Controversy surrounds opening of Rocky Flats trails


Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

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ARVADA, Colo. – This Saturday, 10 miles of hiking, biking and horse riding trails will open at the Rocky Flats National Refuge.

Friday, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke had heard concerns about the opening of the Rocky Flats trails and decided to delay it in order to gather more information. The spokesperson then said a review was completed and the trails will open as scheduled.

Opening the trails is a controversial move, because some people say the government never completely cleaned up the plant that made nuclear weapons for 47 years and has been the subject of multiple lawsuits, including one on-going suit to keep the trails closed permanently.

So the Problem Solvers are getting both sides of the story - from those who say Rocky Flats has changed their lives forever and from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Energy, whom we asked for a tour of Rocky Flats, so we could it for ourselves.

On a bright and breezy, David Lucas, the Rocky Flats Refuge Manager took the Problem Solvers onto the refuge that’s just about 15 miles northwest of Denver and home to more than 800 species of plants and animals, including some that are endangered.

“(It’s) pretty remarkable from an ecological standpoint, what we’re looking at right here,” Lucas said, standing next to the old Lindsay Ranch, with a heard of elk in the distance.

But it’s also controversial, because of Rocky Flats explosive history.

The refuge surrounds what’s called the Central Operable Unit.

For 47 years, the Department of Energy used uranium and plutonium to make thousands of triggers for nuclear weapons here.

Then in 1989, the government raided the plant and shut it down. It then spent more than $7 billion and nearly 10 years cleaning it up.

The DOE’s Scott Surovchak is the legacy site manager for Rocky Flats and has spent decades working there.

When the Problem Solvers asked him if Rocky Flats is safe from any contamination now, he told us it absolutely is.

“There’s no difference between walking around on this surface and walking around on the refuge,” Surovchak said. “My people are out here every day.”

And their job is to make sure Rocky Flats is safe.

They have 15 water monitoring stations and three water decontamination systems that strip water of uranium, benzyne and trichloroethylene, but not what is considered the most dangerous element here - plutonium.

“Plutonium is not mobile in water. Plutonium is moved mechanically,” said Surovchak.

He told the FOX31 Problem Solvers there is still plutonium left at the Central Operable Unit, but it’s buried deep underground and tests show levels of it - and any nuclear matter here - are below what the government deems as safe.

“Well below,” Surovchak said. “And that equates to 10 to the minus-six excess cancer risk…which means an excess cancer of one in a million. It’s an insignificant number.

But it’s a number that’s far from insignificant for two families that moved into homes near Rocky Flats in 2004.

Both Elaine McNeely and Elizabeth Panzer think that one in a million is their loved one.

This includes Elaine’s husband, Brian, who couldn’t believe what doctors told him a few years ago.

“They said, it looks like your ribs have been eating through and it looks like you have a mass in your heart,” McNeely told the Problem Solvers. “And I thought…they’re mistaken, not him. He’s athletic. But not from then on.”

Brian, who was a big and tough college football coach, was diagnosed with an extremely rare and deadly form of cancer, cardio angiosarcoma, in 2014 and succumbed to it a year later.

“I will blame his cancer and death on Rocky flats and I don’t want anybody to go through this,” McNeely said.

But somebody else is going through it just down the road from the McNeely’s.

That somebody is Panzer’s son, Nathan, who’s now 15.

He was diagnosed with the same rare cancer about the same time as Brian and is fighting for his life.

“It’s absolutely terrifying,” Panzer said. “I feel like I’ve had a Mac truck hit me the past couple months, where I’m trying to keep going and be productive in life. But I’m terrified.”

She’s terrified that the cancer could take Nathan’s life, too.

McNeely and Panzer will never know what caused the cancer. But they can’t help but think it’s possibly from plutonium in the dirt at Rocky Flats that was whipped up by the wind and carried to their neighborhood.

The two have become friends because of the cancer in their families.

“Expect miracles,” McNeely said to Panzer as they recently met at park near the homes just south of Rocky Flats. “They’re out there.”

The two are hoping and praying for a miracle, while wishing Rocky Flats would stay sealed off.

But unless the current lawsuit is successful, that probably won’t happen.

“We believe it (Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge) is safe for our employees and our visitors,” said Lucas, the refuge’s manager.

So now it’s up to the public to decide if they want to take a trek on the trails and see all of what Rocky Flats has to offer.

The Department of Energy has posted the results of its studies about Rocky Flats here.

Meanwhile, many metro area school districts have barred students from taking field trips to Rocky Flats.

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