Calling it the “last and best chance to close this refuge,” a group opposed to the use of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons manufacturing site as a wildlife refuge open to hikers and cyclists took their case to a federal appeals court Friday.
The complaint, filed by the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center along with several neighborhood groups, seeks to overturn U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer’s decision in July to dismiss the plaintiffs’ lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“My clients don’t believe the significant environmental issues related to residual plutonium contamination at Rocky Flats have been adequately reviewed by Fish and Wildlife,” attorney Randall Weiner said Friday.
Specifically, the appeal states that the federal agency did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act in opening the refuge to the public three years ago and building a trail network there. It cites a 2011 email from a former manager of Rocky Flats suggesting that public trails on the east side of the property avoid the “plutonium plume” in the downwind portion of the refuge.
Plaintiffs also claim that a portion of the property where trails will be located wasn’t purchased until 2012 and was never assessed for radioactive contamination. Claire O’Brien, administrator at the Boulder-based Peace & Justice Center, said it’s “unsafe for people to recreate there.”
“It’s not safe to have any levels of plutonium that could affect people, children and dogs,” she said.
Dave Lucas, refuge manager for Rocky Flats, said Fish and Wildlife could not comment on ongoing litigation.
There are 11 miles of trails on the refuge, where for more than 40 years triggers for nuclear warheads were assembled before the weapons plant was raided by federal agents in 1989 and closed a few years later. It took a decade and $7 billion to clean up the inner core of the 5,200-acre refuge north of Arvada, which was laced with chemical contaminants from years of bomb-making.
That 1,300-acre inner core, called the central operable unit, remains indefinitely off-limits to the public.
Rocky Flats made headlines in 2019 when a plutonium hot spot was detected on the east side of the refuge along the Indiana Street fenceline. The soil sample had a reading of 264 picocuries per gram of soil, a level five times higher than the standard established by the federal government at the time Rocky Flats was cleaned up.
But dozens of other soil samples taken in the same area, as well as in other parts of the refuge, have all tested well within government-defined acceptable risk thresholds for the deadly substance. Rocky Flats is home to 239 migratory and resident wildlife species, including prairie falcons, deer, elk, coyotes, songbirds, and the threatened Preble’s meadow jumping mouse.
Rocky Flats detractors have not had much luck fighting the refuge since it opened to the public.
Just two months ago, another federal judge dismissed a suit that the town of Superior had filed with similar complaints about a lack of review of environmental concerns at the site. Last week, Superior said it would not appeal that ruling, according to a story in the Daily Camera.
This past summer, a judge denied an emergency motion designed to stop Boulder from contributing money to the construction of an underpass connecting trails in Boulder and Boulder County with trails in Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge — part of the Rocky Mountain Greenway Trail that will eventually link several wildlife refuges on the Front Range, including Two Ponds, Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Rocky Flats, with Rocky Mountain National Park.
There is not yet a visitor’s center at Rocky Flats, and Lucas said there is no date certain for when one might be built.
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