This Wildlife Refuge Used to Be One of America’s Most Polluted Nuclear Sites—but Is It Safe Now?

A lack of public confidence in governmental agencies — and a tainted environmental past — continue to haunt Colorado’s Rocky Flats.

The Rocky Flats Plant was first established in 1951 as a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility. Today, almost 4,000 acres make up the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Located just 16 miles northwest of Denver, Colorado, the refuge provides a habitat for migratory birds and mammals.
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

On arrival, Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is, frankly, uninviting. A bevy of heavy trucks heading to and from the adjacent aggregates mining site churn up clouds of dust as they pass the multi-padlocked refuge gate. A faded sign with the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) logo announces “AREA BEYOND THIS SIGN CLOSED. All public entry prohibited.” Just outside the refuge entrance, RVs are crowded into a storage area at the edge of an underground natural gas pipeline. Six white wind turbines tower incongruously nearby.

Is that what a national wildlife refuge looks like? Let’s take a look.

Picture a rough square with a lopsided rhomboid in the middle. The Department of Energy (DOE) still controls the 1,308-acre fenced-off middle – technically the “central operable unit” – encompassing the former site of the country’s only manufacturing facility for plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons. Following years of protests against the facility, which was infamous for radioactive leaks, accidental chemical releases, and toxic fires, a joint raid by the FBI and the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1989 halted production by the DOE’s private contractor at the time, Rockwell International. The 800 or so structures from the manufacturing era are now gone and all the debris has been moved off-site. The foundations and partial walls of two buildings remain, but deeply buried. The rhomboid contains 89 wells and several groundwater collection and treatment systems, which the DOE monitors.

The wildlife refuge, which lies 10 miles from Boulder and 16 from Denver, surrounds the rhomboid—the buffer zone or “peripheral operable unit” in government-speak. Most of its approximately 6,200 acres is covered with xeric tallgrass prairie, a rare grass that took tens of thousands of years to evolve. Cattails grow in the seeps.

(image: Michael Kodas)

There’s a barren feel here, especially at first glance. Few trees. Visible wildlife limited to grasshoppers and a few birds. Rocky, yes. Flat, pretty much, especially in contrast to the nearby Flatiron formation of the Rocky Mountain foothills. Bitterly cold winter winds sometimes exceeding 130 mph whip across the landscape – not surprising at an elevation of 6,000 feet. Intrepid ranchers and farmers raised stock and produce here for nine decades, starting with homesteaders Sarah and George Church in 1861. Their reign ended with the Atomic Energy Commission’s purchase of the land in 1951.

The deteriorating remnants of what’s now called the Lindsay Ranch sit low in a shallow fold of the land, the only historic buildings remaining on the refuge. The ranch house, battered by the weather, appears close to collapse. The FWS has kept the long-empty cattle barn standing and in better shape. Looming incongruously above the hill behind the house we can see the white tips of two wind turbines as they slowly rotate.

Yet first looks are deceiving. “We see bear,” says refuge manager Dave Lucas. And there’s evidence of mountain lions. The refuge is home to the endangered Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, a “geographically distinct subspecies” endemic to Colorado and Wyoming. It’s home to mule deer – we watch several bound up a slope; prairie rattlesnakes – we see and hear none of them, fortunately; red-tailed hawks; and black-tailed prairie dogs. We spot a coyote in the distance. The calving season for the 200-member resident elk herd was underway when we visited, and we saw newborns with their mothers.

This is an ancient place with soil over two million years old, marked by fingers of deposits of alluvial stones caused by volcanic or earthquake action. Aside from narrow dirt roads and bits and pieces of the old farmstead, there are sparse signs of people within the refuge. A small water quality monitor. Power poles that provide perches for predatory birds and a tad of shade for the mule deer and elk. An imprint along the ground that marks where single-gauge tracks used to carry logging trains.

From a remediation perspective and a public lands conservation perspective, Rocky Flats is surely a success story. At what was once ranked among the continent’s most heavily polluted nuclear-related sites, hikers and bicyclists may be wending their way along miles of planned trails that will eventually connect with a neighboring upscale development’s 13.5-mile trail network. A small building with exhibits and toilets will open by 2017. Endangered and threatened wildlife and plant species are protected here. A massive cleanup, originally estimated to take 60 to 70 years at a cost of $37 billion, was completed within a decade for only $7 billion.

