.”
I don’t ask if he has more family there—a wife and kids? Other siblings? Parents? I feel like an invader. I have no story to tell.
The woman in a long flowing skirt leading the session says: “Healing comes with coming together, reconnecting with the community.” I’m not feeling it. I’m full of anger and grief for these poor people. I feel ill, like cancer is crawling all over my skin from sitting in this basement room, this dusty library. It’s like we are all encased in plutonium, in poison. This room, this town, is a coffin.
I receive a text from Olivia who still sits elsewhere in the library: “When is this going to end? There’s a bunch of drug addicts sitting all around me. I want to get out of here.”
“It’s ending soon,” I text back.
After the meeting comes to completion, a thin blonde woman stands up and says, “but what about property values? If we keep raising awareness about the health concerns out there, our house values will go down. I’m concerned about that.”
All eyes gaze at her. No one responds.
There are many months of intense chemo treatment after Nathan’s surgery. He stays in the hospital each time for four days. Elizabeth remains with Nathan for the first two days of treatment and David comes in for the last two. She learns to quietly absorb Nathan’s pain, ask nothing of him, make him comfortable, and let him rest. She makes gentle jokes and keeps things light. David bounces in with games and high energy. He wants to play with his boy. He wants to see him smile. Elizabeth thinks this tag team thing works for the most part. She notices that her son never fully returns. Before the day she rushed him to the hospital, Nathan laughed, played tricks on her and his brothers, fought back if they teased him. Now, he’s turned inward.
For the four-month period of Nathan’s intense four-day chemo treatments, he watches Lord of the Rings, all three movies. He begins the first of the trilogy in the MRI room. And, he continues over each four-day stretch he’s in the hospital. Nathan will have radiation treatments soon, and he will continue chemo forever, as an outpatient. There is no cure. During his four-day treatment period, Elizabeth notes to herself they never get through a movie, as Nathan cannot keep his eyes open for long. It takes months to watch all three films.
During the last major treatment, Nathan begs his mother to stay and not do the trade-off with David. She sees how weak Nathan has become. She insists on staying a third night. David isn’t happy, but he relents.
Nathan is weak; he can barely speak or move. So, for the first time, Elizabeth crawls into the narrow hospital bed with him, barely touching him, hoping he will fall asleep as he watches end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As his eyes close, Elizabeth prays.
The Lord of the Rings is about good and evil, and the rage and waste of the quest for power. All burns and turns black and grey. Families, homes, landscapes are destroyed. Humans become ghoulish monsters ruled by overwhelming greed. Will love prevail? Will middle earth be saved?
Elizabeth thinks, Perhaps the story is really about plutonium and Rocky Flats, and the battle between good and evil in their hometown? Perhaps the story of the ring and the quest for power is the nuclear industry’s evil pursuit of supremacy and wealth. Perhaps the factories within the mountain of malevolence are the nuclear industrial complex—the atom bomb makers. Perhaps Elizabeth is Arwen, the she-elf, who sacrifices her magic to save Frodo and stop the war.
Elizabeth prophesied all of this. It’s just as God said. A tragedy would come to her family. Every day she continues to pray, Thank you Jesus for keeping my boy alive.
I stand at Elizabeth’s door, my hand on the bell. It’s been two years since my first visit to Rocky Flats and over three years since Nathan’s diagnosis. He’s fourteen now. I am alone, no Olivia this time. She’s twenty and in college in New Hampshire.
Standing in the doorway, I notice the wind blowing and think, Oh shit, and quickly cover my face with my wool neck scarf. It’s early January and windy and cold. Then, I realize, the scarf is pointless. It won’t keep the poison out. I imagine the millions of tiny isotopes floating around and in me like microscopic radioactive snowflakes. To stay clean, I’d need a hazmat suit. That’s not happening. Too late, anyway.
Elizabeth opens her door. She has enormous blue eyes and a river of blonde hair. Plutonium is written all over her. There’s fear in her eyes and angry resignation like she’s got the plague. She invites me in and gathers her coat and keys. The living room is cluttered with a leftover Christmas tree, and wrapping and boxes, even though it’s three weeks past. The dining table is piled high with papers and half folded laundry. I see the kitchen at the back; it opens to a family room, and a sliding glass door leading to the backyard.
