Last-minute confusion clears: Rocky Flats will open Saturday

Back-and-forth among federal between federal agencies initially keeps opening up in air

Posted 9/14/18

In early August, a federal judge decided not to block trail construction at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, despite local citizens' and organizations' claims that it is environmentally unsafe. …

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Last-minute confusion clears: Rocky Flats will open Saturday

Back-and-forth among federal between federal agencies initially keeps opening up in air

Posted

In early August, a federal judge decided not to block trail construction at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, despite local citizens' and organizations' claims that it is environmentally unsafe.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the refuge would open Saturday, Sept. 15.

At about 3:15 p.m. Friday, an email from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke had decided to delay the opening because of concerns he had heard.

An hour later, however, Deputy Press Secretary Faith Vander Voort with the U.S. Department of the Interior confirmed the wildlife refuge will open as planned.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Zinke tasked Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt with reviewing “this matter.”

In her email, Vander Voort confirmed Bernhardt had done so and determined the refuge would open Sept. 15 as scheduled.

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is a 5,000-acre area of open land bordered by Broomfield, Boulder and Jefferson counties. Its attractions include picturesque views and vast opportunities for viewing wildlife and diverse plants. Nearly 240 migratory and resident wildlife species inhabit Rocky Flats and about 630 different plant species can be found there.

The site operated as a nuclear weapons plant from 1952 until 1989, when the FBI raided Rocky Flats to investigate allegations of environmental violations. Decommissioning of the plant happened in 1992 and a few years later, a decade-long, $7 billion cleanup effort began.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ended its cleanup in June 2007 and that same year, Rocky Flats was taken off the national superfund list. The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2007, although a fenced-off core area of the old factory grounds remains off limits due to contamination.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is “confident in the conclusions and recommendations from public health experts at the state and federal levels indicating that the refuge is safe for visitors, our employees and surrounding communities,” said a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region in an email conversation late August.

Some local citizen groups have long since been against the opening of Rocky Flats as a wildlife refuge, deeming it unsafe because of the risks of plutonium exposure.

Candelas Glows, a citizen group consisting of residents neighboring Rocky Flats, and other activist groups “would like to see the EPA … come forward to keep the refuge closed to humans in the interest of public health," a news release from the organization said.

Five citizen groups filed a lawsuit in May against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Represented by the Boulder-based environmental attorney Randall Weiner, they are “challenging major violations of environmental statutes in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's decision to open Rocky Flats to the public,” Weiner said. Their argument is that U.S. Fish and Wildlife failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy ACT (NEPA) in planning to build public trails and a visitor center at Rocky Flats.

On Aug. 9, U.S. District Court Judge Philip A. Brimmer did not grant a preliminary injunction that would have blocked trail construction on the refuge. For this, the plaintiff organizations — Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center, Rocky Flats Right to Know, Candelas Glows/Rocky Flats Glows, Rocky Flats Neighborhood Association and Environmental Information Network — had to prove irreparable harm.

“Unfortunately, plaintiffs were not able to meet the high bar to win a preliminary injunction that would have kept the refuge closed until the legal process was complete,” Weiner said. “But the main portion of the grassroots activists' case continues to move forward. If the judge rules in our favor, the refuge can be closed.”

In June 2015, refuge staff began offering monthly guided wildlife tours. As of late August, an estimated 1,200 people have visited Rocky Flats.

However, seven Colorado school districts have banned field trips to Rocky Flats in the past year — Boulder Valley School District being the first one to do so last year and Denver Public Schools being the most recent, adopting its resolution on April 26. The others are Jefferson County Public Schools, Westminster Public Schools, Adams 12 Five Star, Adams 14 and St. Vrain Valley School District.

Jon Lipsky, a former FBI special agent who led the 1989 raid, refers to Rocky Flats as a place of indecent exposure.

“Use the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge at your own risk," Lipsky said. "And please do not bump into the Superfund site in the middle of the refuge.”

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