Reviewing: Full Body Burden

full_body_burden-final-jacket-3-8-2012-197x300So,  while I had a bunch of downtime at work this week, I finished reading Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen. I have been reading this book for sometime because, including the Big Event and starting this new job, I’ve just been generally busy during the week.

But this week I finally finished it. And I have a lot of feelings about it.

Full Body Burden is a combination of investigative journalism and memoir. Iversen tells the story of her life growing up in Arvada, CO, complete with puberty, family problems, relationships and financial troubles. This story is told in parallel to the story of the Rocky Flats Plant, a nuclear weapons production facility based in Arvada. The Rocky Flats Plant was responsible for producing plutonium triggers, called “pits,” that assisted in producing the fission that would resulted in the explosions of the nuclear warheads of the Cold War. Iversen, through years and years of research, provides readers with a comprehensive description of the plant, how the pits are made, corners cut and the consequences that follow.

Long story short: the corporate companies that managed Rocky Flats in partnership with the government were extremely lazy and cut corners to gain more money and produce more pits, regardless of safety or respect for human life. Due to these cut-corners, plutonium is continually released into the surrounding environments where housing continues to grow and more people move and live within miles of the plant. Plutonium leaks into the soil, groundwater and pollutes the air. Accidental fires only serve to worsen the leakage. As a result, hundreds of people and animals in the immediate area suffer immense health problems — mostly cancer of various areas of the body — with Rocky Flats being the obvious reason. But the corporate companies are never held responsible.

Oh my gosh, guys. This story made me so mad.

First of all, as far as the book goes, it was extremely informative and covered so many different points of view of Rocky Flats. Iversen includes testimony from Rocky Flats workers, protestors, citizens living near the plant, lawyers and more. It is such a comprehensive telling of the issue, and I’m glad that this was the first thing I read about the whole issue. On the other hand, while I think parts of Iversen’s personal account were very useful and informed the journalism component well, there were parts that were distracting and could have been left out. I think these parts distract readers and make it seem that these two stories are less connected than they are. This is more of a problem in the beginning when Iversen talks about her childhood. There are small parts that connect to Rocky Flats, but for the most part, these sections are more of a review of Iversen’s life independently of Rocky Flats. I love reading about real people’s lives in a coming-of-age-way, as this book is written. But, I found myself torn throughout the reading and I wish there had been more cohesion. Also, Iversen repeats the same thing a lot, to the point where it is distracting. Some of the writing could have been better.

Now, for the issue of Rocky Flats:

Rocky Flats in 1995 prior to cleanup.

This book is mostly a story about secrets. It is obvious why the government would be so secretive about Rocky Flats, especially during the years of the Cold War. But, seriously, how could they keep the issue of pollution and health hazards secret from citizens? It becomes such a problem for the people living near and around Rocky Flats, but no one ever said anything. Iversen mentions several times in the book that her family had no idea what happened at Rocky Flats. They thought the plant produced cleaning products. But they always wondered. (This is kind of also a cautionary tale for everyone who lives near a government building that you don’t know anything about.)

This book will really make you not trust the government. Throughout the book, not only does the U.S. government protect the managing companies, but they continually dismiss researchers and protestors who are saying the plant is such a danger. It’s like nobody in power even gave a shit about what was happening, as long as they got their pits, and a lot of them. I have such a hard time comprehending how people can behave this way. It really reminded me of Erin Brockovich while I was reading. It’s a very similar situation where corporate companies are working illegally and polluting the surrounding town’s water supply. Sometimes I just can’t believe things like this happen. Where is their humanity? Children are dying, parents are dying. How can they not care at all? But then again, even with media coverage, much of the public wasn’t even listening anyway.

I’ve asked several people older than me about Rocky Flats. They all have heard about it and know that it was very controversial. But it seems like all they know about is the 20-year-long civil action lawsuit for affected families and the issue of storing plutonium and radioactive waste created from pit production. Some of them didn’t even really know they created pits at the plant.

There is a part near the end of the book where Iversen talks about future generations image009forgetting that Rocky Flats ever happened. This book was written in 2012, and I think it’s already forgotten. I find it extremely frustrating and frightening that I had never heard about this until I found this book. And I’ve lived in Colorado for (almost) my entire life. How could I have never heard anything about this? Not in school, not in the media,  nothing. And with Iversen talking about media coverage and protests and people being arrested everyday for years, you would think I would have seen something. I am just flabbergasted. My dad and I were talking about this fact, and he mentioned that they probably didn’t want to tell kids that there is a radioactive area in our state that makes people die of cancer. But, I think that’s even more reason to teach students about it. We learn about horrible things like Chernobyl and Fukushima and Nagasaki in high school. This seems to be no different to me.

This book also frustrates me because of the simple existence of nuclear materials. My boyfriend and I were talking about this after I finished the book.

“Sometimes I wonder, like back in Medieval times they didn’t have Cancer. So is it something we created?” He asked.

“I’m sure they had it back then and they probably called it something different. But they had nowhere near the level that we have now. Which means we’re doing something to worsen it and a lot of it can probably be traced to nuclear stuff.”

I went on to say that I really don’t understand why we had to mess with  materials like plutonium and uranium and others used in nuclear bombs. To me, it seems like a simple case of overt anger combined with high levels of power to make a volatile situation worse. I just don’t understand why we had to do this to ourselves.

My boyfriend also said, “What I don’t get is how people, who are never exposed to anything radioactive like that, get cancer.”

“Or how people who live around it their whole lives never get it,” I said. Like Iversen. Granted, Iversen has been effected by her prolonged proximity to and brief stint working at Rocky Flats. But she does not have Cancer. Yet so many people she knew and wrote about in the book did die and continue to have medical complications from radiation pollution.

In the end, Rocky Flats was cleaned up (lazily again) and portions of it were sold to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that was going to turn it into a wildlife refuge. They were going to let people hike and camp and interact with the land on which there is still plutonium-contaminated dirt being turned up by environmental disintegration and burrowing animals. Again, how could the government think this is okay? How?

Thankfully, this hasn’t happened, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has asserted it does not have enough money to begin constructing pathways and a visitor’s center for the wildlife refuge. And, in May of this year, a $375 million settlement was awarded to 15,000 homeowners whose health and property were effected by Rocky Flats. However, this is radically lower than the original settlement that was overturned on appeal.

Rocky Flats in 2014 after cleanup is declared complete.

I believe the land is now being used for research. Hopefully, it remains closed to the public, as water and dirt near the former plant are still contaminated. It’s all just so crazy and really messed up. Honestly, I’m still processing it all. I could go on and on about it.

As for the book, I gave it four stars on Goodreads, but my official rating is 4.5 because the book was so informative, well-researched and comprehensive. I did enjoy Iversen’s memoir parts immensely. I just think some of those parts could have been condensed a bit more. All in all, a very important read, especially for Colorado residents.

What did you think of Full Body Burden? Had you heard of Rocky Flats? What do you think about the legal battle against the corporate managers and the effected citizens of Arvada? Should this story, and others that are similar, be included in history classes? Let’s talk.


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