Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Site Becomes a Wildlife Refuge

DENVER, Colorado, July 16, 2007 (ENS) Sixteen miles northwest of Denver, the site where once the trigger mechanisms for nearly every nuclear weapon in the United States were made, has become the country's newest wildlife refuge.

The U.S. Department of Energy, DOE, transferred nearly 4,000 acres of its former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production site to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Thursday. The transfer creates the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

Over the warnings of some citizens groups, public access will be allowed to large portions of the site.

Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environmental Management James Rispoli said, "We are proud to transfer this space to the U.S. Department of Interior and we will continue with plans to complete environmental cleanup work at five more sites across the country by 2009."

From 1951 until 1989 the Rocky Flats Plant manufactured the triggers and in the process released radiological and hazardous material contamination, including plutonium, uranium, beryllium and hazardous chemical compounds, into the air, ground and water surrounding the plant.

The last of the former plutonium facilities to be demolished was Building 371, which was brought down in 2005. (Photo courtesy Rocky Flats Citizens' Advisory Board)
After more than a decade of environmental cleanup work, in 2005, DOE certified the environmental cleanup work at the former Rocky Flats site complete.

The Energy Department says environmental cleanup of the site cost $7 billion. It was finished more than 50 years ahead of initial forecasts and for nearly $30 billion less than estimated in 1994.

The Rocky Flats site encompasses approximately 6,200 acres of high prairie that has been closed to the public for more than 50 years.

During production and cleanup, a 5,800 acre buffer zone surrounded the 400 acre industrial area where the trigger mechanisms were manufactured.

"With the transfer of nearly 4,000 acres from the Department of Energy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will establish the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge in order to conserve the rare and unique tallgrass prairie found along Colorado's Front Range," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall. "As intended by Congress, the refuge will preserve a lasting wildlife and habitat legacy for future generations."

Deer now outnumber humans at Rocky Flats. (Photo courtesy RFCAB)
Habitat conservation will include management of xeric tallgrass and native plant communities, as well as weed control, removal and revegetation of unused roads and stream crossings, management of deer and elk populations and black-tailed prairie dog colonies, and protection of habitat for the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, a species listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Visitor use facilities will eventually include 16 miles of trails, a seasonally-staffed visitor contact station, trailheads with parking, and developed overlooks. Most of the trails will use existing roads, and public access will be by foot, bicycle, horse or car.

Under the refuge conservation plan, the Service will develop a limited public hunting program. A study done in 2004 of radioactivity in deer on the Rocky Flats site by scientists with the Service found "minimal human risk" from eating the meat of deer shot at the site.

"The maximum calculated risk level in this study is at the low end of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's acceptable risk range," the study found.

In May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency completed regulatory certification and released the lands for unrestricted use as a National Wildlife Refuge.

Rocky Flats in 1995 (Two photos courtesy Los Alamos National Lab)
The Energy Department will retain 1,300 acres in the center of the site for long-term surveillance and maintenance. This area is protected by physical and institutional controls and contains surface and groundwater monitoring equipment, four groundwater treatment systems, and two closed landfills.

Many Coloradans are not satisfied that Rocky Flats is safe enough for public access. The Rocky Flats site is "still extensively contaminated with plutonium and other toxins from decades of nuclear bomb-making," wrote LeRoy Moore, PhD, founder of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, on July 5.

In an article published on the website of the Colorado Coalition for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Moore wrote, "There are many reasons to be skeptical of claims that Rocky Flats is 'safe' for public use. Under the minimal standards the government set for cleaning the site, significant quantities of plutonium and other toxins have been left in the environment. With a half-life of 24,400 years, plutonium remains dangerously radioactive for eons; even minuscule particles taken into the body may result in cancer, harm to the immune system, or genetic abnormalities."

Rocky Flats in 2005 after the environmental cleanup.

Moore warns that the plutonium still left at Rocky Flats could migrate and that cleanup standards were were "based on computer modeling rather than direct observation" and "differ strikingly from actual documentation of significant plutonium migration at other sites and even at Rocky Flats in the exceedingly wet spring of 1995."

Wildlife ecologist Dr. Shawn Smallwood, in his 1996 study, demonstrated how 18 species of burrowing animals redistribute contaminants left in the soil at Rocky Flats, and he also discovered substantial intrusion of waste structures by burrowing animals.

Pocket gophers, harvester ants, and prairie dogs all burrow to depths of 10 to 16 feet and disturb large areas on the surface, while coyotes, badgers, rabbits, and other animals also move soil.

"Those who set the legally binding cleanup standards for the site ignored Smallwood's findings, and relied instead on claims from an earlier study that plutonium in Rocky Flats' soil had "weathered in" and thus was stable in the environment," wrote Moore.

The Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board, which shut down in 2006 after 13 years of involvement, warned in its closing statement that "Water quality will be a significant measure of the site's cleanup."

Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board Chair Gerald DePoorter, left, received the President’s Volunteer Service Award from Assistant Energy Secretary James Rispoli in April 2006. (Photo courtesy RFCAB)
Water quality problems have occurred at Rocky Flats during periods of increased precipitation and run-off, the Board warned. Although surface water quality as its leaves the site has always remained below regulatory limits, there have been some instances, as recent as 2005, where onsite water quality has exceeded state standards for plutonium, uranium, and americium.

The Board says that because "there is some residual contamination left at the site," it is very important that the Department of Energy develop "readily accessible and easy-to-understand information that describes this contamination and explains its risk."

"Although this information can be found in the thousands of pages of written information documenting the cleanup, the Board believes it needs to be condensed and presented in a better manner."

The information should provide simple maps, diagrams and other graphic materials that show where contamination exists. It also is important that this information include an easily understood description of the inherent risk.

While general public interest in Rocky Flats is likely to diminish over time now that the cleanup is complete, community members still need to be provided opportunities to receive information and ask questions, the Board advises.

"Are the cleanup remedies such as the landfill caps and the groundwater treatment units functioning as intended? Are water quality standards being met? the Board asked. "These and other questions must remain a part of the community's interest in the site."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.