Federal push to open Colorado recreational oasis at Rocky Flats hits plutonium hitch

The government’s long-planned gift of a recreational oasis for metro Denver residents at the former Rocky Flats nuclear bomb factory turned wildlife refuge hit a hefty plutonium hitch Tuesday in federal court as project opponents blitzed officials with evidence of potentially deadly risks.

U.S. District Court Judge Philip Brimmer, actively engaged throughout a full day, said he’s weighing it all. Brimmer is expected to rule soon on opponents’ request that he block a scheduled Sept. 15 opening — until U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials conduct a fresh environmental review.

A population-growth and development boom along Colorado’s heavily urbanized Front Range and widening interest in outdoor recreation have propelled the federal push to open this 5,237-acre refuge, around a 1,300-acre contaminated Department of Energy-run core area, for hiking, horse riding and biking.

The refuge has emerged over the past decade as a key part of interconnected open space along a Rocky Mountain Greenway Trail, which includes two other federal wildlife refuges. Refuge manager Dave Lucas testified on plans to install trail signs and eventually build a visitors center at the refuge, where elk, antelope, bobcats and scores of other species are thriving. Department of Justice attorney Jessica Held emphasized that the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have repeatedly for years declared the land safe for unrestricted use.

But the secretive Cold War legacy of using radioactive plutonium and uranium to make triggers for thousands of the nuclear weapons wielded to deter the Soviet Union is haunting this project anew.

Former Rocky Flats radiation control technician John Barton, who worked for the Department of Energy at the site from 1982 to 2003, testified that he saw scores of the pea-green “glove boxes” where workers handled plutonium and uranium dumped and buried on a hillside area the size of three football fields near the boundary of today’s fenced off-limits core area. Barton also told of a fire in a building that likely spread plutonium particles around the property. And he testified that a 55-gallon waste barrel found on what is now the refuge in an old clay mine pond that was not covered by the $7.7 billion Superfund cleanup likely contained plutonium, like the 60 barrels a day that were filled and shipped off site. Pond water never was tested for radioactive contaminants as it should have been, Barton testified.

“The taking down of Rocky Flats was a good thing. But they didn’t go far enough,” said Barton, who has had cancer removed twice in the aftermath of his federal service.

His motive for speaking out now? “I don’t want kids exposed to it,” he said quietly outside the courtroom.

Two other experts who have tested dirt on and off the property warned that hot spots containing billions of plutonium particles easily could spread them to people. Inhalation of plutonium is the most deadly type of exposure, experts said. And another who has studied biological effects of radiation after nuclear disasters abroad testified that no level of plutonium is safe and that inhalation of a single particle could cause harm.

The U.S. nuclear weapons complexes face similar difficulties elsewhere.  A federal judge recently shut down cleanup activities at Hanford, in Washington state, following revelations that workers were spreading plutonium particles, a deadly hazard worsened by wind.

On Tuesday, Boulder-based attorney Randall Weiner argued that the state department of health and EPA assurances that the refuge is safe were based on tests of soil conducted more than 10 years ago, rather than the dust that — combined with high winds common at Rocky Flats, 16 miles northwest of downtown Denver — could spread potentially deadly plutonium to visitors at the refuge.

“Unless it is entirely clear, your honor, why shouldn’t the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service look at this?”

Federal failure to conduct a review required under the National Environmental Policy Act “would be a travesty, your honor,” Weiner said.

“But we’ve got these reports,” Brimmer countered, “from agencies whose expertise is in assessing risk to human health. And they say the refuge is OK.”

Fish and Wildlife managers at least should ask EPA officials whether the current configuration of trails and a visitors center at Rocky Flats would be safe, Weiner said. “Why doesn’t this agency make that request to the EPA? … That is a reasonable thing for a government agency to do and they have not done it yet,” he said.

“It really is incumbent on this agency to at least make a finding of ‘no significant impact’ before it opens the refuge trails. … The public is waiting for an answer,” he argued, citing multiple metro school districts that have barred educational visits to the refuge.

Local governments now are planning to conduct new tests of dirt at the refuge, relying on a grant, without state department of health assistance.

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