Judge refuses to delay trail building at Rocky Flats in potential health risks lawsuit

A federal judge has denied a motion by a coalition of environmental groups to put a hold on building trails at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. But U.S. District Court Judge Philip A. Brimmer also acknowledged that government agencies may have underestimated the health risks of wind-blown plutonium from more than 30 years of nuclear weapons manufacturing at the former facility 16 miles northwest of Denver.

The environmental groups sought the preliminary injunction to ensure no construction occurred while the U.S. District Court hears their ongoing lawsuit. The suit, launched by a coalition of groups, accuses the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Interior, and Department of Transportation of violating federal law by rerouting 20 miles of recreation trails planned for the 5,237 acres of grasslands. The groups include Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center, Candelas Glows/Rocky Flats Glows, Rocky Flats Right to Know, Rocky Flats Neighborhood Association, and the Environmental Information Network. 

Related: Scientists testify Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge remains contaminated

“Though the judge ruled that we did not reach the high standard necessary to win a preliminary injunction, he previously expedited the rest of the lawsuit so that he can reach a final decision quickly,” Randall Weiner, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. 

In his Aug. 9 ruling, Judge Brimmer noted that while the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses testified about the potential inhalation of plutonium, they didn’t provide evidence “about how much greater those potential risks are” compared to radiation exposure through the skin alone, and denied the injunction.

“We intend to move forward with plans to open the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge to wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities later this autumn,” said Michael D’Agostino, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region.

“We are working to open the Refuge to public access because we are confident in the conclusions and recommendations from public health experts at the state and federal levels indicating that the Refuge is safe for visitors, our employees, and surrounding communities,” he said. Activities would include hiking, biking, and horseback riding.  

Jon Lipsky, a former FBI agent who served a search warrant for a 1989 raid on Rocky Flats, said he is optimistic the lawsuit will succeed. If plaintiffs win, the Fish and Wildlife Service would be required to reassess potential risks to public health and safety from building trails as well as impacts to the threatened Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse.

The U.S. Department of Energy declared in April 2015 that the Refuge is “essentially uncontaminated,” said Lipsky, who testified for the plaintiffs at the July 17 hearing. “Judge Brimmer noted that the Refuge is not absolutely safe, the government underestimates the health risks by failing to account for windblown weapons-grade plutonium-239 dust and Refuge trail use will produce some additional windblown dust.”

As for Weiner, the plaintiffs’ attorney, the case “will clearly demonstrate that the government does not have an up-to-date assessment of risks to the environment and human health from allowing unlimited public visits to the Refuge.”

Judge Brimmer is expected to rule on the case in the coming months.

Photo by Photo by Josh Schlossberg