Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge

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For the nuclear weapons facility, see Rocky Flats Plant.
Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge
IUCN category IV (habitat/species management area)
Rocky Flats NWR.JPG
Map showing the location of Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge
Map showing the location of Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge
Location Jefferson County, Colorado, USA
Nearest city Westminster
Coordinates 39°53′24″N 105°13′13″W / 39.89000°N 105.22028°W / 39.89000; -105.22028Coordinates: 39°53′24″N 105°13′13″W / 39.89000°N 105.22028°W / 39.89000; -105.22028
Area 3,953 acres (1,600 ha)
Established 2007[1]
Governing body U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is a United States National Wildlife Refuge located approximately 16 miles (26 km) northwest of Denver, Colorado. The site was previously occupied by the Rocky Flats Plant, a nuclear weapons production facility. Contaminated by plutonium during plutonium fires and both uranium and plutonium ground leakage, there is no public access to the refuge at this time.[2] The USFWS currently states that "the refuge has remained closed to the public due to a lack of appropriations for refuge management operations."[3]


Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is an expanse of grasslands, shrublands and wetlands, including rare xeric tallgrass prairie, where natural processes support a broad range of native wildlife. Working with others, the Refuge conserves the unique biotic communities and sustains wildlife populations at the interface of mountains and prairies on Colorado's Front Range.

This stated vision is controversial, as plutonium, uranium and trans-uranic elements exist in the area from past nuclear weapons production.


Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge covers over 6240 acres including these open plains.

The Rocky Flats site is 6,240 acres (25.3 km2) located along the Front Range of Colorado at the intersection of Jefferson, Boulder, and Broomfield counties. The site lies on the former nuclear weapons production facility operated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Rocky Flats Plant.

Plutonium "triggers," also called nuclear pits, were manufactured at the site for 40 years. The triggers were themselves nuclear-fission bombs designed to implosively ignite fusion reactions in thermonuclear warheads. There were serious leaks from outside-stored drums of radioactive waste in the 1950s and 1960s that originated from spent lubricant used in plutonium milling .

Plutonium can spontaneously combust at room temperatures in air, and major plutonium-based fires at Rocky Flats in 1957 and 1969 were the most costly industrial incidents of their time. These two fires took years for immediate-area clean-up, and many other fires occurred as well. These fires spread plutonium throughout the northwest corridor of the Greater Denver area, reaching into downtown by way of prevailing winds. As plutonium has a 24,000-year half-life, nearly all of this contamination still exists in some form, and has been spread by the substantial (up to 80 mile-per-hour) winds that can frequent the Front Range area at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Water and soil contamination was finally publicly reported in the 1970s, even though the leakage and fire-spread contamination had occurred many years earlier.

As reported in the press, "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."[4]

Subsequent to substantial public protests over time, in 1992, the mission of the Rocky Flats site changed from weapons production to environmental cleanup and closure. Rocky Flats was declared as a Superfund site, and most of the production facilities were removed in 1995. Radioactive contamination (plutonium, uranium, tritium and trans-uranic elements) was removed from the surface of the earth in the immediate area of the plant, but not removed from what is proposed to become a wildlife refuge. Contamination was also broadly left buried below-ground when it was found there in order to mitigate costs to the U.S. Government.

After the June 1989 FBI raid of the Rocky Flats Plant for investigation of environmental crimes, federal authorities used the subsequent grand jury investigation to gather evidence of wrongdoing and then sealed the record. The court allowed the Rocky Flats operators to withhold from the public data about the nature and extent of contamination on and off the site. In October 2006, DOE announced completion of the Rocky Flats “cleanup” without this information being available.[5]

Under the Refuge Act, most of the 6,240-acre (25.3 km2) Rocky Flats site may become a refuge, provided that certification from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is obtained and which asserts that the cleanup and closure have been completed.


