JeffCo School District suspends field trips to Rocky Flats

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The closed Rocky Flats is now being used as a wildlife refuge.
energy.gov via Wikimedia Commons

Students attending Jefferson County Public Schools aren’t likely to be going on any field trips to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, 4,883 acres of open space surrounding the former nuclear weapons facility site 10 miles south of Boulder.

On Feb. 8, JeffCo Superintendent Jason Glass sent a memo to school staff stating that, “out of an abundance of caution for our students, I am hereby directing staff to schedule no visits to the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge without requesting prior approval from my office.”

While the Refuge is already open to guided tours, by the summer of 2019 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) intends to begin construction of a visitor center and 20 miles of trails fully accessible to the public.

The memo came on the heels of a Jan. 10 meeting between Glass and the Rocky Flats Technical Group, a collection of experts — including University of Colorado Boulder Professor Emeritus of Biology Dr. Harvey Nichols, chemist Anne Fenerty, Gale Biggs, Ph.D., and Jon Lipsky, the former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who led the 1989 raid on Rocky Flats — focusing on the public health implications of opening the Refuge to recreation.

“There are enough safety concerns because it is an unremediated plot of land, that I applaud the school district for taking a cautious approach concerning the issue,” says Elizabeth Panzer, who lives in an Arvada housing development just outside the Refuge and whose three sons attend JeffCo schools. 

Long involved with school politics, her concerns with Rocky Flats arose after her middle son, now 14, was diagnosed with a “very rare heart cancer.” She became even more worried when a neighbor succumbed to a similar heart cancer. 

JeffCo joins Boulder Valley, St. Vrain, Adams 12, Adams County and Westminster school districts, all of which have opted out of school-sponsored trips to the Refuge over the last year.

The decisions follow in the wake of years of advocacy from the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, Rocky Flats Right to Know, Rocky Flats Downwinders, Candelas Glows and Keep Kids Off Rocky Flats, which has an ongoing petition on Change.org.

While Glass’ memo amounts to a virtual ban on Rocky Flats visits, it made no definitive statements about the risks of visiting the site, saying there are “compelling points and evidence that have been provided by all sides of this debate” and that it is outside the “professional capacity of the school district to make any sort of definitive scientific judgment on this matter.”

Colorado Public Department of Health and Environment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the USFWS all admit that Refuge lands are contaminated with plutonium from the manufacture of nuclear weapons, yet at levels low enough to ensure the safety of visitors — with less than a one in a million risk of developing cancer.

Critics, on the other hand, contend that there is no safe level of exposure to plutonium and the drawbacks of visiting the Refuge far outweigh the benefits.