A dig at refuge prairie dogs
Rocky Flats critics raise radioactivity concerns, which officials dismiss
A group fighting next year’s opening of Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is lambasting a plan to relocate prairie dogs to the place where nuclear weapons components were assembled for nearly 40 years, claiming the burrowing animals could bring to the surface long-buried radioactive contaminants.
“The notion that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would import animals that can burrow down through a highly radioactive area is exceedingly reckless,” said Randall Weiner, an attorney representing several citizen groups who are attempting to keep the 6,200-acre refuge 16 miles northwest of Denver from opening to the public next year.
But officials in charge of the refuge say the warnings are without merit, given that the 200 or so prairie dogs that may be moved to Rocky Flats from Longmont wouldn’t be placed anywhere near the actual site where plutonium triggers were made for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
Dave Lucas, refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the arriving animals would be located next to an existing prairie dog colony along State Highway 128, on Superior’s southern boundary. That’s nearly a mile from the Central Operable Unit, which is where the sprawling weapons plant was located and where sections of highly contaminated buildings were buried in place.
Cleanup of the site was completed in 2005.
“There have been prairie dogs on the refuge for decades,” Lucas said Friday. “If prairie dogs show up (on the Central Operable Unit), we would remove them and control them.”
The 1,300-acre core section of Rocky Flats remains a Superfund site under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy and offlimits to the public. Lucas said the majority of the refuge, which surrounds the former manufacturing complex, has been exhaustively tested for radioactivity and other health hazards and found to be safe.
The refuge is scheduled to open to the public sometime in 2018.
Lucas said his agency keeps burrowing animals from making homes in the historic landfills at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City and that the same protocols would apply to the former industrial footprint at Rocky Flats.
“There are land-use restrictions on the Department of Energyretained section,” he said.
Weiner issued a news release earlier this week that stated
groups like the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and Candelas Glows “expressed alarm” at the prospect of a wildlife relocation to Rocky Flats, which was first reported by the Longmont Times-Call last month.
“Prairie dogs particularly create deep burrows and wide tunnels, and build surface mounds by accumulating dirt from below ground and nearby surface area,” Weiner wrote. “There also are no barriers to prevent the prairie dogs from migrating back and forth between the refuge and the Central Operable Unit, and then later leaving the site altogether.”
But Carl Spreng, the Rocky Flats coordinator for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the potential relocated colony would be placed “well away from any subsurface sources.”
“DOE’s monitoring of prairie dogs will alert us well in advance of movement towards those wellidentified subsurface contaminants,” Spreng said.
Moreover, he said the plutonium “is typically integrated in or sealed onto concrete that is part of a few buried building foundations — and is therefore inaccessible to burrowing animals.”
Lucas said no decision has yet been made on whether to accept the prairie dogs, which are being displaced by a new development in Longmont. Colorado Parks and Wildlife procedures on wildlife relocation would first need to be followed, he said, which includes approval from the Jefferson County commissioners.