McKinley reintroduces bill on Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge

By Cindy Brovsky
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

With the opening of the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge on the horizon, Rep. Wes McKinley reintroduced a bill that requires signs posted explaining that the land once was the site of environmental violations and pollution from nuclear weapons production.

School children also could not attend field trips at the site before receiving a brochure detailing Rocky Flats made plutonium triggers for hydrogen bombs during the Cold War, according to the bill.

The 4,000-acre refuge will surround the land where the plant, which operated from 1950 to 1991, once housed 14 tons of plutonium and seven tons of uranium.

The Walsh Democrat served as the former foreman of a grand jury that investigated pollution violations at Rocky Flats located 16 miles northwest of Denver. He has been an outspoken critic of the refuge.

“To expose a child unknowingly to life threatening hazards is something I take very seriously,” McKinley said. “A lot of people don’t even know the history of Rocky Flats. Of course, some people will still want to visit. Some people still smoke cigarettes even though there is a warning about the health hazards.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages 550 wildlife refuges nationwide, already has agreed to post signs explaining the history of Rocky Flats, said spokesman Matt Kales. And even if McKinley’s bills passes, his proposed sign language — which warns of possible contamination and health hazards — could not be posted on the refuge because the land is owned by the federal government and therefore the state has no jurisdiction, Kales said.

“With respect to the representative, Fish and Wildlife and the United States believe the site is cleaned up adequately,” Kales said.

The City of Arvada, which borders the refuge, has worked closely with federal officials on the cleanup and the sign wording.

“We’re always in favor of informing folks about the site,” said Arvada Assistant City Manager Clark Johnson. “Rep. McKinley’s bill goes a lot farther to warnings that are not accurate or appropriate. Our concern is the disconnect of what we have witnessed since the cleanup and what Rep. McKinley (as a grand juror) was involved in prior to the cleanup.”

The Rocky Flats Refuge could become a popular designation similar to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge 11 miles northeast of downtown Denver, Kales said. The former U.S. Army chemical weapons factory began cleanup in 1992 and now is home to a variety of wildlife, including bison, bald eagles, coyotes and deer. The site is popular for fishing and school field trips.

In 2001, the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge Act was sponsored by then U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, a congressional representative at the time. The Department of Energy — which once labeled one of the buildings at Rocky Flats the most dangerous in the county — completed the nearly $7 billion cleanup of the site in 2006 and the property was removed from the national list of “Superfund” sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The refuge was originally scheduled to be partially open to the public in 2007 and fully open in 2012. However, funding issues have kept the area restricted from the public. Kales said the refuge should be open “in the near future.”

The refuge will include 16 miles of trails. Wildlife at the site includes deer, elk, black-tailed prairie dogs and Preble’s meadow jumping mouse. There may be limited hunting at the refuge, another practice McKinley questions because much of the waste was buried and the soil could be contaminated, he said.

McKinley has unsuccessfully introduced the bill twice since 2005. He’s hopeful it will pass this session, despite opposition from the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, which is made up of nine surrounding local governments, three community organizations and individuals. The refuge borders the counties of Boulder, Broomfield and Jefferson.

David Abelson, executive director of the council, said the stewardship has been working with federal officials since 2006 on the wording of the refuge signs. The group also successfully lobbied Fish and Wildlife to have signs throughout the refuge chronicling the entire history of the site, including the anti-nuclear weapons protests and the cleanup, he said.

“We firmly believe it is important that the signs say what Rocky Flats was and what it is now,” Abelson said.

Cindy@coloradostatesman.com