Critics of the refuge believe the land still carries a toxic burden.

While this transition carries lessons for how the nation can handle toxic legacy byproducts of the nuclear age and convert wasteland to natural wealth, it also raises questions about the implications of hiding our tainted environmental past and about the impossible quest for absolutes in the natural world.

Dave Lucas is a relentless, hands-on weed warrior. “We’ve got common mullen,” the refuge manager says, bending to yank out an invader. He identifies Dalmatian toadflax—another invader. He bends down again. Smooth brome—nonnative, “planted by the ranching community and others back in the day.” Amidst the native yucca, prickly pear, button cactus, and Indian paintbrush, he spies another enemy: “That’s cheatgrass coming in. Cheatgrass is a tough one in the West.” He stops. “There’s a thistle patch.”

Lucas believes that “we can win the weed battle” using prescribed fires that help restore the ecological health of tallgrass prairies. In fact, the FWS had planned such a burn last spring to control invasive weeds and eliminate dry brush to minimize risks of wildfires. That burn didn’t happen, though the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the DOE approved the burn plan, Lucas says unhappily, standing next to his government Ford 4X4 pickup and pointing to an area that was to be burned. “It was the best thing to do. It was time to do it. It was the decision to make,” he says.

But not according to opponents who argued that burning 701 acres could release radioactive contaminants into the air. Almost 3,000 people signed a petition asking the FWS to scrap the burn, citing concerns that it would release residue cancer-causing plutonium into the air. Instead, critics suggested that the agency do mechanical thinning, or graze livestock or goats to clear the brush.

Given the intense public pressure, the FWS caved and cancelled the burn, although soil tests of the planned burn area by federal contractors showed plutonium levels were no higher than at “background” levels found elsewhere in the Denver metropolitan area. Federal and state officials monitoring the area say nearly all of the plutonium was removed during the cleanup. There are some contaminated building slabs remaining, but those are buried at least six feet underground – but not as deep as some mammals can burrow – and painted over to prevent the escape of radioactive particles.

Lucas pulls out the Geiger counter he always carries in the pickup. Officials have never detected levels of radiation beyond those produced by the sun or background levels, he says. Soil sampling in the area also proved negative for levels that could adversely affect human health. Besides, he says, no health problems resulted from a DOE 50-acre test burn in 2003. In fact, the federal agencies say the biggest health threat at Rocky Flats in the past didn’t come from radioactive materials such as plutonium since their use was heavily controlled. Instead, it came from industrial chemicals, polychlorinated biphenyls, and volatile organics used in the production process. (The DOE regularly samples groundwater at 88 locations and surface water at 19 locations in the refuge.)

Lucas dismisses the suggested alternatives to the burn as impractical, ineffective, and contrary to science. Mowing is indiscriminate, eliminating both weeds and native plants, he says. As for spot spraying to kill weeds one by one, a crew working for three weeks with backpack sprayers covered only 12 acres in a 100-acre area in the summer of 2015. By contrast, he says, “fire is natural. Fire happens.”

The fracas over the burn was yet another installment of an ongoing conflict between federal authorities and critics of the refuge who believe the natural beauty of the place is deceptive, that the land still carries a toxic burden that could do harm and should never be opened for public use.

“Any radiation is harmful,” says LeRoy Moore, founder of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, the most media-visible critic of the cleanup and management of Rocky Flats. Moore – an antinuclear activist since the late 1970s—wants Congress to bar the public for at least 250 years from all DOE nuclear weapons sites that underwent Superfund cleanups. A two-and-a-half century “no-go” hiatus would provide “a much clearer sense of the condition of the scene,” he insists. Critics like Moore also contend that rebranding the area as a wildlife refuge hides the truth about how toxic leaks and fires at the weapons plant adversely impacted the health of workers and local residents.

Refuge manager Dave Lucas, who always carries a Geiger counter in his pickup, says they have never detected anything more than background radiation levels. (image: Michael Kodas)

“If they open the refuge to the public, then totally innocent people will visit that site, and some of them will be exposed to plutonium, and some of them will be children,” Moore says. In support of his proposed ban, Moore contends that standards for permissible radiation exposure are inadequate, that the public should have access to still-sealed records and evidence from the criminal investigation and prosecution of the defense contractor Rockwell International, and that scientific research raises serious doubts about the government’s assumptions that particles of plutonium, which has a half-life of 24,100 years, won’t migrate.

