Rocky Flats enemies are suing the federal appeals court against nuclear weapons plant that has become a wildlife refuge
A group opposed to using the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons factory as a nature reserve for hikers and cyclists called it the “last and best chance to close this shelter,” and brought their case to a federal appeals court on Friday.
The lawsuit, filed by the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center along with several neighborhood groups, seeks to overturn the July decision of Chief Justice of the U.S. District Court Philip A. Brimmer to dismiss plaintiffs’ lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service .
“My clients do not believe that the significant environmental issues associated with residual plutonium contamination in Rocky Flats have been adequately assessed by Fish and Wildlife,” said Attorney Randall Weiner on Friday.
Specifically, the appeal states that by opening the shelter to the public and building a network of paths three years ago, the federal authority did not comply with the Environmental Protection Act and the Species Protection Act. It cites a 2011 email from a former Rocky Flats manager suggesting public walking trails on the east side of the property avoid the “plutonium plume” in the leeward portion of the refuge.
Plaintiffs also claim that part of the property that will be home to hiking trails was only purchased in 2012 and was never examined for radioactive contamination. Claire O’Brien, administrator of the Boulder-based Peace & Justice Center, said it was “unsafe for people to recover there”.
“It’s not safe to have plutonium that could affect humans, children, and dogs,” she said.
Rocky Flats Refuge Manager Dave Lucas said Fish and Wildlife had no comment on the ongoing litigation.
There are 11 miles of hiking trails on the shelter that had triggers for nuclear warheads mounted for over 40 years before the arms plant was raided by federal agents in 1989 and closed a few years later. It took a decade and seven billion dollars to clean the inner core of the 5,200-acre sanctuary north of Arvada, which was riddled with chemical contaminants from years of bombing.
This 1,300 acre inner core, known as the Central Operational Unit, will remain closed to the public indefinitely.
Rocky Flats hit the headlines in 2019 when a plutonium hotspot was discovered on the east side of the shelter along the Indiana Street fence line. The soil sample showed a value of 264 picocuries per gram of soil, a value five times higher than the standard set by the federal government at the time the Rocky Flats was remediated.
But dozens of other soil samples taken in the same area as well as in other parts of the refuge were all tested within acceptable risk thresholds set by the government for the deadly substance. Rocky Flats is home to 239 migratory and resident wildlife species, including prairie falcons, deer, elk, coyotes, songbirds, and the endangered jerboa.
Rocky Flats critics haven’t had much luck fighting the refuge since it was opened to the public.
Just two months ago, another federal judge dismissed a lawsuit that the City of Superior had filed with similar complaints about the lack of an environmental impact assessment at the site. Last week, Superior said it would not appeal the ruling, according to a story on the Daily Camera.
Last summer, a judge turned down an emergency petition to prevent Boulder from paying money to build an underpass that connects hiking trails in Boulder and Boulder Counties with trails in the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge – part of the Rocky Mountain Greenway Trail , which will eventually connect several wildlife sanctuaries in the Front Range, including Two Ponds, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and Rocky Flats with Rocky Mountain National Park.
There isn’t a visitor center in Rocky Flats yet, and Lucas said there isn’t a certain date that one will be built.