Opponents of Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge Drop a Bomb on Feds

An old homestead on the Rocky Flats site.
An old homestead on the Rocky Flats site.
Fish & Wildlife
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The gathering at the Arvada Center on May 15 was billed as a "Sharing Session," the fourth in a series to discuss the conversion of the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant into the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. To start this session, a facilitator reminded the hundred-plus people in the room that the goal was to “create a civil, respectful space” for the conversation.

And it started respectfully enough, as U.S. Fish & Wildlife's David Lucas, who manages several refuges along the Front Range, offered an update on the Rocky Flats remediation project, which got its start after the FBI led a raid on the facility that for almost forty years had made plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons. The plant never reopened, and after a massive Superfund cleanup, all but the 1,300 acres at the heart of the site — which remain under the control of the Department of Energy — were transferred to Fish & Wildlife, to turn into a 5,237-acre refuge that will be open to the public. “We are confident in the results of the remediation and in the recommendations from experts regarding public health and safety,” Lucas said.

Since this had been billed as the session at which "safety" was to be addressed, Lucas was followed by three more speakers — from the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Health and Public Environment — who recapped the actions their agencies had taken and assured the audience that the area was safe for the public to enter.

And after that? No sharing. Instead of asking questions of the speakers at the podium, audience members were invited to go to different corners of the room to speak to them individually in an "open house." The people who'd gone not just through this series of four meetings, but meeting after meeting since long before Rocky Flats was shut down, complained about the "dog and pony show." One protested from the podium: "We expected a sharing session."

Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, before the cleanup.
Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, before the cleanup.

On the last day of May, opponents of the refuge got their chance to share something with the feds: a motion filed in U.S. District Court against Fish & Wildlife and Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, asking for a preliminary injunction to bar construction of trails and a visitor center at the Rocky Flats site until the defendants "analyze the environmental risks of current revised plans for public access to the Refuge. FWS is commencing construction without compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and two other environmental mandates, the National Wildlife Refuge Systems Administration Act and Executive Order 11990. A NEPA analysis is particularly relevant here, where there are concerns about the presence of lingering plutonium, one of the most deadly contaminants on the planet."

Jon Lipsky was the special agent who led the raid on Rocky Flats on June 6, 1989, and investigated environmental violations there; now retired from the FBI, he's continued to share his concerns about the area ever being opened to the public. "The lack of a thorough environmental analysis allows expert options about risks from the site to be swept under the rug," he said at a May 31 press conference announcing the filing. The motion's plaintiffs include the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center, Rocky Flats Right to Know, Rocky Flats Neighborhood Association, Environmental Information Network and Candela Glows/Rocky Flats Glows.

The reason to file that motion now rather than wait for more meetings and discussion? Attorney Randall Weiner points to an inter-agency agreement sent to the DOE last August that shows construction of the refuge scheduled to start in June 2017, with an opening to the public in summer 2018, a date that also appears on the Rocky Flats home page. "An injunction in this case is vital to protecting the public interest by preventing additional environmental harm and public health impacts from disturbing plutonium-laden soils through premature unauthorized construction," the motion concludes.

Fish & Wildlife did not respond to our requests for comments after the May 15 event; since the motion was filed, media inquiries have been referred to the Department of Justice.

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