The lead-up to next year’s official opening of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge has earned some protests, as dozens turned out at a recent public meeting in Arvada to argue against the opening of the site — sixty-five years after Rocky Flats began life as a nuclear weapons facility.
Federal agencies are planning on opening the site, about 16 miles northwest of Denver, to the public in the spring of 2018.
A large number of the audience members at the May 15 meeting at the Arvada Center were protesting public exposure to Rocky Flats, arguing that recreation is not suitable for the site that has plutonium and other industrial waste materials buried underground, as there is a potential exposure for visitors — be they bicyclists, birders or hikers.
Arvada City Councilman Mark McGoff, who also serves as his city's representative on the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, said by phone on Tuesday that federal law has already established the land's wildlife refuge status, and mandated that public access be established.
"I accept the science that is presented both by the Department of Energy, and the Colorado Department of Public Health," McGoff said. "When the refuge is open ot the public, I personally won't have any hesitation about going for a walk out in that area."
The core of the old Rocky Flats site, a 1,200-acre portion of the property dubbed the Central Operable Unit, is still an active Superfund cleanup site and will remain off-limits to the public for safety reasons. It’s the area in the middle of the refuge where a small city worth of buildings housed 10,000 workers — one of the nation’s largest Cold War nuclear weapons facilities. Production was halted, and clean-up efforts began in the early 1990's.
The surrounding 5,000 acres comprise the wildlife refuge. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service reports the area, returned to prairie, is now home to 239 migratory and resident wildlife species, including the prairie falcons, deer, elk, coyotes, songbirds, and the federally threatened Preble’s meadow jumping mouse. McGoff, who has toured the land as part of the stewartship council, said the area is beautiful.
Studies and surveys have failed to end disagreements over the safety of Rocky Flats. The Department of Energy estimates a visitor to the wildlife refuge would be exposed to additional radiation equal to 1/8th the amount received during a medical X-ray. A State Health Department study published this January analyzed 10 types of cancer, and concluded that cancer levels for communities around Rocky Flats were no different than those of the broader Denver Metro Area for the time period 1990 to 2014. However, a small, self-reporting study being conducted by Metro State University released an initial report ndicated that there may be a higher incidence of unusual illnesses, including cancers, for those that lived near Rocky Flats between 1952 and 1992.
Tiffany Hansen, a co-founder of the group Rocky FlattDownwinders which helped support the MSU study, said the lack of federal study into the area's safety was a tragedy. She said the same goes for nearby home construction projects, and the planned wildlife refuge trail plans.
"The fires, the accidents, the containment leaks ... the history speaks for itself that it shouldn't be messed with," Hansen said.
As part of the opening of the refuge, Arvada has given preliminary approval to help build an eastern access point to the refuge, including construction of a footbridge over Indiana Avenue. The rest of the refuge plans calls for a multiuse building, parking, and nearly 20 miles of trail.
The Arvada resident’s group Rocky Flats Right To Know has petitioned the Jefferson County School District to issue a resolution banning any school field trips to the wildlife refuge, citing potential radiation exposure. Boulder’s school district made a similar resolution in March.
The wildlife refuge’s website is here.