Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge: Safe or not safe?

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Posted 7/2/18

The battle over the Rocky Flats site’s safety lingers on to this day in the minds of some people. The 6,200-acre site which sits upwind from Broomfield, Westminster and a part of Arvada supposedly …

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Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge: Safe or not safe?


The battle over the Rocky Flats site’s safety lingers on to this day in the minds of some people.

The 6,200-acre site which sits upwind from Broomfield, Westminster and a part of Arvada supposedly was adequately cleaned up under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency to the tune of $7.7 billion as a Superfund site.

Subsequently, 5,300 acres of the former Cold War plutonium trigger manufacturing complex was transferred from the Department of Energy to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 to establish a wildlife refuge that would be open to the public. An earlier, similar approach involving the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal site was used to clean it up and designate it as a wildlife refuge.

However, a key difference is that the Arsenal was used for military ordinance storage while Rocky Flats’ operations handled plutonium, cesium and other highly dangerous materials.

Opening of wildlife refuge is delayed

Now, some 11 years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service thought they were ready to open the refuge to the general public. Entrances, parking and trails have been established for wild life viewing and hiking.

It was thought to be a good outing for school kids from all over the Denver metro area to do field trips and learn about nature.

Then comes a group of environmental activists blocking the opening of the refuge which had been planned for this summer. The group filed a lawsuit alleging a lack of sufficient documentation regarding the safety of the site as well as convincing various Denver area school districts that the soil was not safe for children to be hiking at the site.

The latest information from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the refuge will not open “until at least September 15.”

300,000 students won’t be going near Rocky Flats

So, the whole saga begs the question whether the site is safe for the public to hike around and kick up the dust.

The problem with plutonium occurs when it gets disturbed in the soil and becomes airborne. Ingestion into human beings’ respiratory system can cause cancer.

Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment are on record stating that the site is safe for public activity based on previous EPA studies and significant soil sampling efforts.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center wants another study to be sure that the site is safe for the public to use. The group has lobbied metro area school district officials and convinced seven school districts that when in doubt, do not allow the students to be exposed. More than 300,000 students will now be prohibited from field trips at the refuge including Westminster Public Schools, Adams 12 Five Star, Jefferson County Schools and Denver Public Schools.

It begs the question of what were the school district officials told by the environmental activist group? A spokesman for the Health Department stated that several of the school districts never contacted his office or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to hear the other side of the issue.

What will come out of this lawsuit?

The Health Department has stated that radiation levels at Rocky Flats are in line with background levels found in other parts of the state.

Thousands of soil tests conducted after 1991 — during the Superfund cleanup and afterward all over the entire site — did not find any “hot spots” with plutonium levels exceeding 20 picocuries according to state officials.

The federal government had set a negotiated cleanup standard of 50 picocuries per gram of dirt to guide the soil cleanup inside the core area (which is fenced and is off-limits to the public). Beyond the 1,308-acre core area, no soil cleanup was done.

It will be interesting to see how the court handles this lawsuit given the technical and health safety issues raised by the environmental activists group. This lawsuit could be reopening “Pandora’s Box” as far as what is an appropriate safe plutonium level in the soil to the other end of the spectrum where the judge would quickly conclude that this whole issue has been hashed and re-hashed and the current findings of Department of Health and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are sufficient.

This will be interesting to follow and could be precedent setting for other Cold War contaminated sites.

Why is Jerome Powell puzzled?

If Jerome Powell is puzzled over the lack of pay growth for employees across America, I bet most of you are too.

I know that I have been puzzled and concerned, given the low rate of unemployment especially in Colorado — but on a national scale, to a lesser degree.

Employers complain about not being able to find qualified recruits. Inflation is inching up. The stock market has hit record highs time and time again. Companies and corporations are doing well financially.

But why aren’t employees receiving increases in their pay?

Jerome Powell is the head of the world’s most powerful central bank and he says the situation “puzzles” him. As chairman of the Federal Reserve, you would think that if anyone has a handle on this situation it would be Mr. Powell.

Anyway, it is causing more and more of a strain on average income families to make ends meet. With housing costs skyrocketing, gasoline prices jumping up and inflation starting to show its “nasty head”, the middle class is being squeezed.

Furthermore, the low-income sector of our economy is hanging on by a string. It seems that this is the “new normal.”

With more and more automation and outsourcing to cheaper labor overseas, American workers are treading water. Something has to give!

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.


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