Rocky Flats Back in the News

It has been a while since there has been a significant news story about the legacy of the Rocky Flats Plant. The production of plutonium parts for nuclear weapons was the part of the mission that was the primary focus of those who concentrated on protesting the plant. I’ve attempted to convince people that much more was accomplished at the site, but plutonium manufacturing continues to dominate the conversation even all these many years since the site was torn down and the surrounding area converted into a wildlife refuge.

There haven’t been any mass media reports about the plant until a recent news story in the Denver Post titled “Neighboring Rocky Flats” by Electra Draper. There is a subtitle, “The more I learned…the more horrified I became.” I will give the article credit for resurrecting at least some of the words and phrases that were used frequently in new reports to criticize the place while the plant was still in operation. One example is the description about “…plutonium fires in 1957 and 1969 that wafted toxic smoke over the metro area”. Another is the concern that the proposed Jefferson Parkway and development of hiking and biking trails in the area now designated as a Wildlife Refuge will “…kick up plutonium-laced dust”. There was a new descriptor used to explain the concern that “…the site’s toxic legacy has faded…”and that people would move into the “plutonium dust bowl without understanding the potential risk.” Continue reading

Actions on Parkway Next to Rocky Flats

I haven’t posted an article that directly relates to the former Rocky Flats plant for quite some time, but there is recent news about the area where the plant was located .There have been plans to transfer a parcel of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge for a right of way to construct part of the Jefferson County Parkway near where the plant operated.  The court recently threw out law suits to stop the transfer ownership of the strip of land. The suits were based in part on “…the lack of a comprehensive environmental assessment of its impacts.”

The parkway has been vigorously opposed by people who object to the development and resulting congestion that would result. A focus many who opposed the project was plutonium contamination in the area. One article explained, “Opponents say building the road along the route currently proposed, which skirts the eastern edge of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, could turn up soil laced with dangerous levels of plutonium in the area, which was the longtime site of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.

The $10 million dollar land swap for the right of way officially went through on New Year’s Eve Day. The court action to reverse a last-minute injunction was undoubtedly celebrated by the cities and governmental agencies that see the positives of completing a high-speed highway around the metropolitan area. A spokesperson for one of the environmental groups that had sued to block the transfer, “…called the closing a setback, but said his group will continue to look into ways to fight the building of the tollway.” Continue reading

Jefferson County Parkway and the Rocky Flats Plant II

This is an update based on a news article published in the Arvada YourHub the day after the original post. The article by Karen Groves says that Golden has withdrawn their support for the project and filed suit “…challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to transfer land from the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge to the proposed Jefferson Parkway toll highway.”  Golden had originally agreed to the road after being offered $57 million for traffic and noise mitigation after “…months of negotiations between Golden and parkway proponents (Jefferson Country, Arvada, The Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, and the Colorado Department of Transportation to reach an agreement.” Golden official decided to file the litigation after an outcry from citizens despite the fact “…the outcome would be expensive and uncertain.”

Golden citizens mentioned the “…danger of plutonium disturbance…” during construction of a highway next to the site where the Rocky Flats Plant built nuclear weapons components for the military. I will reiterate my comments that I disagree with the contentions about the risk from the plutonium. The entire world and all inhabitants are contaminated with plutonium from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. Details about that and the Rocky Flats Plant’s record of plutonium releases are discussed in Chapter 25 of “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats, Urban Myths Debunked.”

The battle over a parkway has been going on for decades. I recently received a message from a former Rocky Flats Plant official mentioning that proponents of various parkway options had wanted public support from the plant in the late 1980s while Greenpeace had requested they officially oppose the project.

Jefferson Country Parkway and the Rocky Flats Plant

There has been long-time opposition to completing the metropolitan beltway by constructing a parkway for vehicles and bicycles on the eastern edge of the site where the Rocky Flats Plant once constructed plutonium components for nuclear weapons. There was a previous posting about the controversy, which is mostly about the plutonium contamination in the area of the proposed parkway. I’ve exchanged emails with the group that was formed to oppose the parkway to discuss and disagree with their contentions about the risk from plutonium. Chapter 25 of the book “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats, Urban Myths Debunked,” gives detailed information about plutonium releases from the plant, and there was much less released than critics would like you to believe. The bottom line is that plutonium is everywhere from the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and disputing construction of the parkway on the basis of plutonium contamination is, in my opinion, a flawed argument.

A recent article in the Denver Post by Bruce Finley describes recent developments. Some of the long-time opponents of the Parkway have recently changed their positions because of a proposed land swap that would open more public open space and lock in “…an open-space bridge to the mountains.” “The emerging green ring around Denver includes Rocky Flats, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Barr Lake State Park, Cherry Creek State Park, Chatfield State Park and seven or so county and municipal parks set against the foothills.”

