Interior’s Salazar pumps recovery plan at site of arsenal

By Jason Kosena

COMMERCE CITY — While touring the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge northeast of downtown Denver last week, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar pointed to the surroundings — once a manufacturing site for chemical weapons — as an example of how Colorado will benefit from the estimated $900 billion economic stimulus package now moving through Congress.

Sec. Salazar, left, and Rep. Ed Perlmutter, middle, walk across a road in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal as they prepare for a press conference. Salazar and Perlmutter spoke about the need for the economic stimulus package moving through Congress this week.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

“The president’s recovery and reinvestment plan will help pump life into our economy by creating jobs for working Americans,” said Salazar as he and a pack of reporters, politicians and environmental activists toured the 27-square-mile refuge, where temperatures reached the 60s on Jan. 30.

“But it will also pump life into our national wildlife refuges, national parks and other public lands by allowing us to undertake much-needed maintenance and improvement projects for visitors and wildlife alike,” Salazar said.

According to the former U.S. senator from Colorado, if the current stimulus package is passed as written, the arsenal will receive $3 million toward construction of a planned $7-million visitors’ center featuring multipurpose rooms, meeting facilities and an environmental education center for schoolchildren.

“The visitors’ center is a $7-million shovel-ready (project), and — if we can get this stimulus package through — we will see the building constructed in the next two years and will (create) an estimated 120 jobs,” Salazar continued. “We can come back out here and celebrate what will be the core of (this) refuge.”

The tract of land that once housed manufacturing facilities for mustard gas, white phosphorus and napalm has undergone many changes since 1942, when it was purchased by the U.S. Army.

After World War II, the site was leased to private companies, including Shell Oil, which produced myriad industrial and agricultural chemicals over the next 40 years. The resulting contamination of soil and groundwater was extensive.

In 1974, an investigation into the contamination began, and the manufacturing ended in 1982. Environmental remediation — coordinated among the U.S. Army, the state of Colorado, the Environmental Protection Agency, Shell and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — continued through the 1980s, and the arsenal eventually was listed as an EPA Superfund site. In May 2008, Colorado was awarded $35 million for acquisition, enhancement and restoration of the site, paid by Shell and the Army and settling a damage claim the state had been pursuing for 25 years.

A new sheriff is in town. As the new Secretary of the Interior, Salazar told reporters that President Barack Obama sent him to Colorado, specifically the MMS facility in Lakewood, to make it known that era of corruption in the Department of Interior is over.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Today, the cleanup is approximately three-quarters complete.

The Fish and Wildlife Service expects the project to be finished in 2011, at which point the arsenal will be home to a roaming bison herd on 11,000 protected acres, 330 species of wildlife, hiking trails for outdoor enthusiasts, fishing ponds and the aforementioned visitor center.

During Friday’s bus tour — which included a bald eagle sighting as well as glimpses of mule deer and a bison — Salazar said he understands the financial difficulty facing many Americans and said the economic downturn will continue unless the federal government begins creating jobs through the passage of the economic stimulus package.

Salazar didn’t acknowledge criticism by the nation’s Republican leaders, who say the stimulus package moving through a Congress controlled by Democrats is loaded with hundreds of billions in “pet projects” that offer little hope of creating either new jobs or economic stimulus.

Salazar stayed on task, speaking of tens of thousands of jobs he said the package will create, including many in Colorado.

The Department of the Interior has identified $3 billion to $4 billion in shovel-ready construction projects nationwide, and Salazar, its head, indicates that the House version of the stimulus package includes nearly $1 billion in new spending for the Interior Department. Salazar said Interior projects will be given priority according to the number of jobs they would create.

Other Colorado projects potentially set for recovery-package funding include improvements to roads in the arsenal and to Browns Canyon, near Buena Vista, the Alamosa Wildlife Refuge and the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge.

Salazar also spoke briefly about the scandal-ridden Minerals Management Service branch of the Department of the Interior, which is based in Lakewood. Three reports issued in September alleged that more than a dozen former and current MMS employees collected inappropriate payments from oil and gas firms, consumed alcohol and drugs and engaged in sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.

All of the alleged abuse happened under the leadership of former President George W. Bush.

“President Obama sent me to Colorado because he wants to send a loud and clear message that the era of ethics lapses is over and that we — as the U.S. government and the Department of Interior — are moving forward with a new era of responsibility.

“There is a new sheriff in town, and a new, reformed government that will be working for the people and by the people. Obviously, the scandals we saw at MMS will not be tolerated,” Salazar said.

Salazar’s newly appointed chief of staff, Tom Strickland, a former U.S. attorney for Colorado and U.S. Senate candidate, will lead a review of the MMS allegations. When asked about the allegations Friday, Strickland was terse.

“Yesterday (while visiting MMS), we had a few words to say about trying to restore confidence in the Department of Interior... and that is part of the responsibility that Ken has asked me to be involved in,” he said.

Salazar’s Colorado visit is only his second venture outside of Washington, D.C., since being sworn in as a member of Obama’s cabinet. The first, a trip to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, took place the week before.