Rocky Flats: The refuge with a radioactive past

The opening of the Rocky Flats wildlife refuge may be close, but the debate over the land’s safety lingers

Posted 6/19/18

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes that wildlife refuges ensure that future generations will always have an outdoor place to enjoy nature. But some people won’t set foot on Rocky Flats …

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Rocky Flats: The refuge with a radioactive past

The opening of the Rocky Flats wildlife refuge may be close, but the debate over the land’s safety lingers

Posted

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes that wildlife refuges ensure that future generations will always have an outdoor place to enjoy nature.

But some people won’t set foot on Rocky Flats once it opens as a wildlife refuge, much less allow their children or grandchildren to go there.

“It’s a shame,” said Stephanie Carroll, president and founder of Rocky Flats Worker Advocacy, “because it’s a beautiful site. But it’s a superfund site. You don’t build homes on a superfund site. And you don’t recreate on a superfund site.”

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is a 5,000-acre area of open land bordered by Broomfield, Boulder and Jefferson counties managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Although there is no set date, it previously was anticipated to open for public recreation late this summer.

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.

With its picturesque views and immense opportunities for viewing wildlife and diverse plants, Rocky Flats was recognized as a special place more than 20 years ago, said Michael D’Agostino, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region.

Rocky Flats will be an urban refuge, he said.

“A local place where people can reconnect with nature,” D’Agostino said. “It will be a really unique experience for people and an exciting place for outdoor enthusiasts.”

Formerly the location of the nation’s primary producer of plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the opening follows a $7 billion cleanup effort that, despite a 2007 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certification that the clean-up complied with all appropriate laws and regulations, some say still wasn’t enough.

“Public health and safety may be at risk from inadequate analysis of whether to open Rocky Flats for hiking, biking and horseback riding,” said Randall Weiner, the attorney representing the citizens groups that filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “What they want are additional environmental reviews that look at the alternatives to, and impacts of, opening Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge to the public when there is un-remediated plutonium on-site.

Jefferson County Public Health does not have an official stance on the opening of the refuge, however Dr. Mark Johnson, the executive director of Jefferson County Public Health, has a personal opinion he recently shared in a letter to the court in the lawsuit.

“I believe there was/is contamination on Rocky Flats and that some of it has escaped from Rocky Flats into the surrounding neighborhoods, but how much there is/was and what the health consequences of it are/were are not clear to me,” Johnson wrote to the court. “I honestly do not know how dangerous it is to live in its shadow. I believe we have the data to tell us the truth, but I do not believe all of it has been analyzed by truly independent sources.”

The lawsuit is currently in the process of preparing for trial. The refuge will remain closed until it is settled.

Confident in the cleanup

The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for the long-term surveillance and maintenance of about 1,300 acres where the core operations and productions of the former plant took place. The wildlife refuge forms a donut-shape around this area, which was formerly the plant’s buffer zone.

By law, the EPA has to conduct an environmental review, including soil and water sampling, of the land every five years to ensure its safety. This is standard practice for any superfund site, D’Agostino said. The last one at Rocky Flats took place in 2017.

“We’re confident in the cleanup and remediation,” D’Agostino said, noting the Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to work closely with the EPA and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE). “We continue to be confident in their conclusions and recommendations. They are the public health experts.”

According to the CDPHE’s website, plutonium contamination was one of the primary concerns at Rocky Flats, but “following remediation, residual plutonium concentrations in surface soil were below levels of regulatory concern.”

Millirem (mrem) is a way to express radiation exposure.

In a document dated May 2016 produced by the EPA, CDPHE and DOE, one test that was done to gauge radiation at Rocky Flats was calculating the risks for a child and an adult who hypothetically visited the refuge 100 days a year for 2 1/2 hours per day.

“The dose estimate for plutonium for the wildlife refuge visitor child is .2 mrem per year, which is a very small fraction of the average annual dose to (the) U.S. public from all sources,” the document states.

