Wildlife Refuge Opens on Colorado Superfund Site, Despite Lawsuit

The sun rises on the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge near Arvada, Colorado on Saturday, Sept. 15, the first day the land was open to the public. (Amanda Pampuro/CNS)

ARVADA, Colo. (CN) – By dawn on Saturday, Sept. 15, a dozen cars were parked at the newly opened Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge and at least as many hikers wandered down trails surrounding the site of a former-nuclear weapons factory near Arvada, Colorado.

“I like to take pictures of bugs, so I thought maybe I would find some two headed grasshoppers out here,” said a tall man with curly hair and knee pads carrying his Canon rig up the golden grassland path. “I just came here just to see what’s there. I figure I’m old enough so by the time [the radiation] affected me I’d already be dead anyway.”

This past May, environmental groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to stop the refuge from opening to the public, citing concerns about the lack of recent environmental assessment given the site’s radioactive history.

From 1952 to 1992, the Rocky Flats Plant produced an estimated 70,000 plutonium pits, the device responsible for detonating nuclear bombs. The plant closed after an FBI raid discovered mishandling of radioactive materials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared it a Superfund site.

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

Signage at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge near Arvada, Colorado. (Amanda Pampuro/CNS)

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 11 miles of trails encircle the buffer zone, connecting the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Denver with the Rocky Mountain National Park just west of Boulder.

Literature circulated by the Fish and Wildlife Service highlight 630 plant and wildflower species as well as 239 animal species that call the site home, including prairie falcons, deer, elk, coyotes, songbirds, and Preble’s meadow jumping mouse.

“Levels of residual contamination on the refuge land are very low and meet state and federal cleanup standards and regulatory guidance,” a sign at the gate announces. “While small amounts of contamination remain above background levels, the corresponding radiation dose a visitor receives is small (<1 millirem/year compared to the average American’s annual dose of 620 mrem). If you visited the refuge hundreds of times in a year, your dose still would be much less than a medical X-ray.”

Reiterating federal and local government findings, the sign concludes: “The refuge is safe for recreation, refuge workers, and wildlife.”

The Boulder Flatirons stand in the background of the trailhead at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge near Arvada Colorado. (Amanda Pampuro/CNS)

Whether you find Fish and Wildlife’s statistics reassuring is an individual risk assessment.

“A lot of people they have a very hard time understanding and evaluating risk,” said David Abelson, executive director of the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council. “That goes to everything from people driving while looking at their cellphones to people riding motorcycles without helmets.

“That’s a component that falls into these types of questions of hazardous waste and nuclear waste as well, there’s the calculated risk and there’s the degree to which people then make their own assessments of what that risk really means,” Abelson said, adding the bulk of his council’s oversight focuses on surface and groundwater testing being conducting at the site’s core. Still he recognizes concerns voiced by members of the public.

“We also have to recognize that the fear some people experience, that the concern some people have is real and it’s genuine,” Abelson said. “It should not be dismissed in any way, even though I have a different take and many, many people have a different take, it does not mean we should not take seriously those concerns and the impact that they have on people.”

In support of keeping the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge closed to the public, University of Colorado Boulder’s energy and climate justice manager Michelle Gabrieloff-Parish stands far right among protesters outside EPA Region 8’s Office in downtown Denver on Sept. 15. (Amanda Pampuro/CNS)

While a handful of day-hikers ventured down the Rocky Flats path, 30 concerned locals protested outside EPA Region 8’s office in bustling downtown Denver. Founding members of the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center joined college students, academics and a Marine assigned to clean up the site. As a group exercise, gatherers called out the things they were worried about, including lawsuits, danger, public health, prioritizing health over profits, all the people who have already died, lying, lack of signage, and political who-knows-what.

To the sound of crowd cheers, Michelle Gabrieloff-Parish, the energy and climate justice manager at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s environmental center, summarized the anti-refuge arguments, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if they shut down the refuge? Wouldn’t it be amazing if they extended the boundary of the Superfund site instead of shrinking it?”

Gabrieloff-Parish noted Fish and Wildlife’s attorneys said in court the agency relied on the EPA’s reports to determine the safety of the site.

“Fish and Wildlife’s reaction was ‘the EPA said it was safe.’ It seemed like we should have sued the EPA,” she said.

In its lawsuit, the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center accuses Fish and Wildlife of endangering the public by opening land contaminated by plutonium without completing an updated environmental impact statement weighing the risks to public safety.

In August, U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer refused to preliminarily block the opening of the refuge but promised a speedy trial. In his 18-page opinion, Brimmer noted the last assessment completed in 2004 found trace amounts of plutonium, and he was unmoved by the plaintiffs’ claim that no plutonium is safe plutonium.

Located on Highway 93 across the road from the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge, the “Cold War Horse” was erected in 2015 to commemorate the factory workers, with a horse in a hazmat suit and gas mask. (Amanda Pampuro/CNS)

For a moment on Sept. 14, it seemed the activists had made headway through political channels when Fish and Wildlife said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered the opening of the refuge delayed pending review by his deputy secretary.

Less than two hours later, however, the department said the deputy secretary had “reviewed the refuge and determined it will open tomorrow as scheduled.” It opened at sunup on Sept. 15.

“For one hour and 14 minutes, we were on cloud nine,” said Bonnie Graham-Reed, an Arvada resident who attended Saturday’s protest. “You have to wonder what happened in Washington, and is that how we prioritize human safety?”

The refuge is open daily, but whether it remains open will be decided in Brimmer’s courtroom. A trial date has not been set, though plaintiffs filed their opening brief in August and defendants have already responded.

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