  • Restoring and preserving native ecosystems.
  • Providing habitat for, and population management of native plants and migratory and resident wildlife.
  • Conserving threatened and endangered species.
  • Providing opportunities for compatible scientific research


  • Wildlife and habitat management: Provide a riparian community representative of historic flora and fauna in a high valley of the southern Rocky Mountains to provide habitat for migratory birds, mammals, and river-dependent species
  • Public use, education and interpretation: Provide visitors and students high quality recreational, educational, and interpretive opportunities and foster an understanding and appreciation of the Refuge's xeric tallgrass prairie, upland shrub and wetland habitats; native wildlife; and the history of the site.
  • Safety: Conduct operations and manage public access in accordance with the final Rocky Flats' cleanup decision documents to ensure the safety of the Refuge visitors, staff and neighbors.
  • Effective and open communication: Conduct communication outreach efforts to raise public awareness about the Refuge programs.
  • Working with others: Foster beneficial partnerships with individuals, government agencies, and NGOs to promote resource conservation.
  • Refuge operations: Based on available funds, provide facilities and staff to fulfill the Refuge vision and purpose


According to a July 21, 2011 Inspector General report from the U.S. Department of the Interior, "Status of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge":

“The Refuge has sat idle since its establishment as the operation and maintenance of the Refuge remain unfunded.”
“The maintenance that does occur at the Refuge is mainly performed by FWS (Fish and Wildlife Service) 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.”[4]

The Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) emphasizes both wildlife and habitat conservation along with moderate level of wildlife-dependent public use. Public access is currently prohibited due to concerns over the remaining contamination from plutonium and uranium.


The government-claimed remediation of contamination by actinides (chiefly plutonium-239) created over decades of nuclear weapons production, fires and at Rocky Flats remains a hotly contested issue.

Charges include the claim that the U.S. Government only labeled the area as a wildlife refuge in order to cut a deal on minimizing its own cleanup costs, which were originally estimated to be $37 Billion spent over 70 years. The actual cleanup costs and time spent were only a fraction of those numbers, with below-ground contamination almost entirely left in-place.

Key leaders in both educating the public and pursuing contamination information that remains withheld by the U.S. Government include Dr. Leroy Brown, a Boulder scientist, retired FBI Special Agent Jon Lipsky, who led the FBI's raid of the Rocky Flats plant to investigate illegal plutonium burning and other environmental crimes and Wes McKinley, who was the foreman of the grand jury investigation into the operations at Rocky Flats and is today a Colorado State Representative.[6]

Lawsuits by downwind local residents against the Rocky Flats prime contractors over time, Dow Chemical and Rockwell International, have escalated in value to nearly $1 Billion due to a court-mandated annual interest rate. While the most recent award has been overturned on appeal, the case is expected to ultimately land in the U.S. Supreme Court.[7] The contractors are indemnified for their liability by the U.S. Government.

Despite the ongoing controversies regarding the former Plant, and the Refuge, land developers have seen fit to develop several subdivisions in close proximity to the Refuge, notably the Whisper Creek and Whisper Creek II developments east of the Refuge, while as of 2013, developers were building a multi—use commercial, industrial, and residential master planned community along the south property line of the refuge, Candelas.

In direct contention with stated plans for eventually granting public access to Rocky Flats, the area has been proposed as a permanent exclusion area in terms of human habitation by way of making it a nuclear guardianship.

Most recently, invasive weeds that are capable of bringing below-ground radioactive contamination—which was not required to be remediated as part of the so-called clean-up—have recently been described in local media as threatening the purpose for existence of the Rocky Flats "wildlife refuge."[4]


  • "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."


  1. ^ "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service establishes Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge". U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service. July 12, 2007. Retrieved August 13, 2012. 
  2. ^ "Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge". U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Retrieved August 13, 2012. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c Hooper, Troy (August 4, 2011). "Invasive weeds raise nuclear concerns at Rocky Flats". The Colorado Independent. Retrieved August 13, 2012. 
  5. ^ Moore, Leroy. "Democracy and Public Health at Rocky Flats: The Examples of Edward A. Martell and Carl J. Johnson". Retrieved August 13, 2012. 
  6. ^ "Rocky Flats Nuclear Site Too Hot for Public Access, Citizens Warn". Environment News Service. August 5, 2010. Retrieved August 13, 2012. 
  7. ^ "Appeals court tosses jury award in Rocky Flats case". Denver Post. September 4, 2010. Retrieved August 13, 2012.