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The 'What Have I Missed?' Guide To Rocky Flats' Recent Trail Troubles

Ryan Moehring
Elk frolic at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to 239 migratory and resident species according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

A greenway to connect Denver with Rocky Mountain National Park would provide greater access to wildlife refuges by foot and by bike, but some say the plan would put nature lovers at risk. That’s because part of the trail will snake through Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, the site of a former nuclear weapons manufacturing facility.

With the deadline for a funding grant looming, several cities have chosen sides -- will they contribute to the effort to secure the federal money or not -- and Arvada is the next in line.

The plant that once stood at the center of Rocky Flats was a nuclear weapons component manufacturing facility that shut down in 1992. By that time, there had been fires, leaks and an FBI raid upon the facility. In 1992, Rockwell International - the operator at that time - plead guilty to 10 environmental crimes, and agreed to pay $18.5 million in damages to the federal government.

Rockwell and Dow Chemical - the previous operator of the plant - are still tied up in decades-long legal battles with area property owners and former employees over alleged contamination from the plutonium, uranium and americium used at the site. Due to arcane federal contracts, the taxpayers have been paying both companies’ legal fees this whole time.

Much like the specter of nuclear contamination, litigation continues to haunt Rocky Flats.

The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act of 2001 [.pdf] set forth the timetable to clean up Rocky Flats and open it for conservation purposes. Under the act, the site would be handed off from the Department of Energy to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when cleanup was completed, with DOE retaining an oversight role.

Cleanup was completed in 2005. Here’s where Rocky Flats almost becomes two different places. The refuge is on a buffer zone around the site of the former plutonium trigger plant. The actual facility, or at least the boundaries of where it used to stand, is out of bounds to the public. The DOE conducts monitoring of soil and groundwater in that area.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has already allowed for a “soft opening” of the refuge to the public. Visitors can call up the service to schedule a visit; there are already trails at the site for public use.

Enter The Rocky Mountain Greenway

As part of President Barack Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative - aimed at expanding access to federal conservation lands - the Rocky Mountain Greenway was proposed in 2011. Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an agreement with then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazaar to move forward with the project the following year.

When completed, the greenway will be a walkable and bikeable path from northwest Denver all the way to Rocky Mountain National Park. The approximately 75-mile stretch will also serve as a link to three nearby National Wildlife Refuges - Rocky Mountain Arsenal just outside of Denver, Two Ponds in Arvada and Rocky Flats.

Were it not for Rocky Flats’ Cold War past, the greenway would likely be rather uncontroversial. Just another way for Coloradans to enjoy the great outdoors.

Connecting Rocky Flats To The Greenway Has Stirred Concerns

Through the Federal Lands Access Program, Jefferson County aims to win grant money to build access points to the existing trails at Rocky Flats. FLAP awards money to projects that increase access to federal lands through partnerships with local governments. The application, however, requires buy-in from local governments to the tune of $1.1 million, or 17.2 percent, to win a federal match grant.

Those who would rather not touch Rocky Flats with a 10-foot pole have made those sentiments known at meetings of the Westminster City Council, or the Boulder City Council, or the Superior City Council, or any other public meeting where support for the measure has been weighed.

The Opponents Who Are Second-Guessing The Site’s Safety

Jon Lipsky, a retired FBI agent who led a raid on the Rocky Flats Plant in 1989, has been among the most vocal opponents of any plan encouraging public access to the site. Several surviving employees of the Rocky Flats Plant have also come out against the proposal, citing their own health problems, or those of their friends who have passed away.

Dr. Harvey Nichols, a retired professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has long been critical of the federal government’s response to contamination at the site. In the 70’s, Nichols found airborne radioactive material in windblown pollen and snow, and presented the findings to DOE. In an interview with the Boulder Public Library in 1998, Nichols said the government never expressed an interest in his findings. Along with Lipsky, Nichols has appeared at local meetings concerning Rocky Flats, pleading with lawmakers to allow him to test levels of contaminants at the site once more.

Where We Stand Ahead Of Arvada’s Decision On Contributing To The FLAP Grant

Arvada’s city council will debate the issue May 16. The deadline for the grant application is May 21, 2016.

Superior trustee Sandy Pennington, after voting the measure down in her neck of the woods, turned up at a later Boulder Council meeting, urging Boulder’s lawmakers to learn from Superior’s example.

Instead, Boulder approved 7-to-1 a contribution to FLAP of up to $200,000 - with one condition. The council would request additional soil testing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. FLAP not only allows for funds to be used this way, but it also offers an out to stakeholders who find the results of such testing to be less than desirable.

Councilwoman Jan Burton - the sole voice of dissent - was swayed by the emotional testimony of former Rocky Flats Plant employees to vote no.

Jefferson County’s Board of Commissioners agreed to contribute about $220,000 toward the application with the same conditions. Broomfield’s City Council agreed to contribute more than $95,000 if soil testing confirms the refuge is safe.

Road To Nowhere?

There’s no guarantee that Rocky Flats will win the federal money needed to fund trail connections to the Greenway. If Rocky Flats is passed over for the money, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may seek alternate funding sources to connect the trails. If the money does come, expect further controversy.

Four years since the Rocky Mountain Greenway project was set into motion, some chunks of the trail are funded or near completion. If Rocky Flats cannot be connected to that route, state and federal officials worry that the entire point of the greenway will be lost - to make it easier for residents to appreciate endangered or threatened wildlife. But activists opposing public access will likely breathe a brief sigh of relief.

Ann Marie Awad's journalistic career has seen her zigzag around the United States, finally landing on Colorado. Before she trekked to this neck of the woods, she was a reporter and Morning Edition host for WRKF in Baton Rouge, Louisiana's capitol. In a former life, she was a reporter in New York City. Originally, she's from Buffalo, so she'll be the judge of whether or not your chicken wings are up to snuff, thank you very much.
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