It notes the average annual dose from all sources, including medical such as x-rays and natural such as drinking water, is 620 mrem per year.

Messy history

Still, Carroll believes opening Rocky Flats is too risky, noting the winds and soil can contain a variety of contaminants.

“What’s dangerous about that site is that it wasn’t properly characterized,” Carroll said. “There were a lot more radionuclides than just plutonium on that site.”

She believes the information the public receives is “watered down,” she said, adding, “they don’t get the whole truth.”

Carroll has been involved with advocacy for people who formerly worked with nuclear material since 2001 when she learned the ins-and-outs of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program through her grandfather, who worked at Rocky Flats.

She specializes in beryllium and working with those who may have contracted chronic beryllium disease, also called berylliosis, which is a systemic disease that primarily affects the lungs and is caused by exposure to beryllium, from former employment at Rocky Flats.

Joyce Bolton of Denver is one of the people Carroll has worked with.

“I can’t prove it, but I think it’s still out there,” Bolton said of the possible contaminants at Rocky Flats. “I don’t think they could ever get rid of it.”

Bolton, 78, worked at Rocky Flats from January 1968 until she retired in August 1992. She added she wasn’t sure if people knew the dangers of working at Rocky Flats at the time.

“Back in those days, people wanted jobs,” Bolton said. “And that was a good job — stable, and it paid very well.”

The majority of Bolton’s time was spent in the human resources department, which required her to go all over the plant — but she didn’t know the specifics of what was being made at the plant.

“No clerical person needed to know what they were manufacturing out there,” Bolton said. “We took all the safety measures, but I still got sick.”


It’s hard for the general public to understand the work that went on there, said Michelle Dobrovolny, 53, of Denver who worked at Rocky Flats as an engineering specialist and safeguards and security specialist.

“It was a national security facility. We made bombs,” Dobrovolny said. “We were always taught secrecy, secrecy, secrecy. It was bred into us.”

Dobrovolny worked at Rocky Flats for a total of 18 years, beginning in 1985 when she was 21. She said she was constantly sick while working there — strep throat, pneumonia, sinus infections — and had to take a medical leave in 2001. She has since been diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease.

Dobrovolny believes cleanup efforts at Rocky Flats were not sufficient, pointing out that she thinks “they cut corners” and shut down the cleanup about five or six years early.

According to the CDPHE’s website, cleanup of the site was a 10-year process. It included decontaminating and demolishing more than 800 structures and buildings at the plant — five of those were major plutonium facilities and two were major uranium facilities.

But Dobrovolny questions how Building 771 — a facility “notoriously known as one of the most dangerous buildings in the world because of the plutonium” — could possibly be dismantled, she said.

“They will tell you that they did,” Dobrovolny said, “but it is my opinion that they didn’t.”

Natural appeal

Arvada City Councilor Mark McGoff is an avid hiker and plans on hiking Rocky Flats once it opens.

It will be a “new area to explore on foot,” he said. “One more local place to add to my inventory of places to hike.”

He is especially excited that Rocky Flats will serve as an extension of the Rocky Mountain Greenway Trail. The Greenway Trail is a trail network that currently connects Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City and Two Ponds National Wildlife Refuge in Arvada to the Great Western Open Space in Broomfield and is proposed to extend to Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park.

Well-established Boulder county open space trails to the north of the refuge would also potentially tie into the new trails.

McGoff, 78, has been involved with the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council for about seven years. The council consists of elected officials from 10 municipal governments that neighbor Rocky Flats, three community organizations and one individual. It formed in February 2006 to provide ongoing local government and community oversight of Rocky Flats while providing a public forum for sharing information concerning Rocky Flats.

McGoff mentioned he wouldn’t advocate one way or the other — he noted that some people don’t accept or agree with the findings from the studies. But for him, the presentations from the various agencies on the studies confirm that they are accurate.

“I believe in the science — the evidence is conclusive,” McGoff said. “That tells me that the refuge is safe.”

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