Environmental concerns over Rocky Flats refuge prompt federal lawsuit
Colorado environmental, human rights and social justice groups are suing a federal agency to block the construction of hiking, biking and equestrian trails and a visitor center at Rocky Flats, the former nuclear weapons plant about 15 miles northwest of Denver.
The lawsuit, filed last week by groups including the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and Rocky Flats Right to Know, claims that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not complete an up-to-date environmental analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA. The last environmental review was conducted more than 12 years ago.
Boulder attorney Randall Weiner, who is representing the plaintiffs, said the agency is “virtually thumbing its nose at its obligations to consider the risks its plans pose to the public.” Weiner says the agency has “waited too long” to comply with NEPA requirements.
The suit argues that by moving forward with its construction plans before completing the review, the Fish and Wildlife Service is acting “in contravention of the express purpose of NEPA to require an analysis of environmental effects before the agency’s plans are too far developed to change.”
Rocky Flats manufactured plutonium components for nuclear weapons for nearly 50 years beginning in 1953. In 1989, the FBI raided the facility and found operators in violation of environmental laws. After more than a decade of cleanup, during which it was classified as an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, Rocky Flats was established as a national wildlife refuge in 2007.
The plaintiffs, whose groups include several career scientists, say that cleanup efforts were insufficient, and that the refuge remains unsafe for public use. The plutonium-contaminated building materials from the original plant are covered with “little more than dirt,” they say, and “such dirt is continually brought to the surface by burrowing animals,” where winds of up to 90 mph can suspend surface contaminants and deposit them onto Rocky Flats’ visitors, and throughout the region.”
Critics also cite the low cost of the cleanup as evidence of its insufficiency. Original estimates anticipated that the process would take 65 years and cost $37 billion. The total cost of cleanup, which ended up taking fewer than 20 years, was just $7.7 billion.
The suit alleges that “Rocky Flats is among the nation’s most polluted places.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told The Colorado Independent the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy, Creative Commons, Flickr
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