Evergreen resident honored for Rocky Flats cleanup

-A A +A
By Stephen Knapp

So whats a body have to do to earn a prestigious Service to America Medal?

Longtime Evergreen resident Frazer Lockhart got his "Sammie" for bringing in the colossal Rocky Flats project about 60 years ahead of schedule and $30 billion under budget.

On Sept. 19, Lockhart received the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service organizations 2007 Science and Environmental Medal for leading the effort to transform a 6,200-acre public menace into an inviting public asset. Founded in 2002, the Service to America awards program recognizes federal employees whove gone the extra mile for their government and their country. A brief look at the facts confirms that Lockhart, a Department of Energy project manager, easily fills that bill.

Shut down in 1989 after a 40-year run churning out plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads, Rocky Flats had few peers among the nations Superfund toxic waste sites. It was so contaminated, in fact, that many considered the former weapons plant impossible to rehabilitate, and official recovery estimates called for a minimum 70-year, $37 billion commitment.

"The original estimates were based on solving problems the way theyve always been solved, and they werent really all that outlandish," says Lockhart, who took the projects reins in 1996. "Our challenge was to think creatively and find different solutions. We couldnt accept that it would take that long and cost that much money."

To stand any chance of shaming the skeptics, Lockhart required the goodwill and cooperation of Rocky Flats neighbors. The first item on his to-do list was to mend fences with the surrounding communities.

"Boulder, especially, was absolutely against the sites original mission, and that tainted everything we did," Lockhart explains. "Decades of secrecy and mistrust dont go away overnight, and we worked hard for many years to earn their confidence. But our new mission was one that they could get on board with, and we developed a very productive partnership with those communities."

At its height, the Rocky Flats project required the tireless efforts of hundreds of Department of Energy employees and several thousand contract laborers. If that sounds like a lot of hands, consider the scope of the job. During the last 10 years, Lockhart oversaw the removal of more than 21 tons of weapons-grade nuclear material; the decontamination and razing of more than 800 buildings, the draining of about 8,000 gallons of plutonium solution; the stabilization and packaging of 100 tons of plutonium residue; and the cleaning of more than 130 separate sites. In addition, the project found new homes for millions of classified items and sundry government property, and safely shipped nearly 800,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste enough to completely fill a 90-mile-long freight train to a secure disposal site.

"They gave me the award, but I wouldnt hope to claim credit for what was a really great team effort by hundreds of DOE people," Lockhart says. "One thing that was especially exciting for us is that many of the workers who tore down the buildings and cleaned up the site were the same people who worked there making nuclear components. And that goes for me, too. I had responsibilities in constructing some of Rocky Flats buildings."

Today, just 10 years and $7 billion later, all but 5 percent of Rocky Flats can be officially stricken from the Superfund list, and the majority of the site is set to become a national wildlife refuge under the Department of the Interior. Lockharts project has earned honors and acclaim from many quarters, including being named Project of the Year by the American Academy of Environmental Engineers, and sharing his secrets for success promises to keep him busy for a long while.

"My last job here is to have the Rocky Flats project officially eliminated from DOEs tables," Lockhart says. "Its bittersweet, but only because so many people committed so much of their lives to the effort. Its more satisfying to show that this kind of project can be done safely and cost-effectively. And its nice to know you helped turn a public liability into a public asset."