Rocky Flats Nat’l Wildlife Refuge: Remembering to not forget

LeRoy Moore of the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center is not one to forget. For many years, the RMPJC has kept a watchful eye over Rocky Flats, the former nuclear weapons facility 16 miles northwest of Denver.

For more than two years now, Rocky Flats has been officially known as the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge status for Rocky Flats is a dramatic makeover for one of the most notoriously contaminated sites in the U.S., a dark legacy of Cold War nuclear weapons production.

Chapters in the long Rocky Flats story include decades of weapons-grade plutonium production, fires, an FBI raid, closure of the facility, more than a dozen years of cleanup activities, and countless studies by government agencies.

Visit the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Web site and you’ll see scenes of wildlife, farm buildings and undisturbed stretches of prairie. Ongoing habitat conservation and plans for 16 miles of multiple-use trails for visitors paint a bright future for the refuge.

However, a lack of funding keeps the refuge closed to the public.

Moore would like to see it remain closed.

He remembers a few tales from Rocky Flats’ industrial history that give him pause about the suitability of the refuge for public use. For example, the May 11, 1969 “Mother’s Day” plutonium fire, chronicled as “The Day We Almost Lost Denver.”

Rocky Flats 2001.

A view of Rocky Flats in 2001.
Credit: Copyright © 2009 Tim Hawkins/Freshwater Photos.

Perhaps in an attempt to create some new memories for college students not familiar with Rocky Flats, Moore and RMPJC intern Andrew Gansky delivered a presentation in late September on the University of Colorado Boulder campus (10 miles north of Rocky Flats), recounting some of the key historical events of the controversial site.

A local hazard – forever
Gansky served as the young messenger for a brief history of Rocky Flats and its suitability as a national wildlife refuge in a presentation, “Rocky Flats: A Local Hazard Forever.” Notes from the presentation follow, accented with historical information from various online sources.

Rocky Flats was opened in 1952 and produced fissile plutonium for nuclear bombs. About 70,000 plutonium “pits” were crafted at the plant.

Archive photos of plutonium production rooms with workers dressed in anti-contamination suits shaping plutonium pits through glove box windows paint a stark, otherworldly picture of the deadly activities of the plant.

Production at the plant eventually caused serious environmental problems. Fires at Rocky Flats occurred in 1957 and 1969, with the largest single release of plutonium resulting from the 1957 fire. The 1969 fire, the largest industrial fire to date in U.S. history, according to Gansky, nearly caused the evacuation of the city of Denver. Bravery on the part of firefighters and a stroke of luck combined to “save” Denver.

Noted radiochemist Ed Martell of the National Center of Atmospheric Research later collected soil samples around the Rocky Flats site and found high levels of plutonium. (According to NCAR, Martell was an active critic of soil contamination via plutonium radioactivity and was the first scientist to measure radioactivity in and near the Rocky Flats site.)

In June 1989, the FBI raided the Rocky Flats plant to investigate alleged environmental crimes, including the possible illegal incineration of waste. Subsequent grand jury proceedings were effectively silenced and the full extent of alleged crimes never officially made public.

Grand jury foreman Wes McKinley later co-authored a book, The Ambushed Grand Jury: How the Justice Department Covered Up Government Nuclear Crime : And How We Caught Them Red Handed.

After the FBI raid, production at the plant ceased and cleanup of the site commenced in 1992.

In July 2004, demolition of the infamous Building 771, once dubbed the “most dangerous building in the country,” began. To mark the event, then-U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced:

“When this historic cleanup is complete, it will show that the U.S. government can clean up the legacy of the Cold War and turn the 6,000-plus acre reserve from a perceived public liability into a true public asset, a National Wildlife Refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Concerns remain today about plutonium levels in soil around the Rocky Flats site, including soil in Denver’s northern suburbs. Plutonium 239, reminded Gansky, has a half-life of 24,110 years. “It’s essentially a permanent risk,” said Gansky.

It’s unclear whether the full extent of plutonium contamination caused by the fires and outdoor storage of waste has been determined. Because of the presence of 18 species of burrowing animals at Rocky Flats (as determined by K. Shawn Smallwood), up to 12% of surface soil at the site may be disturbed by critters and insects in any given year.

Fierce winds at Rocky Flats add to the potential for contaminated soil to be dispersed beyond the boundaries of the site.

From bomb-making to protecting habitat
In 2001, Congress passed the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Act designating the future use of the site as a national wildlife refuge. “The idea of the bill was to get a cheaper cleanup,” said Moore.

The physical cleanup of the plant was completed by the DOE in late 2005.

“The site has been returned to the way it was before plutonium production at Rocky Flats began.”

So proclaimed then-U.S. Senator Wayne Allard in a Nov. 15, 2005 article in Government Executive magazine.

In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (with concurrence from state and local public health agencies) removed Rocky Flats from the national list of “Superfund” sites, and certified the cleanup as complete. On July 12, 2007, the USFWS announced the transfer of almost 4,000 acres from the DOE and the establishment of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

Yet over two years later, the refuge remains closed. Refuge manager Steve Berendzen told Cyberwest, “we have no funding and no staff” to open the refuge to the public. Pending funding from Congress, then putting the infrastructure in place, “your guess is as good as mine when it will open.”

“At the very least, we would like to see it not opened to the public,” said Moore. “The government needs to acknowledge that they haven’t cleaned it up to the level it was before.”

Moore doesn’t realistically hope for another cleanup, although he said there should be signs at the refuge that indicate that there’s a risk in visiting. As with most aspects of the Rocky Flats story, controversy surrounds the signnage to be placed at the site when it opens to the public. The USFWS final signnage may be viewed here.

National wildlife refuge
Importantly, the transformation of the Rocky Flats site into a national wildlife refuge is not without precedent. Eleven miles northeast of Denver, an area once referred to as “the most polluted piece of ground in America,” the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, formerly the site of a chemical weapons factory, is now the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

(Despite extensive pollution, the site was found to be home to a population of wintering bald eagles, leading to consideration of the site as a wildlife refuge).

While the establishment of wildlife refuges certainly has its appeal, these transformations, from hazardous site to wildlife refuge, “helps us forget what we really should remember,” said Moore.

Story by David Iler


People & Plutonium Don’t Mix – Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center, September 30, 2009
Judge Finesilver almost gave the Rocky Flats grand jury a big twentieth birthday presentWestword, August 2009
Rocky Flats cleanup contract called model for future federal, November 15, 2005
Ex-FBI agent charges feds with radioactive coverup at Rocky FlatsGrist Magazine, January 21, 2005
An Analysis of The Department of Energy’s Cleanup Plans for Four Areas at Rocky Flats: The Coverup Continues – August 2004
Rocky Flats Will Remain RadioactiveENS,October 3, 2002
Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division Rocky Flats Site, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

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