Colorado Wildlife Refuge Opens at Former Nuclear Weapons Plant Amid Controversy


The former Rocky Flats plutonium plant that encountered fires and radioactive spills is now open as a wildlife refuge in Colorado.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened the gates of Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge on Sept. 15 near a former Environmental Protection Agency superfund site which used to house a plant that manufactured plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs for nearly four decades, the Associated Press reports.

At a Glance

  • The 5,237-acre refuge sits on a plateau of tallgrass prairie and is home to home to 239 wildlife species.
  • The refuge surrounds a plant that manufactured plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs for nearly four decades.
  • An energy company applied to drill for oil and gas near the new refuge, further angering environmental groups.

Health concerns surround a new Colorado wildlife refuge outside of Denver at the site of a former nuclear weapons plant.

The 5,237-acre refuge sits on a plateau of tallgrass prairie and is home to home to 239 wildlife species, including bears, elk, cougars, falcons, songbirds and monarch butterflies, among others. The refuge offers 10.2 miles of trails surrounding the plant that has a history of fires, leaks and spills. The 1,300 acres closest to the manufacturing plant remain closed to the public and state officials discourage visitors from venturing off designated trails. A lawsuit brought by a coalition of community and national environmental groups trying to prevent the opening of the refuge is pending before U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer, Reuters reports. Sixty-two pounds of plutonium was discovered stuck in the exhaust ducts of the plant, prompting an $18.5 million fine in 1992. The plant is permanently closed to the public, but an 8-square-mile buffer zone surrounding the plant was turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be used as a refuge.The lawsuit demands that the site close until more testing can be completed.  Brimmer ruled the refuge could be open while the case is heard in court.

The environmentalists argue that a $7.7 billion cleanup overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency was flawed. They say a new environmental study should be conducted.“Our case will clearly demonstrate that the government does not have an up-to-date assessment of risks to the environment and human health from allowing unlimited public visits to the refuge,” Randall Weiner, an attorney for the coalition, told Reuters.

Weiner noted that human activity “may stir up remnant plutonium, which if ingested by refuge visitors or residents downwind can cause cancer.” Government agencies, including the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment say the refuge is safe, the AP reports. The opening was met with some protest, including Stephen Parlato, who stood at a trailhead wearing a gas mask when the refuge opened.

“You have a situation where you still have plutonium in the soil being disturbed by the wildlife and the weather,” said Parlato. “You even have school districts that have gone on the record to say they do not allow their students to come on trips here. This is an ongoing danger.”

Recently, an U.K. based energy company applied to drill more than 100 oil and gas wells near the refuge, the Denver Post reports.

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