Public Trails on Radioactive Land Called a Bad Idea

DENVER (CN) — The Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge, with public trails on nearly 5,000 acres of some of the radioactively polluted land in the nation, at an old nuclear weapons plant, should not open until the secretary of the interior can certify it is safe, five environmental groups say in a federal lawsuit.

Along with its cohorts, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a branch of the Department of the Interior, violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement for the project. Fish and Wildlife wants to open trails, a multipurpose facility and visitor’s center by the summer of 2018 on 4,883 acres of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons site.

The groups waste no time getting down to specifics in the 23-page lawsuit filed Wednesday.

“Rocky Flats is among the nation’s most polluted places,” the complaint states. “Its name is synonymous with plutonium, a laboratory-developed, radioactive chemical element that was used at the facility to produce nuclear triggers for almost 40 years during the Cold War. After the FBI raided Rocky Flats and the operators’ mismanagement and misconduct was exposed, a federal jury in Cook v. Rockwell found that Rocky Flats plutonium had migrated onto neighboring properties, where it will remain ‘indefinitely,’ causing an ‘increased risk of health problems.’ The case concluded in 2016 with a settlement of $375 million to Rocky Flats’ original neighbors.”

In that case, 15,000 homeowners near the site, 27 miles northwest of downtown Denver, were awarded an average of $25,000 apiece. Yet despite this history, and the short timeline before the refuge opens, Fish and Wildlife has not prepared an environmental impact statement or even an environmental assessment, as required by NEPA, the groups say.

Plutonium has a half life of 25,000 years — which means that 25,000 years from now, the amount of residual plutonium on the site will have decayed by half.

“During the three decades between the plant’s shutdown and the present, Congress created the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge (the ‘Refuge’) out of lands surrounding Rocky Flats’ highly contaminated central operable unit,” the complaint states.

Now Fish and Wildlife “wishes to open the Refuge to the public with hiking, biking and equestrian trails, and a major visitors’ center, despite new developments and evolving evidence that the plutonium has migrated beyond the COU,” the groups say, even though recent surveys have indicated “higher than expected cancer rates among neighbors” of the plant from 2013 to 2015.

“Such information suggests that migration of plutonium is likely,” the complaint adds. “The plutonium-contaminated building materials in the COU are covered with little more than dirt. Such dirt is continually brought to the surface by burrowing animals, where winds of up to 90 mph can suspend surface contaminants and deposit them onto Rocky Flats’ visitors, and throughout the region.”

The groups agree that Fish and Wildlife “may seek to allow the public on the refuge.” However, they say, “it may not do so based on a myopic view of its own organizational goals to the exclusion of the nation’s environmental laws, which require federal agencies to consider the impacts of their actions on the environment and public health.”

They seek an injunction and “any plans, designs, contracts, requests for proposals, memorandums of understanding, decisions, opinions or findings” set aside until the government follows the law.

The nonprofits are represented by Randall Weiner of Boulder, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Plaintiffs include Candelas Glows/Rocky Flats Glows, Rocky Flats Right to Know, Rocky Flats Neighborhood Association, and the Environmental Information Network.

The Fish and Wildlife Service does not comment on pending litigation.