A wildlife refuge is a good thing, right? Not if it happens to be a former weapons-grade plutonium waste dump. This is the case at Rocky Flats, a former nuclear munitions plant in Golden, a small town near Denver, Colorado.
In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge on 5,237 acres – about 11 square miles – that lie on the scenic eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountain’s Front Range. The high desert plain features wild sage, tumbleweeds, grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands. The site is surrounded by ranchland and suburban neighborhoods.
Visitors flock to the Rocky Mountains to recreate in the Great Outdoors. But outsiders need to know about the area’s sordid past that inflamed the locals and still lingers like a fading bruise.
Although today the Refuge is home to 239 migratory and resident wildlife species that include prairie falcons, deer, elk, coyotes, and songbirds, from 1952 to 1989, Rocky Flats made environmentally-unfriendly parts for nuclear weapons.
On March 23, 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, now the Department of Energy – DOE) announced the selection of a 6,500-acre-plus site near Denver to build a $45-million federal facility code-named Project Apple.
The site-selection team had warned the AEC that a possible “undesirable reaction of the public” could occur if residents knew that the project’s secret mission was to handle hazardous materials to grow the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Local residents were told very little about the plant or its chemical and radioactive leaks (called “releases”). All they knew was that the military facility was bringing jobs that paid well to the area.
The major industrial production facility, managed by the Atomic Energy Commission, used radioactive materials and more than 8,000 chemicals. Highly toxic plutonium, a man-made, cancer-causing radioactive metal, was a critical component to build spherical nuclear weapons triggers, called “pits.” The metal can spontaneously combust in air, becoming hot enough to ignite nearby materials.
Workplace accidents, spills, fires, emissions, leaking storage containers, and day-to-day operations over many years released into the environment plutonium-239 and -240 (which remain in the environment for tens of thousands of years after release), uranium, beryllium, and extremely poisonous chemicals such as carbon tetrachloride, a cleaning solvent.
On May 11, 1969, a fire broke out at the Dow Chemical Co. Rocky Flats plant in Building 776 where plutonium pits were being manufactured and spread rapidly throughout the facility because many of the fire alarms had been removed to make room for more production!
It took about 40 firefighters to control the toxic conflagration and eventually douse the fire. Air vents in the building’s roof and firefighters entering and exiting the building released plutonium during the accident. Thousands of Coloradans were exposed to deadly doses of radioactive and chemical contaminants.
Incredibly, Rocky Flats was allowed to remain open and operational during the initial clean-up operations. The manufacture of plutonium triggers at the plant finally stopped 20 years later – but only after an accident at the plant led to a federal inquiry.
The shocking truth about Rocky Flats’ mismanagement and extreme hazard to the locality came to light on June 6, 1989, when agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Justice (DoJ), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) raided Rocky Flats to investigate charges of environmental crimes.
Rocky Flats earned a place on the EPA’s list of Superfund hazardous waste sites slated for cleanup that same year. The federally-mandated Rocky Flats cleanup began in 1992.
Public mistrust and protests over how the plant was managed and operated gained momentum and linger in long-timers’ memories to this day. Ten years and $7 billion dollars of cleanup later, more than 800 structures were decontaminated and demolished, and the refuge site was determined to need zero remediation.
Lisa Flores, a member of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education, said there would be no school-sanctioned field trips to Colorado’s new wildlife preserve, in case the place is still too hot to handle:
“The threat posed by contamination at Rocky Flats and its effect on visiting children appears to be an issue of dispute amongst experts. Until we have definitive assurances of child safety, we will exercise an abundance of caution.
Refuge manager David Lucas assured everyone there is no possible danger, according to the experts who failed to monitor the military’s life-threatening activities:
“We rely on the science and the agencies that are responsible. We believe it’s safe for the public and all of our visitors.”
Mark Johnson, the Executive Director of the Public Health Department in Colorado’s Jefferson County, where the refuge is located, expressed his doubts over the park’s safety, especially since the decontamination process came in so far under budget:
“If I honestly felt that the data showed the risks of hiking out there were very, very little, I wouldn’t fight them opening it. I think it’s too convenient that the original [cleanup] estimate of 70 years and billions of dollars was cut so short and so cheap.”
On July 10, 2018, the 13,000 residents of Superior, Colorado, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to close the refuge. They were concerned that hikers and bikers could track plutonium-tainted dirt out of the refuge.
A group of environmental and community activists had filed a similar legal complaint earlier that year.
The Action Network wants to shutter the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge on the grounds that:
“NO AMOUNT OF PLUTONIUM IS SAFE FOR LIVING BEINGS.”