It was standing room only during a meeting in November at Standley Lake Library in Arvada to hear preliminary results of a health survey to determine if residents downwind of the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant experienced any unusual illnesses. (RJ Sangosti / THE DENVER POST)
Perry Backus, writing in the Nov. 5 Montana Standard, says that due to lack of funds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) "is proposing a dramatic reorganization of its National Wildlife Refuge system in Montana and seven other states that would result in significant staff and program cuts." Colorado is among those states.
As things now stand a great deal of taxpayer money will be spent to open the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Not only will funds be spent now but also long into the future. FWS should not spend limited funds on trails, access gates, tour guides, a visitor center and parking areas. The Department of Energy (DOE) evidently intends to pay for the visitor center. But if it is not built, FWS will have no ongoing costs for staff and maintenance of the facility. OnDec. 6, FWS invited the public to a meeting to discuss trails on the Refuge. They paid $76,000 to the person who led this meeting. But when we arrived, they did not allow the public to speak. They wasted their money and our time. They would save money if they canceled such meetings.
Local governments have insisted that if trails are built at the Refuge, sampling must be done to show whether it would be safe for people to use them. Keeping the Refuge closed will curtail this expense. It will also protect the public health.
Of about 600 National Wildlife Refuges, Rocky Flats is the only one occupying the site of a former nuclear weapons plant. It is also the only Refuge that surrounds an active Superfund site, where exposure to radioactive plutonium-239 was — and is — the greatest danger. With a half-life of 24,110 years, it will be hazardous for a quarter-million years. Some plutonium in the environment of the DOE Superfund site will end up on the Refuge. FWS admitted in a 2003 letter to then-Rep. Bob Beauprez that it already had. The problem is ongoing. Burrowing animals that dig down to as much as 16 feet will bring particles to the surface where they can be blown onto the Refuge by wind and readily inhaled, the worst way to be exposed to plutonium. Once inside the body, the plutonium lodges in a specific location and for the rest of one's life bombards nearby cells with radioactive particles. The result may be cancer, a compromised immune system, or genetic harm to offspring.
EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment know plutonium is in the soil on the Refuge, but they say it is "safe." What they mean is that plutonium in Refuge soil is at levels that meet exposure standards set for the Rocky Flats cleanup. Unfortunately, these standards are not sufficiently protective. In the most extensive study to date of the health effects of exposure to ionizing radiation, the National Academy of Sciences in 2006 concluded that any exposure may be damaging. In a 1997 study Columbia University scientists found that a single plutonium particle taken into the body can be harmful, possibly fatal.
Given this danger, if the Refuge is opened to the public, some people will inevitably be harmed, especially children, of all creatures the most vulnerable. Even if the Wildlife Refuge remains closed to the public, wildlife may be harmed. The carcasses of deer roadkill around Rocky Flats have been found to contain plutonium, but we don't know the actual effect of this exposure. In an article published in 1998, ecologist Shawn Smallwood said he "found it remarkable that no genetic studies of wildlife had been done at Rocky Flats or at other nuclear sites." Genetic specialist Diethard Tautz says that genetic effects of radiation exposure on a given species of wildlife may not be readily apparent in the individuals of that species until the passage of several generations. He calls this a "genetic uncertainty problem." FWS would perform a valuable service if it allowed researchers to study the genetic effects of exposure to toxins among wildlife at the Rocky Flats Refuge. Because of the need for such study, grants should be available to researchers.