The federal government created the Superfund program in 1980 to clean up the country’s most dangerous abandoned toxic waste sites. Out of the hundreds of environmental hazards on the Superfund list, the Rocky Flats plant outside of Denver, Colorado was among the worst of the worst. Rocky Flats was a nuclear weapons production facility that manufactured plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads for nearly 40 years. In 1989, it was shut down after a raid by the FBI and EPA discovered multiple pollution violations. Some people suggested that Rocky Flats should be a “sacrifice site,” meaning cleanup was impossible and should not even be attempted. As recently as 1995, a cleanup effort was estimated to cost $37 billion and take 70 years to complete. Frazer Lockhart and his team at the Department of Energy managed to prove the skeptics wrong. Working with contractors, local officials and his federal colleagues, Lockhart led the effort to successfully remediate Rocky Flats in just 10 years, at a cost of $7 billion.
If the fact that the project was completed decades ahead of schedule and billions of dollars under budget were not astounding enough, consider the following. According to the Department of Energy, the cleanup team removed more than 21 tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials; decontaminated and demolished 800 structures, comprising more than 3 million square feet; drained 30,000 liters of plutonium solution; stabilized and packaged 100 tons of high-content plutonium residue; performed environmental cleanup actions at 130 sites; dispositioned millions of classified items and excess property; and safely shipped more than 600,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste to a safe disposal site — enough to fill a string of railcars 90 miles long.
The project was the largest and most successful cleanup ever conducted by the Department of Energy, and Lockhart recently received EPA approval for over 95% of the formerly restricted land to be officially removed from the Superfund list. The majority of the 6,200-acre site is scheduled to be transferred to the Department of the Interior and will become a national wildlife refuge.
There were many keys to the success of the project. The first was collaboration between federal officials and local authorities and residents. Due to the history of problems at Rocky Flats, Lockhart and his team had to go the extra mile to rebuild trust within the surrounding communities. They were completely transparent in their dealings, sharing both good news and bad. Lockhart said the trust that was built was invaluable when it came to tackling the tough issues.
Another key was the innovative contract and contract management. DOE contracted with Kaiser-Hill, LLC to do the vast majority of the cleanup work. Lockhart structured an incentive-laden contract that said the contractors would receive a significant fraction of any savings that resulted from their doing a good job.
Not surprisingly, the Rocky Flats project has already received a great deal of recognition. The American Council of Engineering Companies named the project its Grand Award winner in the environmental category. The American Academy of Environmental Engineers named it Project of the Year, as did the Project Management Institute. It also received the 2006 Secretary of Energy’s Project Management Improvement Award. It has also been the subject of numerous papers and even books.
In the end, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Rocky Flats cleanup project is that it shows what is possible with collaboration between the public, private and nonprofit sectors. If they can come together to convert this environmental eyesore and security risk into a wildlife refuge, converting a public liability into a community asset, it proves that we can overcome any environmental challenge if local communities, businesses and government work together.