DOE and FWS call such objections groundless and assert that critics such as the Peace Center have a vested interest in preventing the refuge from opening. “It’s easy to drum up concern. It’s a lot harder to look at the facts and say, ‘It doesn’t fit my ideology or my preconceived idea,’” says David Abelson, head of the 14-member Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, a group comprising representatives from local governments and community organizations that monitors data on the site gathered by the federal and state officials.

The ongoing debate over just how safe the former weapons plant site is, is now reflected in additional concerns about a huge residential development next to the refuge and a controversial plan for a toll road called Jefferson Parkway running just beyond the most contaminated edge of Rocky Flats.

The Candelas development, with a projected 1,500 single-family homes located on the refuge’s outskirts in the city of Arvada, is due for completion within the next decade. With the slogan “Life Wide Open,” it offers homes ranging from the $300,000s to the $700,000s. Subdivisions – described as “distinctive villages” – with names like “Mountainview,” “Skyview,” and “Canyonview” have prime lots offering views of the refuge, the Flatirons, the Denver skyline, and Welton Reservoir. “It’s the only place in Arvada where you can check your mail and see a herd of elk,” says Dena Almroth, community and recreation coordinator for Candelas.

But what about those deadly contaminants that may lurk literally an alluvial stone’s throw from porches and decks?

Potential buyers get an illustrated brochure about the refuge with the logos of the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, EPA, DOE, and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. It reassures readers that the refuge was “created after the largest and most successful environmental cleanup in history.” It boasts of vast open spaces, “critical habitat for hundreds of acres of xeric tallgrass prairie,” and the “crucial link” that elk and mule deer provide between metro Denver and “Colorado’s wildlife heritage.” Four of its 12 pages are full-page photos of wildflowers. Two pages discuss how Rocky Flats was used and cleaned up. The word “nuclear” appears twice, as does the fact that 1.3 miles separate Candelas from the original plant site.

So who would pay a half-million dollars or more to live next to a former nuclear production facility, no matter the grand vistas and assurances that the area exceeds “the environmental standards set as the cleanup goal?”

“It has been an issue,” a sales representative for the development tells us. “I definitely can talk around it. It’s their job to get educated.” Would-be buyers are advised, “Do your own research. You have to decide if it’s going to be comfortable for you,” she continues. “If not, move on.”

Development advocates argue that families who’ll live here will regard themselves as defenders of the refuge. In addition to the views, protecting the refuge itself and the refuge’s image simultaneously protects their real estate investment. The development, refuge manager Lucas says, “will give us a constituency to support the refuge. They’re going to care about the birds.”

As for the tollway project, it involves setting aside a 300-foot-wide, three-mile-long transportation corridor along the eastern edge of the wildlife refuge as part of a proposed 10-mile highway that would complete the last portion of a metropolitan beltway around Denver. However, the likelihood of it coming to fruition is seriously disputed. There will be no federal funding for the corridor, and the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, which hopes to complete the project through a public-private partnership, hasn’t sought state aid either. The project has been mired in a tangle of litigation and questions about land swaps, financing, and environmental factors for years. Bill Ray, interim executive director of the authority, says it’s proceeding this year with traffic studies and environmental reviews. In “my perfect world,” construction would start in spring 2018, he says.

So far, there have been no separate studies on the environmental impacts of construction by the refuge, but there are “30 years of soil studies, dust studies, rainfall studies, and water studies” of the entire site by contractors and government agencies, Ray says. As for possible impact on wildlife, FWS public information officer Steve Segin says: “There is currently a busy road there and future wildlife impacts would be typical for construction of a larger road: additional fragmentation, noise, and potential for wildlife strikes.”

Critics of the toll road, such as biochemistry professor Niels Schonbeck of Regis University in Denver, worry about the possibility of disturbing particles of plutonium in the soil during construction. “Once the road is down and grass is growing, the risk goes down,” he says.

And Moore, the anti-nuke, anti-refuge activist, predicts the highway will never be completed. “Building a highway is very expensive. It looks like it will fail for lack of investors,” he says. “The controversy about the contamination, I think, is not a happy one for people who want to invest their money and get a profit from it.”

