Green groups sue feds over proposed Rocky Flats land swap to build Jefferson Parkway

Two environmental groups filed a lawsuit in a Denver federal court Tuesday to try to stop a proposal to turn the eastern edge of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge into a four lane, high-speed tollway.

The lawsuit, filed by Centennial-based WildEarth Guardians and Denver-based Rocky Mountain Wild, claims the Fish and Wildlife Service never analyzed the impacts of the parkway when in December it elected to sell a 300-foot strip of land that stretches nearly three miles along the eastern edge of the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge to the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority.

Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge
“Our open space is critical to our quality of life and the prosperity of our communities, yet the Fish and Wildlife Service is not only selling off part of the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge, but also signing off on more sprawl and unplanned development,” Josh Pollock, conservation director for Rocky Mountain Wild, said in a prepared statement. “We need smart planning and smart solutions, not more highways or tollways.”

The Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, a private entity, intends to turn Indiana Street, which skirts the east side of the former nuclear-trigger factory into a four-lane tolled highway to link to Denver.

Critics say the proposed route would destroy hundreds of acres of wildlife habitat, open the door for hundreds more acres of suburban development next to one of the Denver metro area’s last largest blocks of undeveloped open space, and fuel the region’s air quality problems.

The lawsuit raises many of the same concerns listed in legal complaints the municipalities of Golden and Superior have already filed against the Fish and Wildlife Service. But the WildEarth Guardians and Rocky Mountain Wild complaint strives to achieve broader environmental protection in and around Rocky Flats and it specifically challenges the Fish and Wildlife Service failure to comply with the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

More than 600 different plant species have been documented 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 rare and threatened Preble’s meadow jumping mouse and 1,300 animal species.

Additionally, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center has warned that construction of the highway would likely stir up clouds of plutonium-laden dust, making it available to be inhaled, endangering construction workers, nearby residents, commuters and others.

The sale of the disputed land is expected by Sept. 1.

The U.S. government manufactured plutonium triggers at Rocky Flats for 40 years. During that time, the windy plateau between Boulder and Golden weathered radioactive waste spills, fires, and water and soil contamination before the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the facility in 1989 over multiple pollution violations. Rocky Flats was subsequently shut down and has since been designated as a national wildlife refuge. The inspector general overseeing the U.S. Interior Department, however, issued a report over the summer 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. Invasive weeds raise the specter of nuclear contaminants spreading to surface water, according to the inspector general, who called for funds to clean up the land.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said the inspector general’s concerns were overblown.

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