Activists say moving prairie dogs to Rocky Flats could unearth plutonium

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. -- Activists are threatening to sue over a proposal to relocate a colony of more than 200 prairie dogs from Longmont to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Jefferson County.

In June, activists hoping to prevent the extermination of the colony told the Longmont Times-Call the refuge was available as a receiving site.

On Thursday, attorney Randall Weiner issued a statement saying the burrowing animals could bring plutonium buried underground to the surface and spread radioactive waste to surrounding areas.

Weiner stated radioactive components were buried eight feet below the surface,  well within range of prairie dogs.

"Prairie dogs and other burrowing animals can dig as far as 18 feet into the ground ... and build surface mounds by accumulating dirt from below ground," Weiner stated.

"There also are no barriers to prevent the prairie dogs from migrating back and forth between the Refuge and the Central Operable Unit, and then later leaving the site altogether."

Several groups have filed a federal lawsuit to block construction of trails and a visitors center at the refuge because of environmental risks.

They are threatening more litigation if federal investigators don’t do an environmental assessment on the impact of moving  200 prairie dogs to the site.

“Even the smallest speck is a huge danger to public health,” Longmont resident and lawsuit plaintiff Jon Lipsky said.

From 1952 to 1994, the Rocky Flats Plant produced nuclear and nonnuclear weapons, including plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons.

During that time, plutonium was leaked into the air, soil and water. 

"Workplace accidents, spills, fires, emissions, leaking storage containers and day-to-day operations allowed plutonium and chemicals to be released from the plant site," according to the State of Colorado.

“In the middle of the refuge is a 1,300-acre Super Fund site. There are subsurface infrastructures, buildings, tunnels, pits, two open landfills,” said Lipsky, who headed the FBI raid on Rocky Flats in 1989  that led to its eventual closure.

Cleanup of contamination at the site began in the 1990s, but concern about the long-term impacts on residents nearby remained.

In 2016, Metropolitan State University of Denver and Rocky Flats Downwinders conducted a health study that found people living downwind of the nuclear weapons plant faced more health problems.

The Colorado Department of Health and Environment responded on behalf of U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

“The lands that became the refuge were suitable for any and all uses," it said. "The extensive and expensive cleanup had reduced contaminant concentrations to well below levels of concern.”

The state said it also considered the potential disturbance from burrowing animals in its risk assessments. But critics of the project don’t buy it.

“Nothing was treated below three feet. If I’m a fear monger by bringing up the facts, then I’m being a fact monger,” Lipsky said.

“They are ignoring the public and violating their health and safety when they do something like this,” Weiner said.

The Department of Justice hasn’t responded for a comment to the letter. The Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge is set to open to the public in summer 2018.