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Public Trails at Former Colorado Nuclear Site Debated

A federal judge heard testimony Tuesday from Colorado groups concerned about plutonium contamination on a former nuclear facility that has been turned into a wildlife refuge.

DENVER – A federal judge heard testimony Tuesday from Colorado groups concerned about plutonium contamination on a former nuclear facility that has been turned into a wildlife refuge.

U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer will decide whether to delay 15 nature trails from being opened to the public at the Rocky Mountain Flats National Wildlife Refuge until a more rigorous environmental impact assessment is complete.

Trails are expected to open to the public in September. Nearly 18 miles of hiking paths would connect the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Denver with Rocky Mountain National Park just west of Boulder.

“The current trail plan runs through the ‘windblown area,’ also called ‘the plutonium plumb’ where plutonium tends to migrate,” argued attorney Randall Weiner, who represents local citizens and nonprofits suing the federal government.

In its most recent lawsuit filed in May, Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center accuses the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of endangering the public by opening land contaminated by plutonium without completing an environmental impact statement that weighs the risks to public safety.

“This is not pristine soil. At least an environmental impact statement, if not more, is needed,” Weiner said.

On its website, Fish and Wildlife describes the former nuclear facility as having “striking mountain vistas and rolling prairie grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands.”

The Rocky Mountain Flats Plant was built in 1950 to manufacture nuclear weapon triggers. For four decades, workers filled stainless steel canisters with liquid plutonium to create “plutonium pits,” the core of a nuclear weapon, responsible for its detonation.

In 1978, the Rocky Flats Truth Force camped out on the train tracks supplying the plant in a call for nuclear disarmament. Then in 1989, after decades of unreported incidents, an FBI raid exposed criminal mishandling of toxic waste and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed Rocky Mountain Flats as a Superfund site. The plant officially closed two years later.

In 2001, Congress passed the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act and allocated $7.7 billion over a decade to clean up the site with plans to open it to the public.

The 1,300-acre core of the refuge, where the actual manufacturing took place, has been designated a legacy site by the Department of Energy and will be closed indefinitely. But the plaintiffs have concerns about the surrounding buffer zone, where plutonium may still lie waiting to be stirred up by wildfire and rain.

The site continues to inspire distrust in many Coloradans to this day.

“I really think Rocky Mountain Flats is not a healthy place to send children,” said Marianne Leiby, who lives near the refuge in Arvada. “I don’t trust the results because they do not take into account the people who live there.”

In addition, six local school districts say they will not allow field trips to the refuge for their combined 300,000 students.

When asked if he would visit the newly opened refuge, former plant radiation control technician John Barton testified without pause: “Never.”

He added: “Taking down the Rocky Mountain Flats was a good thing, but they didn’t go far enough.”

Barton also told the court “plutonium is still buried there,” which caused a stir throughout the crowded courtroom.

From 1975 to 1977, ecologist Dr. Harvey Nichols studied nearby snowfall and discovered tiny particles of radioactive plutonium originating from the plant. While he was denied funding to reassess the site in the 1990s after its closure, he testified, “Because this is a windy site … I think there’s a probability that people will inhale plutonium particles.”

According to Fish and Wildlife’s fact sheet, "How Clean is Clean," the billion-dollar cleanup project demolished more than 800 buildings and cleared out 275,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste, 21 metric tons of weapons-grade nuclear material, and 100 metric tons of plutonium residue.

The fact sheet says a refuge worker will receive a 1 mrem/year dose of radiation each year, while a single dental X-ray exposes a person to 10 mrem.

“The final decision for the refuge portion of the site was based on an abundance of data and risk assessments demonstrating that risks to future refuge visitors and workers are extremely low,” the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, which is locally responsible for assessing site health risks at the site, says on its website.

Still, the question before Judge Brimmer remains whether Fish and Wildlife erred in relying on a 2004 environmental assessment to decide to open the park, or whether they need to do more homework.

“The law requires a hard look at environmental concerns and that is just what FWS did,” argued U.S. Attorney Jessica Held. “Plaintiffs argue that the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) is stale because it’s five years old, however CCPs are issued for all wildlife refuges and they’re supposed to be a plan that can be valid for a number of years, only reviewed every 15 years.”

Fish and Wildlife has offered guided tours of the site since 2015.

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