Three scientists testifying in federal court Tuesday cited research they say debunks assertions by the federal government that public health dangers at the the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge are “purely speculative.”
From 1952 to 1989, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility deposited billions of particles of plutonium per acre onto the surrounding grasslands that now make up the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, testified Harvey Nichols, a biologist and emeritus professor at CU Boulder, during Tuesday’s hearing in U.S. District Court in Denver.
Using data he collected from snowfall samples on the Refuge during the winter of 1975-1976 as a Department of Energy contractor, Nichols extrapolated up to 100 billion particles of plutonium per acre within yards of where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intends to build 20 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails.
The hearing focused on a motion filed by a coalition of environmental groups seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the construction of trails and a visitor center on the 5,237-acre site 16 miles northwest of the city. The groups have sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Transportation, accusing the agencies of violating environmental laws.
The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2007 in the tallgrass prairie adjacent to the former nuclear weapons facility that produced plutonium triggers for nearly all of the nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. A 1989 raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for environmental crimes put an end to the manufacturing, which was followed by a 10-year cleanup of the site ending in 2006.
Formerly known as the “buffer zone,” the grasslands 10 miles south of Boulder were temporarily listed as a Superfund site by the EPA but after the government deemed them safe for public use, were taken off the list without requiring remediation. The 1,300 acre former facility area remains a Superfund site managed by the Department of Energy and is off limits to the public.
Fish and Wildlife staff have led guided tours of the Refuge since 2015 and intend to open the Refuge to unguided use in 2019.
In a packed courtroom, Judge Philip A. Brimmer heard four and a half hours of testimony from nine witnesses – eight from the plaintiffs and one from the defense – centered around the potential health risks to members of the public choosing to visit the refuge after it’s opened to unguided use in 2019. Plaintiffs include Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center, Candelas Glows/Rocky Flats Glows, Rocky Flats Right to Know, Rocky Flats Neighborhood Association, and Environmental Information Network.
At noon, the environmental groups and dozens of supporters held a rally outside the courthouse in opposition to the public opening of the Refuge.
In her opening statements for the defense, Department of Justice attorney Jessica Held said that the EPA had verified that the Refuge lands were “clean” before ceding them to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007.
“The dangers of plutonium, with respect to plutonium being released through the use of these trails is purely speculative,” she said.
Michael Ketterer, a chemist who has studied plutonium in the environment for nearly two decades – including the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan – said his surveys from 2000 to 2003 of property due east of the Refuge found plutonium concentrations ranging up to 100 times background radiation levels. Through the identification of plutonium isotopes, he asserted that “almost all” of the particles could be traced back to Rocky Flats and that more of the same were scattered “anywhere and everywhere on the Refuge” and beyond.
Testifying via phone from his home in South Carolina, Timothy Mousseau, a toxicologist whose expertise is the biological effects of radiation on the environment, said that Refuge plutonium can be suspended in the air, migrate offsite, and be inhaled by people.
“All radionuclides are considered to be significant carcinogens,” he warned, adding that other health risks from exposure include impaired lung or immunological function, and that women and children were the most susceptible due to their smaller average size and height (putting them closer to particles on the ground).
“There’s no such thing as a safe level of radiation exposure,” Mousseau stressed. His past areas of study include Fukushima and Chernobyl.
New evidence came to light during the testimony of John Barton, a former Rocky Flats radiation control technician, who, from a photograph, identified a 55-gallon barrel found partially submerged in a Refuge pond years before as “similar in nature” to barrels used to dispose of plutonium wastes during the facility’s operation. The plaintiffs’ attorney Randall Weiner also disclosed that, while this body of water had been sampled for heavy metals, it had not been tested for radionuclides.
David Lucas – manager of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, the sole witness for the defense, and a defendant in the lawsuit – testified that while guided tours are ongoing at the Refuge, the Fish and Wildlife Service has no plans to move forward with major construction this year. Thus far Lucas’ staff has only installed gates to bar vehicles and pedestrian traffic and marked existing trails.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not have any major construction planned anywhere on the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge for 2018,” Michael D’Agostino, Public Affairs Specialist for the Mountain-Prairie Region of Fish and Wildlife, confirmed via email. “Ongoing future activities will include maintenance, work on a parking area, and installing signs.”
When Lucas was asked by Weiner if the Fish and Wildlife Service had consulted with EPA on whether the current trail configuration is the safest, he admitted that the agencies have “not spoken on that particular question.”
Lucas concluded his testimony by reminding the court that EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have determined the Refuge is safe for “unlimited use, unlimited exposure.”
Judge Brimmer is likely to rule on the preliminary injunction within a matter of weeks.