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Former nuclear weapons production site near Denver becomes wildlife refuge

SHARE Former nuclear weapons production site near Denver becomes wildlife refuge

DENVER — Deer, elk and the Preble's meadow jumping mouse Thursday became official residents of the tallgrass prairie that once was the production site of plutonium triggers for America's nuclear weapons.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially accepted 4,000 acres from the Department of Energy as the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge in the foothills northwest of Denver.

The Environmental Protection Agency has declared a $7 billion cleanup of the former Rocky Flats complex complete.

There is no trace of the 100 buildings where more than 25,000 people worked from 1949 to 1990. The few remaining roads and stream culverts will be removed and the land be restored to its native condition, said Dean Rundle, a refuge manager for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The refuge will not include any of the 600 acres of land where the actual plutonium trigger work took place, which will remain closed to the public.

Rundle said it is likely to be several years before the refuge is prepared to accept visitors.

"If we do get a budget next year we may open a trail," said Rundle. The boundary will be posted within 60 days and work will begin immediately on removing nonnative vegetation.

Staff in charge of the refuge will be based at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Range, 10 miles to the east, where sarin gas and other weapons were once made.

"Land that was once considered off limits will soon be home to a wildlife refuge that can be used by many. The future of Rocky Flats is bright," said U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo.

Production at Rocky Flats stopped after a 1989 raid by federal agents who were tipped off by a whistle-blower who said the plant was burning radioactive waste at night. A grand jury sought to indict one of the plant's operators, Rockwell International Corp., but federal prosecutors refused to proceed and instead accepted guilty pleas to 10 hazardous waste and clean water violations in 1992 and a fine of $18.5 million.

Nearby residents filed a lawsuit against Rockwell and Dow Chemical Co., and a federal jury last year ordered the two companies to pay them $553.9 million in damages. The decision is being appealed.

Several thousand former employees are still seeking payments for cancer and other diseases they say they acquired because of their close contact with plutonium and other dangerous chemicals.