PUBLISHED: June 28, 2019 at 3:35 pm | UPDATED: July 1, 2019 at 10:03 am
Dr. Michael Ketterer, who was denied soil samples for scientific testing by the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority now will get his soil – just from a different entity.
On June 24, it was learned that Jefferson County agreed to provide soil from an area adjacent to the Jefferson Parkway right-of-way. The move came prior to a June 25 Broomfield City Council meeting where Ward 2 Councilman Mike Shelton had requested council discuss interceding on Ketterer’s behalf after the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority declined his request for soil since Broomfield is a member of the authority. Mayor Randy Ahrens and Ward 5 Councilman David Beacom are the appointed representatives to the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority.
Ketterer, of Longmont, made the request on behalf of a study conducted by the Rocky Flats Downwinders, a community organization founded in 2015 that advocates on behalf of people impacted by living downwind from the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant.
In his request, Ketterer explained he has been working with Tiffany Hansen, director of Rocky Flats Downwinders, a group that in 2018 received a grant from the Roddenberry Foundation to study potential uptake of plutonium into hemp plants. Hansen, he said, has partnered with Colorado-based commercial hemp-growing company RuBi Hemp Solutions and will use the company’s facilities to grow the plants.
Dr. Elizabeth Pilon-Smits, biologist and Colorado State University professor, also advised the group on this project.
The Roddenberry Foundation’s Catalyst Fund awards small grants for early-stage, innovative, and unconventional ideas that address serious global challenges, according to its website.
Rocky Flats Downwinders plan to use the grant to imitate a pilot hemp phytoremediation project that will use contaminated soil from near Rocky Flats to study the use of help to clean radionuclides from soil. The group also wants to produce a community resource guide that will educate communities about hemp farming and phytoremediation, which is essentially a method to clean up soil.
Hemp’s ability to clean soil by absorbing pollutants through the root system was recognized after the passing of House Bill 12-1099, which established a pilot program to study phytoremediation.
Rocly Flats Downwinders will partner with RuBi Hemp Solutions on the project; Ketterer will act as a paid consultant. He will test soil and plant matter before, during and after the hemp harvest.
Ketterer, a professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry at Northern Arizona University, is an independent researcher. He also currently works part-time as faculty and special community member at the University of Denver.
For the study, he requested four 5-gallon buckets of surface soil.
“The soil is not in our hands yet,” Hansen said. “It’s been approved in theory, and we’ve been given a (Jefferson County) contact person, but no date and time set to collect.”
Hansen said she is not aware of other studies that show plutonium being absorbed by a hemp plant. In this study, Ketterer will burn the entire product and then the ash will be analyzed in a lab.
On June 6, Ketterer asked Bill Ray, executive director of the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, if he could collect soil from them authority’s right-of-way along Indiana Street. Ketterer had presented his the plan to Broomfield City Council June 18.
Ray later denied the reques, citing research related to hemp cultivation falls outside the public purpose and mission of the highway authority and would be the “basis for confusion by the public as to the purpose and direction of the JPPHA with regard to the project,” according to an email to Ketterer.
He also said Ketterer had not made it clear why only soil from the parkway right-of-way is suitable for his research purposes.
Ketterer told the authority he also was interested in characterizing “hot particles” that may be present in the soils surrounding Rocky Flats. A “hot particle” is a small, micron-size or smaller particle of pure plutonium dioxide derived from fires that occurred during the plant’s operation, he said, and studying them would help in understanding whether there is an unrecognized risk to human health.
“Using soils containing ‘hot particles’ of Rocky Flats origin, I will conduct some preliminary experiments at Northern Arizona University and/or University of Denver, aimed at the detection and characterization of these ‘hot particles,'” he said in his letter. “Both of these university research facilities have state-administered licenses for use and possession of the requisite Pu-242 tracer. I have suitable experience in studies of environmental plutonium.”
Plutonium-242 is one of the isotopes of plutonium, the second longest-lived, with a half-life of 376,000 years.
“I’m trying to increase the knowledge about whether we can try to do something with the problems with these contaminated areas,” Hansen said.
When people talk about a “background level” of plutonium, she said, they are not speaking of radon or something naturally occurring. It exists because of nuclear testing in the 1950s that was dispersed. To her understanding, scientists are able to characterize the source of plutonium, which could tie it back to Rocky Flats.
Had Jefferson County not offered the soil for testing, Broomfield council’s Shelton wanted council to discuss whether or not it should give direction to Ahrens and Beacom to request a reversal of Ray’s decision. He said he is pleased Jefferson County stepped forward to accommodate the request for soil, but remains concerned with the way the public highway authority handled the situation.
“Dr. Ketterer explained the study very well but Director Ray’s response showed a lack of understanding or a desire to avoid additional scrutiny of the highly-contaminated Windblown Area,” Shelton said Friday. “I am perplexed by their unwillingness to accommodate the scientific community and this makes me even more skeptical of the highway’s proposed path along Indiana Street.”