The city of Golden recently modified a proposal to create a bicycle and pedestrian trail where the parkway is proposed to be constructed. They then withdrew their opposition to the toll road after being promised $57 million for traffic and noise mitigation. However, the town of Superior plans to file a lawsuit to block the swap because of failure “…to conduct a sufficient review of likely environmental impacts…”

An article in Westword by Patricia Calhoun titled, “Plans for the Jefferson Country Parkway are kicking up lots of dust,” expresses some skepticism. The regional director of Fish and Wildlife commented, “Accepting this exchange proposal will significantly expand the Rocky Flats NWR (National Wildlife Refuge) not only for the benefit of wildlife, but it will also anchor a network of green space for the people of the Denver metro area to enjoy for years to come.”

The author then adds, “If you don’t mind a little radioactive dust in your picnic.”

The article also provides more detail about the basis for Superior’s lawsuit. “The conclusion of the environmental assessment should have been that a full study leading to an Environmental Impact Statement was necessary to fully understand and evaluate the impact of the expansion of the refuge and the building of a four-lane toll road.”

I’ve told opponents of the toll road that I am not taking a position; several friends are opposed to the road. My position is that opposing the road because of plutonium contamination in the area of the proposed construction is a very weak argument.

J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

I was interested in the refuge on Sanibel Island barrier partly because the area surrounding what had been the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapon production facility where I once worked has been designated a wildlife refuge.  The Sanibel refuge was created after Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, a political cartoonist, urged Harry Truman to sign an executive order to create the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945. The designation blocked the sale of land to developers.  The refuge was renamed after the pioneer conservationist in 1967. The refuge has over 6,400 acres of mangrove forests, sea grass beds, cord grass mashes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks. It makes up the largest portion of a total of five wildlife refuges on Sanibel with large populations of fish and the more than 220 species of birds and other critters that depend on fish for food.

Sanibel Island and the southwest coastal mainland of Florida were inhabited by Calusa Native Americans when Spanish explorers arrived and brought diseases that eventually mostly wiped out the tribe. It is thought a few might have made it to Cuba. The Calusa were still there in substantial numbers when Ponce de Leon organized a colonizing expedition using two ships that traveled to the southwest coast of Florida in 1521.  The word “Calusa” was described to mean “the fierce ones,” and in keeping with that description the tribe attacked the expedition.  Ponce de Leon was struck by a poisoned arrow, died of the wound in Havana, Cuba, and was buried in Puerto Rico.

We decided to take the narrated tram tour of the refuge which is operated by Tarpon Bay Explorers. The four mile tour is $13/adult and $8/child. You can pay five dollars to drive your own vehicle, but we decided we preferred the narration by an expert. Our guide was Barry Litofsky, and we were pleased with our decision to do the guided tour. We didn’t see any mosquitoes, but did get some bites from “No Seeums.” It would be a good idea to have insect repellant.

Barry said the most common question is, “Why do the mullet jump?” The fish were frequently jumping high enough to clear the water in the estuaries and landing with a splash. The answer to why they jump was something to the effect, “We don’t know. We don’t know how to ask a mullet.” However, the speculation is that they jump to dislodge sand that collects in their gills while they are bottom feeding.

We saw multitudes of birds, and I thought the two most memorable were a roseate spoonbill at a distance and an anhinga standing near the road with its wings spread to dry. The bird is called “snake bird,” because it leaves a ripple similar to that of a snake when it is swimming under water. The one we saw had a fishing lure stuck in its beak with a short piece of monofilament fishing line attached. There have been discussions on how to capture the bird and take it to the local rehabilitation center to remove the lure. The latest report is that the bird was never captured for removal of the lure and line. We are hoping that that the lure dissolved or fell out.

There are three bald eagle nests and over a hundred osprey nests on the island. Barry told us there are twelve types of small shore birds in the refuge, and they are collectively called “LBJ,” or “Little brown jobbies.”

Much of the discussion during the tour focused on the mangrove trees and their remarkable multiple roots that anchor them. There are three kinds of mangrove trees in Florida and Sanibel and many more in other parts of the world. The mangroves aren’t related except for the common trait that they live in salt water. All of them need to provide fresh water to their leaves. One type filters the salt out in the roots, another gets rid of the salt through pores on the leaves, and the other concentrates the salt in old leaves that then die.  All three methods are variations of the reverse osmosis process that provides fresh water to Sanibel residents and visitors.

The mangrove trees are protected in part because they provide impregnable resistance to hurricane winds. The guide told us that mangroves were removed from Captiva to plant citrus trees. Hurricane winds ripped out the trees and eroded a trench across the island. Another reason to protect the mangroves is that the network of roots provides a nursery for fish. The fish in turn feed the predators, including the many species of birds.