“The dog next door died of cancer. And a neighbor a few houses down. Oh, everybody,” Elizabeth says, with a flip of the hair as she grabs her purse and we walk outside to the car. “And you know about Brian. He lived a few blocks away on the ridge, closer to the Flats. Same rare heart cancer as Nathan. They were both diagnosed in the same year. Nathan met him. Brian was a coach at the university. He wanted to help Nathan. But then he died so quickly. It was terribly sad.”
On the sidewalk, before getting in the car, I look toward the end of her street—there’s a view of the Rockies. At the other end, there’s a school with a playground. Children play out there. This is it. America the beautiful.
We get in her car, a large dark blue suburban. “This is David’s,” she says. “I rarely drive it. But it’s newer and cleaner, and I thought you’d prefer that.” I know what she means by clean, but I say nothing except “thank you.”
Why do they live here? I wonder. Why? When I ask later, Elizabeth says, “David used to think it might be the plutonium that made Nathan sick. Now he says, there’s no proof. I can’t convince him. It just makes him angry. Even after our neighbor Brian who had the same cancer— he and his wife moved away before he died. They got right out. We stayed to keep Nathan’s life normal. We didn’t know how much time he’d have. Now I worry about my other boys’ health, about my health, ” Elizabeth sighs. “I’m too tired to fight anymore.”
Elizabeth and I drive around Arvada before we pick up Nathan and go to the hospital. We go to Standley Lake, just down the way from their house. I want to get out and take pictures. I don’t. I’m chicken shit. I don’t want plutonium on my feet. I don’t want to breathe the air like I did at Elizabeth’s front door. But then I see Elizabeth’s face. She’s sad and confused and says, “If you won’t get out… I live here. What you must think of me!” In that moment, I decide to cross the line. I step out. I shoot video on my iPhone, a panorama of the barren winter landscape: thin weak trees, three white skeleton teepee structures made of sticks—no covering, no interior—my eyes see right through them like an x-ray. The lake water is still and flat. I hear the drumming of my heart; that’s how quiet it is. We drive over to the dog park where, a local vet says, the animals are getting sicker and sicker. I get out and take more pictures. Elizabeth poses at the wooden fence, with the Rockies behind her. She points to Rocky Flats and she says the workers repairing the road over there probably have no idea what’s in the soil and they are likely to be contaminated. They wear no facemasks, no protective gear. We then head over to Jeff Gipes’ Cold War Horse, planted in front of closed Rocky Flats facility because all the signs are gone and Jeff wants the world to remember. Jeff’s father was a plant worker and he died from cancer. We stand by the oversized War Horse, coated in black and magenta plastic and its face covered in a gas mask. I take a selfie of Elizabeth and me and the horse.
The Environmental Protection Agency says: “Breathing plutonium-contaminated air is the most dangerous way to be exposed to plutonium. If you know or suspect that plutonium has been released to the air, you should leave the area immediately.” If the EPA says to evacuate, then why are people allowed to live here, where the intense Chinook winds blow plutonium—into homes, parks, backyards, lungs? The EPA also says that if plutonium gets into the lungs it stays there for thirty to fifty years. Some of the plutonium stays in the lungs, some of it moves to the bones and liver.
“You should leave the area immediately.”
In Boulder, a few days later, I attend an activist group meeting aimed at keeping schools from taking children on field trips to Rocky Flats. I tell Jon Lipsky, the former FBI agent who led the investigative case that shut down Rocky Flats, about how I got out of my car. He told me he’d never step foot anywhere near there, not the roads, not the dog park, not the lake, not the War Horse, not Candelas. “I did my time out at Rocky Flats when we did our investigation. I wore a Hazmat suit. Never again.”
“You should leave the area immediately.”
Dr. HEIDI HUTNER is associate professor of English, Sustainability, and Gender Studies at Stony Book University. She teaches environmental literature and film, environmental justice, and ecofeminism. Her writing includes academic books, as well as essays in anthologies, New York Times, Ms. Magazine, Dame, Public Radio International, Spirituality and Health, Tikkun, and Yes! Magazine, among others. Hutner is at work on a narrative nonfiction book, Accidents Can Happen: Voices of Women and Nuclear Disasters, and a companion documentary film of the same name. (@HeidiHutner)