Invasive weeds raise nuclear concerns at Rocky Flats

Mule deer graze at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is in the weeds.

The inspector general overseeing the U.S. Interior Department issued a report (below) late last month warning that the 4,880-acre former nuclear-trigger factory is overrun with invasive weeds that could destroy the unique biology that served as the reason for establishing the refuge in the first place.

The invasive species raise the specter of nuclear contaminants spreading to surface water, the report says. But there isn’t enough money to eradicate the weeds, and even if there was, the contaminated ground may prove too dangerous for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore, the report cautions.

The inspector general’s report is the latest bad news for Rocky Flats, where plutonium triggers, also called nuclear pits, were manufactured on the windy plateau between Boulder and Golden for 40 years. Like the nuclear bomb triggers Rocky Flats made, the controversies surrounding it were explosive. There were serious leaks of radioactive waste in the 1950s and 1960s along with fires that resulted in the most costly industrial incidents of their time. Water and soil contaminations surfaced in the 1970s. The 1980s were no better for the U.S. Department of Energy facility, culminating in a Federal Bureau of Investigation raid in 1989 that shut it down for multiple violations of U.S. anti-pollution laws.

Happier days were on the horizon for Rocky Flats in 2001 when the U.S. Congress passed the Rocky Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Act, preserving 6,400 acres for the plateau’s unique biology. Three years later, an environmental impact study documented more than 600 different plant species on the refuge, including the rare xeric tall prairie grasses that exist in fewer than 20 places on earth. The refuge is also home to bald eagles, the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse and 1,300 animal species.

In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment deemed 4,880 acres at Rocky Flats clean enough for non-residential, restricted uses to be managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Department of Energy retained 1,500 acres where the land contains too many nuclear contaminants, which officials say must be “institutionally controlled.”

“The Refuge has sat idle since its establishment as the operation and maintenance of the Refuge remain unfunded,” the general inspector’s July 21 report reads. “The maintenance that does occur at the Refuge is mainly performed by FWS staff from the nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal unit. Because the Refuge is not staffed, noxious weeds continue to spread and destroy the Refuge’s unique, native species. …

“Plowing – a preferred method for extirpating an invasive weed infestation of this extent – would likely be restricted on the Refuge due to the concern that major soil disturbances could cause elevated levels of remaining radioactive materials to migrate into surface water. The invasive weeds could potentially destroy the unique biological diversity that is the very reason for establishing this Refuge.”

Finding funding for Rocky Flats should be a priority, according to the inspector general.

In its report and attached memorandum, the Office of the Inspector General urges U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe to “weigh the unique ecosystem and pressing circumstances of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge against the needs of other refuges, and promptly determine whether funds should be allocated to remediate the problem while corrective action is still possible.”

It won’t be easy. The report noted that of the 84 projects the Fish and Wildlife Service’s local office prioritized, only seven of them were funded in fiscal year 2010. There are 888 local projects in all.

Initial estimates are that it would take five years and almost $600,000 to control weeds in just the worst areas, which consists of about 1,100 acres, or one-fourth, of the refuge. Delaying action will result in even more weed invasion that will cause costs to spike and more years needed to get the job done.

David Lucas, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s chief of refuge planning, disputed the inspector general’s characterization that management of Rocky Flats is “idle.” In a phone interview this week, he said the Fish and Wildlife Service is managing the refuge, along with the arsenal and two ponds in the area.

“Our position is that it is being managed,” he said.

Pressed for specifics, Lucas said management of the refuge primarily consists of providing security to enforce laws within its borders, the monitoring of wildlife and adhering to a comprehensive plan issued in 2005. Restoration goals are in the comprehensive plan, including one objective to reduce invasive weeds by 15 percent in five years. The inspector general’s report would suggest that goal was not met.

“I can’t say at this moment with any certainty” whether any of the plan’s objectives have been met, Lucas said. “We’re still trying to work our way through that management plan now that we have it.”

He further contends the situation may not be as dire as the inspector general’s report suggests.

Plutonium levels are below those the Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health outlined in letters from 2003 that clearly spell out restricted management activities at the refuge, Lucas said. He also cited drill seeding, herbicides and other alternatives to plowing that land managers can try to rid the wildlife refuge of invasive weeds and promote its native species.

“Invasive weeds are an issue across the West and in refuges across the nation,” he said.

Complicating the future of Rocky Flats is a stipulation that the Fish and Wildlife Service sell or trade a 300-foot-wide strip of property on the refuge’s eastern edge for transportation services. Two bids came in by the July 29 deadline and they are not without controversy themselves. One is to fold the land into the proposed Jefferson Parkway — a 10-mile toll road linking Colorado 128 with Colorado 93 to complete a beltway around the Denver metro area. The other bid is from Golden — a Jefferson Parkway opponent — that would build a bike path through the property. The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center is against both ideas, pointing to a sampling it has done that found breathable particles of plutonium on a site near Rocky Flats they believe blew over from the defunct plant.

“Plutonium remains dangerously radioactive for a quarter of a million years,” the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center website states. “Construction of either the highway or the bikeway along Indiana St. would almost certainly stir up clouds of plutonium-laden dust, making it available to be inhaled, endangering construction workers, nearby residents, commuters and others.”

Read the report:

The invasive species raise the specter of nuclear contaminants spreading to surface water, the report says.

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