INTERIOR:

Colo. wildlife refuge with nuclear past faces new problems -- IG

Preble's meadow jumping mouse, the mountain-loving sedge, the carrionflower greenbriar and the forktip three-awn all make their home in the 5,000 acres that is the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

But the rare mouse and plant species also share space with the residual contaminants from the nuclear weapons production facility that once sat on the Colorado site. Since 2005 -- when the Department of Energy transferred the site to the Fish and Wildlife Service -- Rocky Flats has been mired in controversy, with local activists claiming that left-over plutonium poses a risk for nearby residents.

A recent report from the Interior Department's inspector general adds another mark against the site: An invasive weed is quickly spreading through the refuge, displacing native species but also risking the migration of nuclear contaminants to surface water.

FWS appears caught in a Catch-22. According to the report, the agency does not have the funds to take constant care of the site, but even if Congress appropriates new money, FWS may not be able to conduct its usual restoration methods because U.S. EPA has warned that the site's nuclear history could rule out the necessary plowing.

LeRoy Moore, a longtime critic of the site's refuge status, said the finding is another indication that FWS is unequipped to handle what he considers a dangerously contaminated area. The report, he said, will hopefully "put the pressure" on officials to allocate more money to the project.

"They certainly should have the funds appropriated to manage the site in a way that is healthy to the plant and animal life in the most responsible way," Moore said in a recent interview. "Unfortunately, it's always going to be a dangerous situation because of the plutonium in the environment."

The IG report acknowledged the agency's tough position. The acting FWS regional director for the area told IG officials that Rocky Flats competes with hundreds of other projects for funding. For fiscal 2010, Region 6 prioritized 84 of 888 local projects; seven were funded.

"We recognize the need for FWS to prioritize funding among numerous refuges and that this refuge was not provided funding for management and operational activities," IG officials wrote. "EPA and [the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment] have warned, however, that plowing -- a preferred method for extirpating an invasive weed infestation of this extent -- would likely be restricted on the Refuge due to the concern that major soil disturbances could cause elevated levels of remaining radioactive materials to migrate."

David Lucas, FWS chief of refuge planning, said the refuge is part of a complex managed by the agency and is not "sitting out there idle and fallow." Officials are managing the site, he said; building a refuge just takes time.

He also pointed out that the refuge's plutonium levels are below those EPA set in its letter about restricted plowing. Furthermore, there are other ways to rid the land of weeds and reinvigorate native species, such as drill seeding.

FWS is preparing its response to the report, Lucas said.

"Our general feeling is that invasive weeds are a big issue in the West overall and a big issue nationally," he said. "Rocky Flats is not necessarily unique in that regard."

The report comes as FWS officials are in the beginning stages of selling or trading a 300-foot-wide slice of the refuge for transportation use. The law that created the refuge required FWS to make the land available for transportation services, and the agency has received two bids -- one that would build a parkway and another that would use the space for a bike path.

The agency solicited public feedback on the plans and closed the comment period Friday. FWS officials will use the comments to help determine what level of environmental review to complete under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Moore believes either project could endanger the public by potentially kicking up plutonium-laced soil. Winds in the area can reach 100 miles per hour, he said, blowing dust long distances.

Plutonium is "too small to see but not too small to do harm," he said. "People driving in the area or people who live nearby are likely to inhale particles of plutonium, and that's the worst way to take it into the body."

When the Department of Energy handed the site to FWS, it had completed a decade-long, $7 billion cleanup. An environmental analysis at the time found that the risk of adverse health effects from plutonium exposure for a refuge employee was 1 in 6.7 million and the risk for a casual visitor was 1 in 11 million. But last year, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center -- where Moore is a consultant -- collected four soil and dust samples near the refuge and found plutonium particles in two of them.

Residents are concerned by such findings, as well as DOE's continued retention of 1,700 acres in the middle of the site that officials determined was too contaminated to clean up.

Almost 900 people have signed a petition urging FWS to conduct a full environmental impact statement on the land to "determine the quantity, depth and extent of plutonium in soil in the area of proposed construction in order to ascertain the extent to which construction of either project could stir up clouds of plutonium-laden dust potentially harmful to construction workers, nearby residents, commuters and others."

Click here to read the IG report.

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