There are American alligators in the refuge, and there was one crocodile that died along with much of the snook (fish) population during a recent incredibly (for the area) cold snap. The crocodile had lived on the island for decades, and over 200 people attended its memorial service. One lonely bear has taken up residence. Barry pointed out half dollar-sized black crabs that had crawled up out of the estuary onto the trees.

There was an interesting discussion of the Sabal or Cabbage palmetto trees, which is the protected State tree of Florida. The center of the trees was used by the Calusa as food. Floridians continued harvesting the trees, especially during the Depression, and the food was commonly called “swamp cabbage.” However, the extreme tenderness earned it a reputation as a delicacy, and the name became “millionaire’s salad.” Almost all of the “hearts of palm” sold in the U.S. is from South America, with just under half coming from Brazil. The trees are grown commercially and harvested when they are about five feet tall at the age of a year or a bit more.

Fishing is allowed in the refuge, and it looked to me to be quite productive. We saw one man with a really large needle fish (three feet long?) Crabbing is allowed only with dip nets. We certainly would enjoy a return visit to the refuge, and I’m hoping next time I have some fishing equipment and the required license, of course. I’m also hoping funds become available to open the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge so I can take my family there for a visit.

Sanibel Island Florida

My wife and I had a wonderful vacation on the barrier island that is connected by a causeway to Fort Myers. I will describe the place we stayed, some of our activities, and the places where we ate. However, this is not a travel guide, since we had only a short week there. I recommend that you look at the Chamber of Commerce site which has interesting descriptions of the wonderful shelling on the fifteen miles of beautiful beaches of Sanibel and Captiva (pronounced Capteava). For those wondering what the connection is with a web site titled, there are extensive wildlife refuges, and a large portion of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons site is destined to become a wildlife refuge. I intend to do a separate posting describing our visit to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel.

We visited Sanibel in late November, and it was a wonderful time. November isn’t considered “high tourist season,” but the daytime temperatures were consistently in the mid 80s, hurricane season is over, the beaches weren’t crowded, and the water temperature was comfortable after a brief acclimation. We stayed at Sanibel’s Seaside Inn. Their motto is “Ole Island Charm,” and we agreed with that description. I suggest you check out 231 reviews on trip advisor if you want more than just our opinion, but we agree with many of the positive comments on that site. We found the people who worked there to be incredibly eager to make us comfortable, enjoyed having a well-stocked breakfast basket delivered to the refrigerator in our room daily instead of doing a “cattle call” in a lobby, and were completely satisfied with our stay there. The New York Times was provided daily. The small heated pool was just off the porch out the back of our room, and the beautiful beach was a short walk.

One of the people at the motel told us few workers can afford to live on Sanibel, and that the corporation bought them transponders for free passage over the causeway from Fort Myers. That keeps them from having to spend the six dollars each day to get to work.

We heard many languages around the motel, and were told that people from Germany, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Chili often stay there in October and November.  Apparently many of the people who stay there in the heat of summer are called “inlanders.” Those are Floridians who are happy to come to island for the sea breezes and escape the calm heat of the inland. We were also told a famous resident of the motel was a large orange cat named Garfield that lived there in the 1980s and 1990s and entertained guests by working them for food.

We were on the first floor, which is elevated a few steps. The island is a foot and a half above sea level, so it is wise to have the first floor of anything elevated. The noise from people walking in the room above us was the only negative, but that wasn’t too troublesome. My wife thought the room was a tad too small, but I didn’t notice that we had that many conflicts while we were inclined to mill around. There are plenty of complimentary bicycles, and they are all one speed. You really don’t need multiple speeds, since there is only one place we noted on the island that can be called a hill. It is a ten or twenty foot rise as the road goes over a causeway in the twenty two miles of pedestrian and bike trails along the main highway. Bikes aren’t allowed on the beach. There were signs marking gopher tortoise crossing areas, but we didn’t see one.

The Sanibel Seaside Inn began as the Gallery Motel, which was one of the first ten or so motels on the island constructed about 1960. Hurricane Charles flooded the island on Friday the thirteenth in August 2004. The storm surge didn’t reach the elevated first floor, but the place had to be renovated after the winds tore off the roof and the torrential rains damaged everything beyond repair. The recent large oil spill didn’t reach anywhere close to Sanibel.

Travel tip—it was suggested the greatest risk of hurricanes is in August, it is hot and humid in September, and things become relatively safe from hurricanes and the temperatures are more comfortable in October.  The “high travel season” (with resulting escalating room prices) is in March and April during the family Spring Break season. We noted busy restaurants, some traffic congestion and quite a parade of bicyclists during our visit, and are trying to imagine what it would be like with another several tens of thousands of people on the island.

