Former nu­clear site opens to pub­lic as wildlife refuge

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - NATION -

DEN­VER — Cy­clists and hik­ers ex­plored a newly opened wildlife refuge at the site of a former nu­clear weapons plant in Colorado on Satur­day, while a pro­tester in a gas mask brought signs warn­ing about the dan­gers of plu­to­nium.

With no fan­fare, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice opened the gates of Rocky Flats Na­tional Wildlife Refuge on the perime­ter of a gov­ern­ment fac­tory that made plu­to­nium trig­gers for nu­clear bombs for nearly four decades.

Spread across a rolling, wind-swept plateau 16 miles north­west of down­town Den­ver, the refuge is a rare oa­sis of tall­grass prairie, with bears, elk, falcons, song­birds and hun­dreds of other species. The refuge of­fers sweep­ing panora­mas of the Rocky Moun­tain foothills and Den­ver’s sky­scrapers.

“You get th­ese in­cred­i­ble views,” said Jerry Jacka, who spent two hours moun­tain bik­ing at the refuge Satur­day.

Jacka said he was not wor­ried about his safety, de­spite law­suits and protests by peo­ple who ar­gued the gov­ern­ment has not tested the refuge thor­oughly enough to make sure peo­ple are safe us­ing it.

“I don’t be­lieve that they’re cov­er­ing up any sort of in­for­ma­tion about pol­lu­tants and ra­dioac­tive el­e­ments and stuff in the soil,” Jacka said.

The gov­ern­ment built plu­to­nium trig­gers at Rocky Flats from 1952 to 1989, a his­tory marred by fires, leaks and spills. The plant was shut down af­ter a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into en­vi­ron­men­tal vi­o­la­tions.

The U.S. En­ergy De­part­ment, which over­saw the plant, said it found 62 pounds of plu­to­nium stuck in ex­haust 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 at the cen­ter of the site. It was cleaned up at a cost of $7 bil­lion but re­mains off-lim­its to the pub­lic. The 8-square-mile buf­fer zone sur­round­ing the man­u­fac­tur­ing site was turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice for a refuge.

About 10 miles of trails are now open at the refuge. Vis­i­tors are told to stay on the paths and not wan­der into the grass­lands.

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