Federal appeals court turns away Rocky Flats recreation opponents

Jul. 20—The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday denied an appeal filed by groups that argue Rocky Flats, a former nuclear weapons parts manufacturing plant, should not be allowed to operate as a wildlife refuge open to recreationists.

The complaint, filed by the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center and several neighborhood groups last fall, hoped to block a ruling that determined the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had completed a legally adequate study before allowing public trails at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses part of a former nuclear weapons parts manufacturing site.

Rocky Flats, located 10 miles south of Boulder in unincorporated Jefferson County, opened for public recreation in 2018, 13 years after a decade-long $7 billion cleanup removed 21 tons of nuclear material from the former nuclear plant where plutonium triggers were produced from 1952 to 1989.

Some 1,300 acres of the 6,200-acre site remain off-limits as a Superfund site.

According to reporting from the Denver Post, the original appeal states that the federal agency did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act in opening the refuge to the public three years ago and building a trail network there. It cites a 2011 email from a former manager of Rocky Flats suggesting that public trails on the east side of the property avoid the "plutonium plume" in the downwind portion of the refuge.

However, per the judge's ruling, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conducted an extensive environmental analysis and decided to proceed with its plans to open some of the site to the public.

The Fish & Wildlife Service announced in 2004 that some of the site would be eventually opened for public recreation.

The Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center "cannot use the original controversy in 2004 to establish an extraordinary circumstance now," the ruling notes.

The plaintiffs have yet to decide their next move, according to attorney Randall Weiner.

"Legally, we are considering our options at this point," Weiner said.

The legal team could seek a rehearing from the entire 10th Circuit or it could request a rehearing from the panel of judges who heard the case. The deadline for doing so is Sept. 2, Weiner noted.

In a news release, the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center said it will continue to "protect the public from the risks of radioactive contamination at Rocky Flats, despite this procedural legal setback."

The center plans to support other legal challenges such as the current state court lawsuit meant to block Boulder from building an underpass connecting trails in Boulder and Boulder County with trails in Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

The plaintiffs also intend to work to educate the public "about the site's dangers to visiting adults, school children and residents of nearby communities, including Broomfield and Westminster."

"The serious risks from plutonium and other deadly materials will not disappear, and neither will we," the center stated in the release.