While Youth Corps Members Pull Weeds at Rocky Flats, Lawsuit Sows Doubts About Safety

The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge still faces questions about its safety.
The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge still faces questions about its safety. U.S. Fish and WIldlife
By the end of 2022, Colorado will have used the entire $10 million in natural resource damage funds granted by the Department of Energy in 2006 as compensation for damage done at the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant.

The damage funds are used for the restoration of natural resources at EPA Superfund sites, the most polluted locations in the country. In Colorado, the trustees who oversee the distribution of the funds include the Colorado attorney general and the executive directors of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Once the trustees approve certain projects, the groups authorized to do the projects obtain funds from the CDPHE, which monitors the work.

Rocky Flats, which produced plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs for decades before it closed at the end of 1989, underwent a $7 billion cleanup that was completed in 2006. In 2017, much of the land was opened to the public as the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received $8 million to open the refuge; the $10 million in natural resource damage funds was intended to further restore the environment.

At Rocky Flats, $5.5 million from those funds went to purchasing mineral rights on and around the refuge, to prevent commercially viable gravel deposits from being mined and destroying the rare xeric tallgrass prairie that covers most of the ground. The rest of the money was used for additional projects, such as the purchase of open space lands, the creation of a native seed collection, and the control of noxious and invasive plants.

The CDPHE signed over the last of the funds, approximately $11,300, to the Mile High Youth Corps, one of the state’s eight climate-related AmeriCorps groups, for plant-control projects to be completed in 2022.

The Mile High Youth Corps has long worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife on the Denver area's three refuges: Two Ponds National Wildlife Refuge, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and Rocky Flats. This is the first time that natural resource damage funds will pay for the work, however.

In 2021, a Mile High Youth Corps crew spent eight weeks at Rocky Flats identifying, mapping and removing invasive plant species within the refuge’s boundaries, covering 116 acres of prairie. Since 2015, team members have worked on about 150 acres of Rocky Flats' more than 6,000 acres using mechanical and chemical methods to remove weeds, according to Mile High Youth Corps CEO Brigid McRaith.

David Lucas, a refuge manager with U.S. Fish and Wildlife who oversees Rocky Flats, says that the partnership's priority was removing common teasel, Canada thistle and diffuse knapweed. Corps workers also might have encountered dalmatian toadflax, common mullein, musk thistle and poison hemlock, less common invasive plant species.

“Most of these species are not a safety concern — but we all, including Macbeth, know that hemlock is poisonous if ingested,” Lucas says. “The Corps works under the direction of Service staff and are briefed on a variety of safety issues typical to the outdoor work environment.”

Those safety issues include overheating, dehydration and rattlesnakes. Corps members are required to wear personal protective equipment while on the refuge; in situations where herbicide is involved, members undergo a full week of training to be licensed to use the chemicals, McRaith says.

“Part of our job at the refuge is to recruit and train the next generation of conservation leaders,” Lucas explains. “This career pathway begins with working in the field. The goals of Mile High Youth Corps closely align with ours, and their interest and energy is rejuvenating.”

McRaith says that both the Mile High Youth Corps and U.S. Fish and Wildlife are committed to increasing the accessibility of the outdoors, and that this partnership is one example of that work.

While agreeing that accessibility is important, some people simply don’t agree that Rocky Flats should be part of the public’s recreational experience — or that younger people should be working there. The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center is currently suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming that it didn’t appropriately conduct risk assessments before opening public trails in sections of Rocky Flats.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip Brimmer had dismissed the case in July; last month the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center appealed his decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The suit contends that land at the southwest corner of the refuge, added in 2012 and called Parcel 16, should not be open to the public because it has never been tested for plutonium despite being part of the buffer zone of the original Rocky Flats plant. There is about a mile of public trails on Parcel 16; the suit argues that the feds didn't conduct proper testing before opening any trails at Rocky Flats, and uses Parcel 16 as an example of negligence.

A 2019 soil sampling found plutonium on the site of the proposed Jefferson County Parkway near the refuge’s eastern edge.

“We believe that Rocky Flats is still a highly contaminated place that is very dangerous to the public,” says Giselle Herzfeld, nuclear guardianship campaign coordinator with the Peace and Justice Center, a longtime opponent of reopening Rocky Flats.

Not only is the center concerned that U.S. Fish and Wildlife didn't do enough to determine that the refuge is safe for people, but it worries that as projects move soil from one place to another to build public trails, more plutonium could be dislodged or released. Exposure to plutonium can lead to cancer and other health risks.

“We’re really just trying to make sure that public health and safety are at the forefront of any decisions made about this land, and we believe the [Department of Energy] has a vested interest in making the site appear safe for the public,” Herzfeld says.

Herzfeld says she is a perfect example of why the center is fighting for greater scrutiny at the refuge. Now 24, she grew up in Boulder County; she describes her parents as very socially aware, but she only learned the history of Rocky Flats two years ago. Most of her friends aren't aware that it was once a nuclear weapons plant, she adds.

Mile High Youth Corps crew members, who are around Herzfeld’s age, are taught about the history of Rocky Flats, McRaith says — and instead of that history worrying them, it inspires them. “Pulling weeds isn't the most glamorous job in the world,” she notes. “It's the middle of summer. It's 90 degrees outside, and at the refuge there is not a lot of shade, so it can be somewhat grueling work. I think that context is really what fuels their motivation and drive and hard work.”

Rocky Flats, which was ranch land and open space before the feds chose it for the home of a nuclear weapons plant seventy years ago, has rare prairie habitat that Lucas says is worth preserving for future generations to enjoy. That includes areas in the buffer zone that don’t require restoration but merely management to keep them healthy. Although the natural resource damage funds will be used up by the end of next year, Congress will continue to appropriate funds for the maintenance of the refuge each year, he points out.

That would seem to assure the future of Rocky Flats as a space for public recreation, but the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center plans to continue pushing for the refuge to be closed — and to educate newcomers to Colorado as well as younger residents about what happened on that land in the meantime.

“We believe that the site should be closed to the public,” Herzfeld says. “I found it really deeply disturbing that it had been that lost in generational memory that quickly."
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Catie Cheshire is Westword's editorial fellow. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire