Forbidden Fruit

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The fate of the heavily contaminated industrial buildings where tons of plutonium are awaiting removal hasn't been decided, but even after the cleanup, most observers expect them to become a no-man's land encased in concrete and barbed wire ("The Hot Zone," August 3). The argument is over the buffer zone around those buildings, a large area consisting mainly of sage, yucca and grass. Parts of the buffer zone have potentially harmful levels of radiation in the soil. Exactly how much of that will have to be removed by the government has yet to be determined.

"The coalition has not taken a position on the cleanup levels yet," says David Abelson, executive director of the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments, adding that the group is focusing on future uses for the site. He makes it clear, however, what the majority of local governments don't want the land to be used for. "The coalition has rejected the idea of development in the buffer zone," he says.

"We wouldn't want to see the buffer zone eroded," adds Westminster's Christopher. "Once you break that defense and get the nose under the tent, where does it all end? That land would likely end up in the city of Arvada."

The coalition is now working with Congressman Mark Udall and Senator Wayne Allard to make a decision about the future of the property. Udall has proposed designating all of Rocky Flats as open space, while Allard wants to turn it into a national wildlife refuge. Staff members from Udall and Allard's offices have been meeting to try to craft a joint bill, and they hope to submit a unified proposal sometime this fall.

The compromise will undoubtedly have the blessing of the coalition members -- all except Arvada. In a June 16 letter to Allard, Fellman opposed the federal wildlife refuge idea. "Federal ownership of the Rocky Flats site is not in the best interest of this region," he wrote. "Federal agencies do not share the interests of local residents and communities."

Instead, he said Arvada wants the site to be turned over to local governments to "assure compatibility with community interests and preservation of future use options." He argued that national wildlife refuge designation would be too restrictive and warned that "human access will become more and more limited and mixed uses will not be permitted."

Fellman also sent a letter to Udall that included a rewrite of the 2nd District congressman's bill. The rewrite deletes references to wildlife habitat and threatened and endangered species, language leaving ownership of the land with the federal government, and references to the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments as a participating party. It then includes a long list of local cities that should be consulted about future plans for Rocky Flats -- including Thornton, Northglenn and Golden, but curiously omitting Boulder. Fellman also included in his rewrite wording that would allow a portion of the buffer zone to be "redesignated as an industrial area" and transfer control of the property to "local or state managing agencies" within two years.

To make its case in Congress, Arvada hired the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm of Patton Boggs last month. Mike Dino, a former aide to Denver Mayor Wellington Webb who now works in Patton Boggs' Denver office, has been representing the city.

In Arvada's proposal, Fellman also suggests a minimum cleanup level of 651 picocuries of plutonium and other radioactive isotopes in each gram of soil, the same as the DOE's suggested level. Since many of the neighboring cities will demand a much more thorough cleanup -- Westminster and Broomfield have suggested a level of 35 picocuries per gram of soil -- this suggestion has raised further suspicions about Arvada's intentions.

Fellman insists that Arvada's suggestion doesn't preclude a higher level of cleanup, but he says that if the land is designated as open space, "that could encourage Congress to give less money for cleanup." The federal government may argue that since no one will live or work full-time on the property, a lower level of cleanup should suffice, he adds. "Out of one side of our mouth, we're saying we want the highest possible cleanup,and out of the other side, we're saying we want it to be a wildlife refuge with limited human use. I think that's inconsistent."

Arvada's neighbors, on the other hand, say they have a right to demand both. "We aren't saying or implying we support a lower level of cleanup by supporting an open-space land use," says Christopher, adding that since Westminster uses Standley Lake -- which is downstream from Rocky Flats -- for its municipal water supply, the threat of contamination from runoff is a major concern for the city. "We want the highest cleanup possible. Our foremost objective is to make sure Congress appropriates the necessary funds to do that job and do it right."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers