When remediation efforts reached the eastern edge of the former site of Rocky Flats, called the Wind Blown Area Exposure Unit, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that while contaminants of concern were found at the site, the levels were low enough that soil removal remediation efforts didn’t merit a 750 percent increase in cost — or the “high short-term risks” to workers through the mobilization of contaminants. Rather than expose those workers and people living downwind by moving dirt, the EPA opted to leave the contaminants — arsenic and plutonium — in place in the hopes that the occasional windstorm and the activity of as many as 18 burrowing species of animals and insects in the area would present less risk than moving tons of dirt.
But that same area is now included in the 300-foot-wide and three-mile-long stretch of dirt the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently swapped with a 617-acre piece of land in the southwestern corner of the Rocky Flats site to the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, the agency overseeing the private toll road development meant to encircle the Denver metro area, with the exception of a stretch through downtown Golden. The 10-mile segment between state highways 128 and 93 is the last unbuilt segment of the Denver metro belt way that its private developers have billed as a way to reduce air pollution and stimulate economic development in the northwest corner of the metro area. The development agency planned, according to 2010 presentations to potential investors, to begin construction of the four-lane parkway in September 2012 and, after 34 months of work, open the parkway to traffic. But the issue has been held up in court cases filed jointly by WildEarth Guardians, Rocky Mountain Wild and the town of Superior and was subjected to some flip-flopping court decisions at the end of December that included issuing an emergency injunction that was later reversed.
The groups’ concerns were multifold — for one, that the Front Range is already strapped to supply key resources like water to its residents.
“We’re not able to go after them for like, well, this is a very dumb planning decision and we think you should overturn this, your honor,” Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians told Boulder Weekly in an August interview. “They’d be like, I don’t care, it’s local land use planning. But we can use these other environmental laws and maybe get the parties to agree maybe there’s a better path forward here.”
“The people that want it are interested in development and sprawl, urban sprawl, and it seems a little late in the human game for us to be doing things that encourage sprawl, and there are a lot of reasons not to encourage it,” says LeRoy Moore of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. But the other issue is, of course, that plutonium that no one wanted to stir up during the remediation of Rocky Flats.
Moore has been making the argument for years that the cleanup left unknown quantities of plutonium in the soil and that any activity there is unsafe. When a proposed highway in that same area was on the ballot in the 1980s, it was voted down primarily, he says, because of the plutonium contamination in the area.
The EPA classified Rocky Flats as a Superfund Site in 1989 after determining that nuclear weapons manufacturing activities as well as accidental fires and spills and waste management had contaminated the facilities at the 385-acre industrialized center of the property, as well as groundwater, soil and surface waters, to a level that posed potential health and safety risks to the public and to workers. The DOE took responsibility for the cleanup and the monitoring of the ongoing concern for radioactive particles, such as plutonium-239/240, americium-241 and uranium, demolishing 800 structures and removing more than 500,000 cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste. The Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement doesn’t even call for removing all the contaminated top soil, instead allowing for 50 picocuries of plutonium per gram of soil in the top three feet after the cleanup, and much larger quantities below three feet. The average naturally occurring background level for plutonium is .04 picocuries per gram of soil, according to the cleanup plan, or less than 1/1250 of the level allowed at the site.
The cleanup was completed in 2005, and much of the area has since been designated a wildlife refuge closed to public access. The EPA concedes that the cleanup did not eliminate all the contamination at the central area and that residual contamination in the form of low-level radioactive materials, chemical solvents and heavy metal contaminants still exists in the core production areas, settling ponds and two landfills. They contend that the contamination no longer poses a risk to human health or the environment, and that five-year reviews are monitoring whether the cleanup is working and continuing to protect human health and the environment.
But members of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, including Moore, have argued that the EPA’s monitoring and testing of the level of plutonium is insufficient and that they need to do an Environmental Impact Statement on the effect of building a road in an area known to be contaminated with plutonium.
Map of plutonium distribution in soil in 1970. Testing in 2011 found similar levels of plutonium.
Plutonium, a radioactive material used in the creation of the triggers for nuclear weapons that were manufactured at Rocky Flats for nearly 40 years, was called by the chemist who discovered it in 1941 “fiendishly toxic.” And with a half-life of 24,110 years, it remains dangerous virtually forever; in terms of human development, 24,000 years ago, the use of a bone needle to make clothing was innovative.
“We as a human population are generally slow to realize the danger of plutonium, and that it’s a danger forever,” sense that it has a half-life of 24,000 years, it’ll be dangerous for 10 times that long. So recorded human history is just a fraction of the time that plutonium will Moore says. “Any quantity of it in the environment is dangerous, and in the remain dangerous. The Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. government, will probably disappear before plutonium stops being dangerous, and that site is likely to be built on. People are likely to be living there some day.”
In 2011, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center contracted with an environmental investigator from Boston Chemical Data Corp. to do its own testing of the area for the proposed Jefferson Parkway. Samples collected along Indiana Street, just outside the fence marking the edge of the refuge and the edge of the land that’s just been traded to the Jefferson Parkway highway authority, showed traces of plutonium and americium in the soil and, in one case, in the bark of a tree. The plutonium had persisted in roughly the same concentrations as was found in testing done by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1970.
The concentrations are minute, but even a small amount of plutonium can be harmful to human health, particularly if inhaled. An image taken over 48 hours of a single particle of plutonium in the lung of an ape show that particle emitting alpha rays into the surrounding cells in a shape like a sea urchin. When inhaled, one particle can penetrate more than 10,000 cells and cause cancer.
“It’s not dangerous, it’s not harmful if you don’t take it in the body,” Moore says. “If you don’t breathe, it won’t bother you.”
And the first to get exposed to it would be the workers spending almost three years constructing that segment of the highway in the spot where the EPA opted to not try to remediate the soil so they could prevent the risk of exposing those workers to plutonium in the soil.
“They would be certainly endangered by it, because they’d be right in the midst with bulldozers and heavy moving equipment; they’d be stirring up a lot of dust,” Moore says. “But people living in the area, people driving through the area, people walking there, whatever, could take the particles into their body even after the construction is finished. Because there’s plutonium knowingly left in the environment after the cleanup of Rocky Flats, some of that stuff is going to be brought to the surface by burrowing animals or other activity, and it’ll be picked up by the wind and distributed here and there, and you could, if you’re in the area, you could certainly inhale it and get cancer 20, 30 years later and you’d never know what hit you.”
Which calls into question the response of federal and state government officials who have heralded the land swap as an opportunity to expand recreational trails in the area.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar celebrated the addition of 1,200 acres of wildlife habitat to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, an increase to the refuge’s size by nearly one-third and progress toward the Rocky Mountain Greenway, the planned uninterrupted trail and open space network for the Denver metro area.
“Today’s action will significantly expand one of the cornerstones of Colorado’s open space and trails network and will protect the Front Range’s mountain backdrop as one of the state’s crown jewels,” Salazar said in a press release issued the date the land swap deal was finalized. “I applaud all the partners who have come together with the state and local communities to connect people to the great outdoors and to take this key step toward realizing the Rocky Mountain Greenway as America’s next great urban park.”
The goal for the deals was to eliminate development threats to the western edge of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. But it’s the eastern edge that’s actually downwind of the contamination. A map from testing in the 1970s (see image a) shows a swath of land east of the refuge stretching to the Great Western Reservoir and south toward Standley Lake that was contaminated with as much as 18,500 bq/m2, a measure of radioactivity, of plutonium.
Gov. John Hickenlooper also lauded the move, according to the Department of the Interior press release, focusing on adding more “quality open space and wildlife habitat.”
Wildlife habitat, sure, but again, the refuge is closed to public access out of concerns for public health.
The land the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received in the swap includes xeric tallgrass prairie, which exists only in limited places in Colorado, and the stretches on Rocky Flats and on the neighboring City of Boulder Open Space are believed to be the largest remaining tracts of xeric tallgrass prairie in North America, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The next step for the parkway’s development is securing the private investments, rather than state or federal dollars, to build the road, and planners are still looking for partners to buy into the project, which was projected in 2010 to cost $204 million initially and $6 million to maintain each year.
Steve Weishampel contributed to the reporting for this story.