Appeals Court Affirms Opening Trails to Public at Rocky Flats, Former Nuclear Weapons Plant

The former Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant is now a wildlife refuge.
The former Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant is now a wildlife refuge. Catie Cheshire
On July 19, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a July 2021 determination by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip Brimmer that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had conducted the proper assessments before constructing and opening trails to the public at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center had sued Fish and Wildlife, claiming it didn't conduct adequate testing before opening any trails at Rocky Flats; its case focused on Parcel 16, land added to the southwest corner of the refuge in 2012, as an example of negligence.

Brimmer determined that the changes made at the refuge were minor, and that Fish and Wildlife could rely on previously collected information rather than prepare a new environmental impact statement. “Neither the acquisition of the Section 16 Parcel nor the decision to extend a trail onto it amounted to a significant new circumstance requiring a supplemental EIS,” the appeals court agreed.

According to Giselle Herzfeld, nuclear guardianship campaign coordinator with the Peace and Justice Center, the group will move on from this particular legal challenge while continuing to push its opposition to the refuge being open to the public. The Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant produced plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs for decades before it closed at the end of 1989 and 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.

“We were just really hoping that the 10th Circuit Court decision would create a new precedent for protecting public health and safety at Rocky Flats and really just compel them to do a proper environmental assessment that they neglected to do,” Herzfeld says. “We were very disappointed, but we're not giving up.”

Exposure to plutonium can lead to cancer and other health risks. The Peace and Justice Center believes those risks are still present at the refuge, and wants more public education. Because of the lack of signage, opponents suggest that people can spend a day at the refuge without ever realizing that they're at a former plutonium-processing facility.

Herzfeld notes that the appeals-court decision did not involve safety issues, but whether Fish and Wildlife followed the right procedural steps to open the trails. “Even though the decision was made, and it wasn't made in our favor, that decision actually did not address whether or not the site is safe,” she says.

Fish and Wildlife offered no comment on the ruling, but says it plans to move forward with more trail construction. The design is expected to be finalized this fall, and construction will start immediately after it's approved, with a targeted completion date of winter 2023.

Whether open or closed to the public, Herzfeld says that the refuge can still serve as a reminder of the risks of nuclear weapons, particularly with the current war in Ukraine.

“Plutonium — it's gonna stay radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years,” Herzfeld says. “As long as the plutonium there is radioactive, we want to be a voice that's continuing to uplift the fact that this is not a site that people should be taking their families and their children.”
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. 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