Claudette Konola
Grand Junction Free Press Opinion Columnist

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March 21, 2013
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KONOLA: Is public health an unwinnable battle?

One of the Facebook posts that I saw this week was from the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth. The poster is the color of split pea soup with a black graphic depicting an industrial wasteland and the caption, "We are living on this planet as though we had another one to go to."

I've been haunted by that thought all week. Not only are we using up all of the life-supporting resources on this planet, but the people in charge of protecting the health and welfare of the environment and humans are equally cavalier.

In Colorado, the agency charged with protecting the environment and citizens' health is the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE.) Their mission is to "align priorities and resources to improve and sustain public health and environmental quality." Posted at their website is a strategic map which demonstrates both the complexities of the mission and recognition that not all battles for the health and welfare of the people and the planet are "winnable." In fact, their first goal is to "develop and implement strategies to achieve winnable battles."

No Don Quixote need apply for employment at CDPHE. If the windmill can't be toppled it is not going to be addressed by CDPHE. If the DOE and the Cold War left plutonium in the air and soil in the suburbs of Denver, it will just have to remain a secret hazard because national security and atomic energy don't represent winnable battles. Likewise, if fracking causes the air we breathe and the water we drink to be polluted with toxic chemicals, it will just have to stay that way because national security and the fossil fuel industry do not represent winnable battles.

This isn't the first time I've expressed concern over lack of action by CDPHE. The first time I noticed their behavior was at Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) hearings in Denver. Legislation gave CDPHE a seat at the COGCC table. The CDPHE executive director and chief medical officer didn't ask even one question in a full day of hearings about disclosure of fracking chemicals. He did respond negatively to testimony by the president of Western Colorado Congress of Mesa County. She asked why there was no public information about a nurse in Durango who suffered failing organs after an emergency room visit by an oil field worker.

What I didn't realize until reading "Full Body Burden, Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats" by Kristen Iversen is that CDPHE has a history of running from fights when there is any resistance to their involvement by industry or other governmental agencies. In 1999, under Democratic Governor Roy Romer, CDPHE released a decade-long study that "identified plutonium and carbon tetrachloride as the most significant contaminants from the plant...People who lived near the plant and led 'active outdoor lifestyles' had the highest level of exposure to airborne plutonium... The main risk of inhaled plutonium...was cancer of the lung, liver, bone and bone marrow."

When it became apparent that there wasn't enough money to clean up Rocky Flats, the DOE, the EPA, and CDPHE lowered their standards, limited the amount of money to be spent on clean-up and increased the allowable picocuries per gram of soil to a level higher than at any other site in the U.S. CDPHE calls the cleaned up Rocky flats completely safe, despite known plutonium deposits in the soil that become airborne when disrupted and in a lake that provides drinking water to Denver suburbs .

Grand Junction is not immune from the CDPHE unwillingness to fight "unwinnable battles." There was once a uranium mill on the banks of the Colorado River on the Brady Trucking property. The heavy metal mill tailings have never been fully removed from the river because CDPHE believes running water will dilute the concentrations of uranium to "safe" levels.

With that kind of track record, there is little hope that CDPHE will do anything to protect us from the release of toxins into the air, soil and water by the oil and gas industry. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, CDPHE does about the mysterious hydrocarbon spill discovered near Parachute.

Claudette Konola highly recommends "Full Body Burden, Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats" by Kirsten Iversen. She blogs occasionally at and can be reached at

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