Rocky Flats Nuclear Factory to Become Wildlife Refuge

By Leland Rucker

BROOMFIELD, Colorado, June 6, 2003 (ENS) - Sixteen miles from Denver, the highly radioactive plutonium remains of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant are being packaged up and shipped off to South Carolina, and officials say the most dangerous material will be off the site by year's end.

The land is now the subject of cleanup, and is known as Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site. In 2006, it will likely be the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge.

Around the clock cleanup of Rocky Flats is now underway, and government officials and contractors are starting to look at a closing date and what will happen afterwards.

Some 2.1 million people live within a 50 mile radius of the plutonium contaminated site, with a predicted population increase of 30 percent by 2023. Many of those citizens take an interest in what is taking place at Rocky Flats.

On Thursday the Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board was briefed on two issues - one affecting the immediate cleanup and the other concerning the future of the site. The 25 member board provides independent, community recommendations on the Rocky Flats cleanup, and represents a range of government officials and community members.

The board was updated on a change proposed by the Kaiser-Hill Company, the contractor in charge of the cleanup, concerning the Building 771/774 Decommissioning Operations Plan.


Workers at Rocky Flats have drained the last of the plutonium from tanks in Building 771. (Photo courtesy DOE)
Building 771, a major plutonium processing facility, and Building 774, a companion facility for waste treatment of liquid process wastes, were constructed in 1951, Kaiser-Hill spokesman Chris Gilbreath told the advisory board.

Among the most heavily polluted of the buildings at Rocky Flats, the two story structure poses serious site specific cleanup hazards because it was built into a steep hill that leaves concrete floors in areas between 16 and 30 feet below the proposed final grade.

Though much of the building eventually will be demolished, most of the south wall and the basement slab will be left in place and buried, Kaiser-Hill proposed.

Cleanup operations are farther along in Building 771/774 than in any other industrial building on the site, Gilbreath explained. All 240 glove boxes and 251 tanks have been removed, and all liquid systems have been drained.

More than 275 drums of transuranic waste have been removed from former processing tanks, and "all but one of 12 filter plenums have been decontaminated and/or dismantled," Gilbreath said.

Structural decontamination has begun, with demolition expected by April 2004. "We are one of the first to be demolished," he said. "We are decontaminated. Everything has been gutted. We have only a few ventilation areas left."

The modification Kaiser-Hill is proposing seeks permission to apply the same contamination standards to the slabs of concrete that will be buried in the hill portion as those applied to contaminated subsurface soil.

Kaiser-Hill's position is that contamination on concrete below certain levels is not going anywhere and poses little threat to human health and the environment.

"What they have developed and studied is that plutonium and americium in subsurfaces deeper than six feet do not migrate," Gilbreath said in an interview.

"Based on those results, we said, 'if these are not migrating, why are we going after it? Let's go after more surface contamination.' We took the philosophy that if the experts are telling us it is not going anywhere, and I am 25 feet below grade, what is the value?"

Board members questioned the reliability of the data that says burying concrete with more radiation than current levels permit is wise.

Kaiser-Hill spokesmen Gilbreath and Bob Davis, while saying not all modeling is complete, told the board that their research indicates that it will be within a safe level.

Rocky Flats

Some of the buildings at Rocky Flats (Two photos courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
If its proposal to leave the contaminated concrete in place is accepted, Kaiser-Hill estimates the savings at between two and three million dollars and a couple months of cleanup time, Gilbreath said.

Board members questioned whether there was any motivation for the change in plans other than to save the contractor money and time on the cleanup.

Gilbreath stressed that safety was an underlying concern. Trying to clean the concrete slabs is difficult and potentially the most dangerous work, he said.

"Honestly, it will save money and time, sure. But we are most concerned about safety," he said. "The last thing we want to do at this point in the cleanup is have someone get crushed or squeezed cutting out a chunk of concrete," he said.

When the site is closed it will be converted to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. On Thursday, the board also heard about four alternative management plans for the refuge.

The four plans range in scale from one that operates the site under the current plan to one that allows for a variety of human activity, including horseback riding and some hunting on the refuge, said Dean Rundle of the U.S. Forest Service.

The four alternatives are being developed as part of the Comprehensive Conservation Plan, a 15 year program to provide long range guidance and direction for the wildlife refuge. It incorporates public comments gathered last year about purposes and goals that should be applied to the Rocky Flats site in the future.

Board members raised the question of what the radiation levels would be once the government finished its cleanup, but officials of all organizations present declined to take up the issue.

Rundle said that none of the four plans would address the area where the plant's main buildings are located, known as "the blob" and controlled by the Department of Energy. All four plans call this area a "potential riparian and native grass restoration area."

Located on the high plains northwest of downtown Denver, the original nuclear weapons factory was built on a site dominated by tallgrass prairie, areas of high plains and some riparian areas. Using vegetation, soil and landscape as a framework, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated three management zones for planning purposes.


Part of the sprawling Rocky Flats site (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Xeric tallgrass prairie dominates the western part of the site and provides habitat for plant and animal species. Other grassland communities are found along the ridges and valley floors, while rolling high plains landscapes are seen along the eastern edges. Several drainages characterized by trees, shrubs and grasses form habitat for birds and mammals, including the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, federally listed as threatened.

Alternative A - No Action, Rundle said, would keep the refuge working under the terms of the current "Rock Creek Reserve Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan" adopted in 2000. Stewardship would be the guiding management principle. Most roads and some stream crossings would be removed, and no public facilities would be provided. Except for the barn, which would be stabilized, the structures of the old Lindsay Ranch along Rock Creek on the site would be allowed to disintegrate.

Rundle said that Alternative C - Ecological Restoration - is similar to Alternative A. This plan would return the area to pre-settlement conditions and plant it with native vegetation. Though no one knows what the exact ecological conditions were 200 years ago, Rundle said, the agency intends to use its best science to approximate what it was like. "Under this plan, there would be maximum road and trail and stream crossing removal," he said.

Under Alternative C, public access would be limited to a single road from state highway 93 along the western edge and a short trail to an overlook. Any other access would be by arrangement only. The Lindsay Ranch structures would be documented and removed.

Alternative B - Wildlife, Habitat & Public Use, Rundle said, is preferred by the agency, and would be the best balance. "It allows the big five public uses," said Rundle, "hunting, fishing, observation and photography, environmental education and interpretation."

He said that the agency responded to a public desire for connectivity and Alternative B would connect with walking and biking trails in several directions. Some trails would be open in winter, he said, and the southern half of the refuge would be open in winter months for photographers and those who wish to get off regular trails, when it would not disturb nesting birds.

Hunting activities would be highly restricted and limited to certain weekends, he said. When board members questioned whether that would be safe for pedestrians and cyclists, Rundle said that the site would be closed to other activities during those periods. No pets would be allowed under any of the alternatives, Rundle said.

Alternative D - Public Use is similar to Alternative B but would allow an even higher level of public use, and like B, would include a visitor center. A total of 17 miles of public roads would be included in this plan, with some trails open to horseback riders. He said that only under this option, the agency would consider accepting imported prairie dogs.

Several board members questioned where in any of the plans signage is provided that would include an explanation of previous and current radiation contamination levels. Members said the signs are necessary to give people as much information as possible so they might make their own informed decisions about entering the former nuclear weapons site.

All alternatives can be achieved under current proposed budgets, but Rundle said that Alternative A would be the cheapest and D the most expensive.