Former Colorado nuke site opens to public as wildlife refuge
ducts of buildings.
Rockwell International, the contractor then operating the plant, was fined $18.5 million after pleading guilty in 1992 to charges that included mishandling chemical and radioactive material.
The weapons complex covered 2 square miles (5 square kilometers) at the center of the site. It was cleaned up at a cost of $7 billion but remains offlimits to the public. The 8-square-mile (21-squarekilometer) buffer zone surrounding the manufacturing site was turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a refuge.
About 10 miles (16 kilometers) of trails are now open at the refuge. Visitors are told to stay on the paths and not wander the grasslands.
State and federal health officials say the site is safe, but some people worry that plutonium particles eluded the cleanup and could be sprinkled over the refuge, where hikers and cyclists could stir them up or track them home. At least seven Denver-area school districts have barred schoolsanctioned field trips to refuge.
If inhaled, plutonium can lodge in lung tissue, where it can kill lung cells and cause scarring, which in turn can cause lung disease and cancer, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“You have a situation where you still have plutonium in the soil being disturbed by the wildlife and the weather,” said Stephen Parlato, his voice muffled by the gas mask he wore at a refuge trailhead Saturday.
Parlato said the mask had a filter capable of blocking plutonium particles and that he wore it for protection, not for show.
“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,” he said.
Jon Simon, another cyclist who rode the refuge trails Saturday, said he doubted he would develop plutonium-related health problems in his lifetime, but worried that children might be vulnerable.
“I wouldn’t want to walk my kid through here every day in the morning for our morning walk or something like that,” he said. “But I’m old enough .... That’s not what’s going to get me.”
The opening was in the works for months but was thrown into doubt Friday afternoon when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, said he wanted to wait for more information about safety.
An hour later, the Interior Department said a review was complete and the refuge would open.
Department spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort did not respond to an email seeking more information about the review.
This story has been corrected to show the amount of plutonium found in the plant ducts was 62 pounds, not 57 pounds.
Jerry Jacka departs a trailhead on his mountain bike at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge outside Denver on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, the first day the refuge was open to the public. The refuge is on the outskirts of a former U.S. government factory that manufactured plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons.