Colorado wildlife refuge at old nuclear
plant is open - for now
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[September 25, 2018]
By Keith Coffman
ROCKY FLATS, Colo. (Reuters) - Less than
two miles (3 km) from where triggers for thermonuclear weapons were once
manufactured and against the backdrop of Colorado's Rocky Mountains, a
bull elk bugles as he defends his harem of cows from rival males.
"It's rutting season and this is mating behavior," said David Lucas of
the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and manager of Rocky Flats National
Wildlife Refuge, 12 miles (19 km) northwest of Denver.
He was escorting a Reuters journalist on one of the first official tours
of the 5,237-acre (2,119-hectare )Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge
since it opened on Sept 15.
The unique prairie ecosystem, is home to 239 wildlife species, ranging
from elk and mule deer to black bears, cougars, numerous bird species,
and monarch butterflies, Lucas said.
It's unclear how long the refuge will remain open.
Five environmental and community activist groups have sued the
government, arguing the Rocky Flats refuge should be closed until more
testing is done. A judge last month rejected their request to delay the
opening while the lawsuit is heard.
The suit is pending in Denver federal court.
The Rocky Flats plutonium plant had a history of fires, and radioactive
spills during its 37 years in operation before shutting down permanently
in 1989 during a criminal investigation into environmental violations.
Now that it's a refuge, its 10.2 miles (16.4 km) of trails are open to
naturalists, hikers, cyclists and equestrians. About 1,300 acres (526
hectares) immediately surrounding the old production facility is
permanently closed off to the public.
Because the weapons production was a classified defense operation, no
development was allowed on the site so the area has been untouched by
human encroachment, leaving it in pristine condition, Lucas said.
In the lawsuit, pending before U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer,
opponents of the refuge argue that a $7.7 billion Superfund cleanup
overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency was flawed and a new
environmental study should be conducted.
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"Our case will clearly demonstrate that the government does not have
an up-to-date assessment of risks to the environment and human
health from allowing unlimited public visits to the refuge," Randall
Weiner, an attorney for the coalition, told Reuters.
Human activity could stir up remnant plutonium, which if ingested by
refuge visitors or residents downwind can cause cancer, Weiner said.
Both the EPA and Colorado health officials have determined that the
site is safe and background radiation is within acceptable limits.
"This is one of the most studied pieces of land on the planet," said
Lindsay Masters, an environmental protection specialist with the
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, noting that
several studies of the soil, water and air have found that the site
is not a public health hazard.
Rocky Flat's demise began in 1989, when FBI agents and EPA
investigators raided the plant based on a whistleblower's tip that
contractors were illegally disposing of hazardous materials.
The contractor at the time, Rockwell International Corp., pleaded
guilty to violating environmental laws and paid $18.5 million in
fines. In 2015, Rockwell and the plant's previous contractor, Dow
Chemical Co., paid $375 million to 12,000 homeowners downwind from
the plant after a federal jury found the companies were liable for
devaluing their properties due to plutonium releases.
It is unknown when Judge Brimmer will rule on the current lawsuit,
but it may not end the controversy. The losing party could appeal
and a lawsuit filed by the nearby town of Superior seeking to close
the refuge is in its early stages.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra
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