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'Soft opening' of Rocky Flats wildlife refuge stirs safety concerns

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On the first Friday of autumn, folks can go for a guided nature hike in the high-plains splendor of Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge — if they are not concerned about radioactive plutonium-239, which officials say is not a danger.

With little fanfare, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has launched what some observers are terming a "soft opening" of the refuge, 3,953 acres of grasslands, shrublands and wetlands on property where the U.S. Department of Energy once operated the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant just south of Boulder.

Refuge management and state health officials insist there is no risk to the public.

"We have an abundance of data, more than we have at most sites, to be able to back up the assessment that the site can be available for any and all uses," said Carl Spreng, project manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

"The site was stringently, carefully — and again, with an abundance of caution and data — assessed, so that we could assure ourselves and our other agencies, the EPA specifically, that we could declare that the site is safe for all uses."

Spreng cited several documents supporting his claim, one of them the DOE's record of decision for what is termed the Rocky Flats Plant Peripheral Operable Unit and Central Operable Unit, dated September 2006.

Barbara Boyle, the Lakewood-based Fish & Wildlife Service refuge supervisor overseeing the management of refuges in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, said "we don't at this time" have public health concerns for people visiting the refuge.

"We've worked with the state and EPA, and we would not have approved the transfer of the property if we didn't feel comfortable with those results," Boyle said.

Any remaining concerns now, Boyle said, are not environmental concerns.

"They are more public safety concerns," she said. "We have no infrastructure out there, and we really want public engagement in opening this up more."

Never an official opening date

DOE contractor Rockwell International operated the weapons plant until a 1989 FBI raid suspended most operations and put Rocky Flats on the list of Superfund sites. Production there ended in 1992, followed by decommission and demolition, capped off by a $7 billion cleanup effort deemed complete in October 2005. By that time, most nuclear waste had been taken away or buried.

Jurisdiction over the tract of land designated for the refuge was transferred to the Fish & Wildlife Service in 2007.

On the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge web page, the public can find brief mention of nature hikes offered at the Flats refuge, the morning of Sept. 25 and again Oct. 16.

"Join us to explore the wildlife, birds and plants of the refuge," it is suggested. "Please be comfortable hiking up to 3 miles."

That's not a very good idea, according to LeRoy Moore, a founder of Boulder's Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, who worked to press for the end of weapons production at Rocky Flats and continues his close scrutiny of the property to this day.

In his blog, and in a guest opinion in the Daily Camera, Moore urged that public access to the Flats refuge should be prohibited.

Moore, who is traveling and was unavailable for comment, wrote, "To the aware public, the 'soft opening' is an insult. It catches us unawares and pre-empts public input before the full opening mentioned in official documents."

Moore also wrote, "Refuge visitors could be exposed to radioactive plutonium-239 in the environment at the refuge and the Department of Energy land that surrounds it."

In fact, a specific date had never been set for the refuge opening. Some thought it might have happened by 2012, and the final comprehensive conservation plan for the refuge indicated it could come as early as 2010.

"In terms of what was their target date, those of us involved in the conservation planning process anticipated that the refuge would be open much sooner than 2015," said David Abelson, executive director of the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council and a Boulder resident.

'Not so happy with any type of opening'

The Rocky Flats Stewardship Council holds its next regular meeting Monday morning at the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield. Public access is not on the meeting's agenda, but Moore will be there, handing out copies of his column, as well as his analysis of a Fish & Wildlife Service environmental impact statement that he said showed 81 percent of those who commented had opposed public access to the refuge.

Elected officials from 10 counties and cities surrounding the Flats, as well as four community members, serve on the council's board of directors. Boulder's representative on the council is Lisa Morzel, also a member of the Boulder City Council.

"I don't know why you would have a soft opening, especially on something that is so controversial," Morzel said. "They are aware there is a group of people that are not so happy with any type of opening of the refuge."

Morzel said after finding recently that communication between the council and Fish & Wildlife had been spotty, a meeting was held July 27 between council members and representatives of the agency, including Regional Director Noreen Walsh.

"I did say in my discussions (with Walsh) that it would behoove Fish & Wildlife to perhaps consider additional sampling, and reconsider some of the areas that they would allow people to have access to," Morzel said. Calling the July session a productive meeting, she nevertheless added, "I do not think that they fully understand the concerns that many in the public have with anything to do with Rocky Flats."

The gradual opening of the refuge has taken different forms.

Boyle said one recent public visit to the refuge related to furthering the plans for the Rocky Mountain Greenway, a comprehensive urban trail system connecting three national wildlife refuges — Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Two Ponds and Rocky Flats — to Rocky Mountain National Park, as well as to hundreds of miles of trails in the Denver metropolitan area.

"Now we're putting together a feasibility study to look at trail connectivity through the refuge and north of the refuge, and that is being managed through the Rocky Mountain Greenway steering committee," Boyle said. "The refuge is part of that process, but we are not leading that process."

Citing other recent public access to the refuge, Boyle said, "And then we had another opportunity for individuals who came in to help with some invasive weed management, doing some hand-pulling of the weeds."

Fish & Wildlife had contemplated a springtime 701-acre prescribed burn this spring at the refuge to combat invasive species on the property. In the face of vocal public opposition — some suggested large-scale grazing by goats would be far preferable — the burn was canceled in early February in favor of other management strategies.

Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, or

Picture by Mark Leffingwell / Staff Photographer

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