Michael Greenberg, director of the National Center for Neighborhood and Brownfields Redevelopment at Rutgers University, visited Rocky Flats while it was operating and during the cleanup period. He coauthored a 2011 study about public preferences for environmental management at nuclear waste sites. At the time of the cleanup, he says, “the community group there consisted of good people, very smart and motivated individuals.” But, he continues, “Trust is very difficult to build up. It takes time and is easy to lose. Individuals in charge of an agency may have the best intentions, they may have the best information available,” but there are major challenges if their predecessors undermined that trust.

The Rocky Flats Cold War Museum in Arvada says in an online statement that it treats the Cold War and arms race period, when the nuclear weapons plant “spurred passionate debates” over issues like national security, government secrecy, public health, and environmental protection “not as a closed narrative but as an ongoing era that’s still unfolding—and that’s still relevant to the issues confronting Americans today.”

Indeed, many of those old debates and questions, spurred in part by lack of public confidence in state and federal agencies, continue to haunt Rocky Flats today. One can’t help but wonder – if there’s no such thing as absolute safety, how do we make informed decisions about visiting Rocky Flats or living nearby? Are interpretive plaques enough? Informational brochures? How should mountain bikers and would-be homeowners weigh assurances from some scientists against the doubts of other scientists? Are they to trust government officials more than activists? Put another way, how long must we wait to feel, believe, or know that “safe” means safe? Such questions apply to parallel situations around the country.

According to government records, there are at least 500 sites scattered across the United States, including factories, research centers, and other facilities that have handled radioactive material. In 2014, DOE pegged its total environmental liability at close to $300 billion. No American legacy site is more daunting than Hanford near the Columbia River in Washington State, where what the US General Accountability Office (GAO) describes as “one of the world’s biggest cleanup projects” is underway with a projected end date of 2047. The scale of the two sites differs dramatically: Hanford’s 586 square miles versus Rocky Flats’ 10 square miles. The Hanford site’s problems, too, dwarf those at Rocky Flats. For example, a December 2014 GAO review of 177 storage tanks containing 56 million gallons of nuclear waste at Hanford found them in worse condition than expected and warned of an increased likelihood of “future leaks and intrusions.”

A massive housing development being built next door to the former nuclear site has reignited concerns about radiation exposure. (image: Michael Kodas)

Are there useful lessons from the Rocky Flats weaponry-to-wildlife experience that can be applied to other contaminated nuclear sites across the country? Scientists are cautious, to say the least. Each site differs in geology, size, levels and types of radioactive and other toxic contaminants, climatic conditions, and more. Despite these differences, if there were one universal lesson the still unfolding story of Rocky Flats provides, it’s that even the successful cleanup and transformation of a legacy site leaves unresolved ambiguities about society’s attitudes toward, and understanding of, how we use the natural world.

Tom Bowers, a Northern Kentucky University researcher who studies how people encounter “remediated landscapes,” says that we generally tend to dismiss toxic waste sites as spaces that are fenced off, invisible, and useless. He says the standard practices of transforming such sites into commercial developments or restoring them to their natural state not only render the past invisible, but also place too much emphasis on our ability to control, or fix, such toxic sites.

Bowers argues that a different type of vision—not merely removing and hiding a site’s toxic legacy—can “provide a potential space by which to generate a more responsive and contemplative public when it comes to modern industrial practices.” As an example, he cites the 75-foot-high concrete containment holding 1.13 million cubic meters of asbestos and other contaminated materials on the site of a facility that processed uranium ore in Weldon Spring, Missouri. “It’s a tourist attraction,” he says. “It sets up this incongruity. Here you are the tourist and can walk and ride on this nuclear waste dump. That waste dump becomes a visible manifestation of that presence. In my mind it becomes a very different way of engaging people in toxicity.”

Perhaps, even if a site is repurposed, as Rocky Flats has been, it can serve as a memorial to its own past. And perhaps it can also serve as a reminder that, when it comes to landscapes like these, there are no absolute assurances of safety. Nor are there any absolute assurances of life without risks.

Eric Freedman is director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. His latest book is Environmental Crises in Central Asia: From Steppes to Seas, From Deserts to Glaciers.

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