DENVER — A unique wildlife refuge on the site of a former nuclear weapons plant in Colorado was scheduled to open its gates on Saturday, after a confusing day when officials first said they would not open the refuge and then said they would.
The opening of Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, where the U.S. government made plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs, has been in the works for months, surviving court challenges and protests.
But the plans were upended Friday when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he would keep the refuge closed until he could get more information about public safety.
Zinke’s announcement came after Colorado Democratic Congressman Jared Polis, who is running for governor, wrote Zinke saying plutonium testing on the site was outdated and asking him to postpone the opening until new tests could be done.
Just one hour later, Zinke spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said a review was complete and the refuge would open.
Vander Voort said the review was done by Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, the No. 2 leader at the department. She did not provide any details of the review and did not immediately respond to an email seeking more information.
“My head is spinning,” said Randall Weiner, an attorney for environmental and community groups suing to block the opening.
“It seems like the (deputy) secretary did an awfully quick study to address the questions raised by Rep. Polis,” he said.
The Rocky Flats plutonium plant stopped work in 1989 after a 34-year history marred by fires, leaks and a raid by armed FBI agents investigating environmental violations. The U.S. Energy Department, which oversaw the plant, said it found 57 pounds of plutonium stuck in exhaust ducts.
Rockwell International, the contractor then operating the plant, pleaded guilty in 1992 to charges that included allowing leaks of chemical and radioactive material and illegally disposing hazardous waste. The company was fined $18.5 million.
The plutonium plant was cleaned up at a cost of $7 billion, but it remains off-limits to the public. The 8-square-mile buffer zone surrounding the manufacturing site was turned over to the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service for a refuge.
Opponents worry that plutonium particles eluded the cleanup and could be sprinkled over the refuge, where hikers and cyclists could inadvertently stir them up or track them home.
If inhaled, plutonium can lodge in lung tissue, where it can kill lung cells and cause scarring, which in turn can cause lung disease and cancer, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
State and federal health officials say the refuge is safe.
“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,” Fish and Wildlife spokesman Michael D’Agostino said in August.
The refuge is spread across a rolling, wind-swept plateau 16 miles northwest of Denver. It is a rare oasis of tall-grass prairie, teeming with nearly 240 species of wildlife and 630 kinds of plants. Falcons, songbirds, bears, elk and the threatened Preble’s meadow jumping mouse all live there or pass through, the Fish and Wildlife Service says.
The picturesque remnants of a ranch are tucked into one of its valleys, and the refuge offers sweeping views of the Rocky Mountain foothills to the west and downtown Denver’s skyscrapers to the southeast.
Until this weekend, the only way to visit the refuge was to sign up for a short hike, guided by a Fish and Wildlife Service officer, offered once a month.
The agency plans to open about 10 miles of trails this weekend that will be open seven days a week. Visitors will be told to stay on the trails or roads.