On December 14, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it had completed planning for a western expansion of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge — that's the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons plant, minus several hundred acres that are deemed too contaminated to ever go public — as well as the exchange of a 300-foot right-of-way, comprising approximately a hundred acres, on the refuge's eastern border. That decision paves the way for the Jefferson Parkway, a proposed four-lane toll road that would go through that right-of-way, finishing the metro beltway that's been the subject of a down-and-dirty fight for decades.
"The exchange of the 300-foot right-of-way for this additional wildlife habitat and open space is a good outcome for the citizens of Colorado," pronounced Steve Guertin, regional director of Fish and Wildlife, which took over the former plutonium-processing plant after the Department of Energy deemed it clean — and then sealed the files on the cleanup. "Accepting this exchange proposal will significantly expand the Rocky Flats NWR not only for the benefit of wildlife, but it will also anchor a network of green space for the people of the Denver metro area to enjoy for years to come."
If you don't mind a little radioactive dust in your picnic.
While the exchange has buy-in from most nearby municipalities as well as the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, the town of Superior was not pleased by the announcement. The next day, it filed suit in United States District Court asking for a full study of the deal. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a review of some alternatives as described in their assessment, but unfortunately it was meant to placate rather than provide all options with thorough detail," Superior officials said in announcing the suit. "The conclusion of the environmental assessment should have been that a full study leading to an Environmental Impact Statement was necessary to fully understand and evaluate the impact of the expansion of the refuge and the building of a four-lane toll road."
There was really only one other alternative presented to Fish and Wildlife: The town of Golden, which had long opposed the Jefferson Parkway but in February agreed to look at options, in May had offered to purchase the right-of-way along Indiana Street for $3 million — $200,000 more than the JPPHA had offered — and create the Jefferson Bikeway, a bicycle and pedestrian trail. But after Golden modified its proposal to take out improvements along Indiana, Fish and Wildlife determined that it no longer met conditions of the 2001 Rocky Flats Act that required a regional transportation plan be part of the land transfer, explains David Lucas, spokesman for the Division of Refuge Planning.
But Golden isn't done kicking up dust yet. On the same day that Superior filed suit, the Golden City Council held a special meeting to discuss a proposed agreement with Arvada, Jefferson County, the JPPHW and the Colorado Department of Transportation that would withdraw Golden's official opposition to the toll road — but net the town $57 million in mitigation for any traffic impacts from the Jefferson Parkway. Because the language of that agreement wasn't finished, Mayor Jacob Smith says council won't vote until people can review the final terms, which are still being negotiated. But here are the basics: "The Jefferson Parkway will be permitted to 'move dirt' only after the $57 million has been committed for the mitigation projects in Golden. The mitigation projects are: construction of a grade-separated interchange at U.S. Highway 6 and 19th Street, estimated at $25 million; relocation and upgrading State Highway 93 to four lanes for the section from SH 58 to north of the Golden city limits, estimated at $25 million; implementation of noise limitation along parts of SH93, estimated at $7 million."
Critics are accusing Smith, a longtime environmentalist who leaves office next month, of selling out the city. But if this deal goes through, the swap will protect the area around the current 93 from extensive new development, moving the proposed parkway to the east. That's a big change from an earlier route that had the parkway on a collision course with the town. The swap of the right-of-way for section 16, which is directly southwest of Rocky Flats, is made possible by an earlier move by Boulder, which had previously acquired over 1,500 acres in Jefferson County due west of Rocky Flats and 93, its western boundary. "We bought that to prevent potential development and also prevent severe economic and transportation impacts," explains Lisa Morzel, a scientist who's now Boulder's deputy mayor. By working with Jefferson County to acquire section 16, and also the mineral rights to the area, the refuge can be expanded — and protect "a large herd of elk that are kind of rare along the Front Range," she says. "This is a very important wildlife corridor. The preservation of section 16 is a great legacy for the region." Jefferson County is putting up about $5.1 for the parcel; Boulder and Boulder County are each putting up another $2 million.
Morzel has been studying the area since 1997, when a proposed development off 93 threatened to dump 900,000 vehicle trips a year in south Boulder. At the time, Boulder opposed what was then known as the Northwest Denver Parkway, and Morzel got very involved in that project and the Rocky Flats Coalition of Governments, since replaced by the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, which federal legislation established in 2005 to oversee the ongoing "legacy management" of Rocky Flats.
The Stewardship Council has decided not to take a position on the Fish and Wildlife deal. "If you go back a year and a half ago, there were incredible divisions among the boardmembers on the wisdom of pursuing the parkway," says director David Abelson. "The only thing that the stewardship council wants to focus on is contamination issues."
Morzel represents Boulder on that council, and last year Boulder decided to take an officially neutral stance on the Jefferson Parkway — at the same time pushing it as far away from Boulder as possible. "The Jefferson Parkway is very controversial, and it should be," Morzel says.
And controversial as it's been, the fallout continues to grow. Last week, Leroy Moore, a longtime opponent of Rocky Flats who's head of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, got the results of testing commissioned from Boston Chemical Data Corp. "The route of the proposed Jefferson Parkway passes through the heart of the most contaminated area along the eastern border of the site," says Moore. "We therefore thought that construction of a highway in this area would stir up clouds of plutonium-laden dust." In September, BCDC's Marco Kaltofen collected samples along the eastern perimeter of Rocky Flats (Moore has been denied access to the refuge itself), the same place that Atomic Energy Commission scientists, concerned by fires at the plant in 1967 and 1969, had tested in 1970 — and found lower levels of plutonium along Indiana Street than expected. "I was certainly surprised," Moore says. "I thought our results would more or less mirror what was found by P.W. Krey and E.P. Hardy back in 1970."
And since the area tested in 1970 was never mitigated, he can think of two possibilities: The plutonium blew away, contaminating other areas downwind, or "percolated down to deeper levels in the soil," Moore suggests. "This possibility means we could demand that Fish and Wildlife do the EIS they don't want to do." And even if the levels were surprisingly low, "what's important is the comparison to average background deposits of plutonium from global fallout along the Front Range," he says. One of the samples is almost forty times average background.
Although Fish and Wildlife rejected conducting a full EIS, it does not plan to complete the final exchange until January 10 at the earliest. "That allows Golden and others to continue their negotiations," Lucas says. "Some folks were concerned that we could just close this thing at the courthouse in the next couple of days. That isn't true."
Particularly since Superior plans to push for a full EIS in court, "there's no way they can buy off Superior," says Debra Williams, a town trustee. "The only thing we're asking is to not run the parkway through here."
But Morzel says the time is right to do the deal. Her history with Rocky Flats stretches much further back than her involvement with Boulder. As a citizen, she was part of the protests at the plant, back when it was making plutonium triggers for bombs. As an elected official, though, she has to deal with the fallout. "We can continue to argue about Jefferson Parkway," she says. "We could do all of these things to delay the project, but after being at this for fourteen years, I really think this is the best we could have done.... We have to find common denominators, where we can come together as community and transcend our differences."
Pardon our dust.