All the restaurants where we dined were busy, but we never had to wait more than a few minutes. Every meal was wonderful. We had grouper fixed in a variety of methods, and my favorite was mesquite grilled. We saw fresh grouper in a fish market, and it was $18.95/lb, which indicates it is widely popular. We would have either clam or conch chowder and salads. We had shrimp with the grouper a couple of times and fried oysters once. We had an appetizer of soft shelled crab once, and I had to convince my wife to try it. The crabs are held and watched so they can be harvested and cleaned immediately after molting. The very thin membrane that would become a new hard shell is quite easy to cut through and chew, and the flavor of the crab is excellent. It is difficult to select a favorite restaurant. Our first meal was at Grandma Dot’s, which is next to a marina at the end of a road that was more of a trail over hard-packed sand with numerous potholes.  We had meals at the Sanibel Grill, Timbers, and twice at the Lazy Flamingo. We paid $60-$80 for full meals, drinks, and tips, and considered all the meals to be worth the price. We wished we could have stayed on the island longer for several reasons, but we knew we would have enjoyed trying other restaurants.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t describe our shelling experiences, since that is the reason many people go to Sanibel. Sanibel and Captiva were literally made from shells. We heard there once was a six foot high wall of shells on Captiva that was eventually carted away by tourists taking home loads of them. The best time to find shells was reported to be at low tide, and we did considerable wading in the surf and watching for something interesting as the waves would wash back out to leave a relatively clear view. There were more clams than can be easily imagined and a variety of scallops. We found a few live juvenile conches, one of which was eating a smaller conch and another was eating a snail. We also found live snails, two whelks, and a couple of starfish. We dutifully followed the regulation to immediately release living creatures and decided that should also include hermit crabs that had taken over a shell.  We legally collected a few larger clam shells, various colors of scallops, and a couple each of juvenile conch, snails, and lace murex.

We paid the two dollar parking fee to walk to the fishing pier on the south end of the island. The pier is relatively short, but it was crowded with people fishing. There had been several sheepshead caught and the one man jigging had a nice stringer of mackerel. The most fun was watching two youngsters with throw nets catching bait fish next to the pier.

I can’t select a favorite part of the visit. We enjoyed the lush greenery that crowds up to the bike paths and highway. We also enjoyed the people we met, the great seafood, and we always enjoy the wash of waves on a sea shore.

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge

There was a recent article in the Denver Post announcing the opening of a new visitor center at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I have mixed feelings about that announcement. I’m pleased that the Arsenal was able to open that facility, but I would be more pleased if I would hear there is staff and money to develop a similar facility at the Rocky Flats site. There is some irony that the Rocky Mountain Arsenal refuge has opened, because Rocky Flats workers often had to listen to stories about the Arsenal when they told someone they worked at Rocky Flats. I recently told a man I had retired from Rocky Flats, and he told me about armed guards showing up when he was a child playing in a field near the Arsenal. For those who are confused, Rocky Flats was west of Denver and made components for nuclear weapons for the Department of Energy and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal was 10 miles east of downtown Denver and was a chemical weapons plant managed by U.S. Army.

There undoubtedly will be similarities between the Rocky Mountain Arsenal refuge and what hopefully becomes available at the Rocky Flats site. I don’t know whether the Aresenal was pressured to put up signs warning that the area had been used for manufacture and storage of various chemical warfare agents, but there was and is controversy about the planned refuge for Rocky Flats. The first link on a July 2007 press release from the Fish and Wildlife Service is “Rocky Flats Signage,” which explains in detail that public use was a controversial issue in preparation of plans for the refuge. The document explains, “…due to the site’s former use as a nuclear weapons production facility and the contamination that resulted from that use, many members of the public expressed concern regarding the cleanup of the site and the safety of future visitors. Based on the best currently available scientific data and unequivocal determinations by the EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), that the extensive cleanup program resulted in a landscape that is safe for refuge workers and visitors, (the plan) provides for future public use of the site…”

The health risk of “low levels” of plutonium is what creates the controversy. The term “low levels” is in quotes because I’ve been taken to task for using the term with the admonition that all levels create health risks. As I explain in Chapter 25 of my book, “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats, Urban Myths Debunked,” (available free on this site and at Amazon as a paperback or as a Kindle version)  the entire earth is contaminated with plutonium and every person has many billions to trillions of plutonium atoms in their bodies resulting from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. There are posts in the archives of this site dated January 18 and 25 that discuss the controversy. People worked in the industrial area of Rocky Flats for years, decades in many cases, and generally their health is as good as people who never worked there. (Some would argue with me about that statement, but I’m going to let them make their own arguments.) My belief is that a visit to areas outside the closed former industrial area won’t create a health risk to my family if I’m ever able to invite them to go there with me. I hope to recreate there early and often. Those who disagree can elect to not visit.