Building a visitor center at a wildlife refuge doesn’t sound controversial. But when that refuge is on the site of the security buffer zone of a former nuclear weapons facility, it gets complicated quickly. Unless a federal court intervenes, a visitor center will open at the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge in Golden in the summer of 2018.
For more than 20 years, Rocky Flats was where Department of Energy contractors manufactured plutonium triggers for thermonuclear bombs. After it closed in the early 1990s, it went through a decade long, multi-billion dollar cleanup. Three government agencies have deemed the area safe and it has been recognized as a protected wildlife refuge.
Former FBI agent Jon Lipsky does not think that cleanup was sufficient.
However, David Abelson has a different take on things. He worked on policy regarding the site in 1995.
“When you look at the initial soil cleanup levels for plutonium when we started and where we ended up,” Abelson says, “it is a stunning change, and a positive change, from where the agencies were in 1995 to where they ended up in 2005.”
Abelson is now the executive director of the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council. He closely watched the cleanup process as a congressional staffer for Colorado U.S. Rep. David Skaggs, and then as executive director for a coalition of local governments surrounding Rocky Flats. He says after figuring out how to cleanup the area, the conversation shifted to what to do with the former nuclear site.
“This gets to the question of the refuge, which guarantees ongoing federal ownership–you can’t have a local government assume ownership of that land, you protect the land for its natural habitat,” Abelson says. “That protection, the establishment of the refuge as a national wildlife refuge, is part of the fabric of this community and what we would we like here, what we would prefer here, what our economy can support, and the values–and that’s open space, open space is incredibly powerful and incredibly important to our communities. Rocky Flats fits within that framework: Federal ownership, but land protected for its natural values.”
Lipsky believes it shouldn’t be open to the public at all.
With his support, five groups are suing the Fish and Wildlife Service over the center: the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center, Candelas Glows/Rocky Flats Glows, Rocky Flats Right to Know, Rocky Flats Neighborhood Association and the Environmental Information Network (EIN) Inc. They have asked a federal judge to halt building on the site, claiming it is not safe for public access.
They say more testing needs to be done — and Lipsky doubts the government’s claims that the area is safe.
“They’re disregarding the science,” he says. “Now, the Department of Energy controls the variegated science at Rocky Flats. But when they start trying to convince other people–and there are experts in this world that say that even the respirable dust of plutonium are dangerous, fatal. It can cause problems with DNA, so your children might survive it, but you might have grandchildren that are messed up. So how is it safe?”