Ryan Knappenberger

WASHINGTON (CN) — Environmental activists filed a lawsuit Monday against the federal agencies claiming they ignored potential health concerns when approving a public trail near the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production facility just outside Denver, Colorado.

The plaintiffs, including Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and other Colorado groups seek to block the construction of an 8-mile trail through “the most heavily plutonium contaminated portion” of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

Randall Weiner, of firm Weiner Cording, filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the United States Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Weiner challenged the two agencies’ authorizations of the trail, known as the Greenway Project, and their “fatally flawed” environmental and health assessments.

The assessments propelled the project forward despite evidence of plutonium five times higher than the regulatory limit found in the soil less than a year before Fish and Wildlife conducted their own analysis.

Deborah Segaloff, a plaintiff in the case and a board member of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, said in a statement that she was concerned the proposed trail would harm visitors and potentially spread the contaminants further.

“Our concern is that people using the proposed Greenway will be exposed to dangerous levels of plutonium and other toxic substances,” Segaloff said in the statement.

Between 1952 to 1989, the Rocky Flats Plant, located 16 miles northwest of Denver, was primarily responsible for manufacturing plutonium fission cores which were then shipped to other facilities to be assembled into nuclear weapons.

The site was shut down in 1989 following a raid by the FBI and Environmental Protection Agency for suspected environmental crimes that resulted in federal criminal convictions and an $18.5 million fine. The raid marked the first — and only — raid on a federal facility by other federal agencies.

Nuclear production briefly resumed following the raid in 1990, but was terminated soon after in 1993 following then-President George H.W. Bush’s cancellation of the W-88 Trident Warhead Program in 1992.

Soon after the site was shut down, a federal grand jury found that plutonium from the facility had contaminated a wide area of land outside the facility.

The area with the highest levels of plutonium — known as the “Wind Blown Exposure Unit” — is also where part of the proposed Greenway trail is planned to be constructed.

According to Weiner, a former Fish and Wildlife Service refuge manager referred to this area as a “plutonium plume” and saw it necessary that the trail avoid that highly contaminated portion of the refuge.

In 2016, Fish and Wildlife and Federal Highway Administration conducted a study weighing potential alternate routes for the trail, including those that avoided the Wind Blown Area and the wildlife refuge entirely.

But in 2017, the Federal Highway Administration abandoned those alternatives in favor of a route that passes through the refuge.

A spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration declined to comment on the pending litigation. The Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to a request for comment.

Three years later in 2019, a local official from the Jefferson Parkway Authority, Bill Ray, revealed that a plutonium particle five times higher than the regulatory limit had been detected in a soil sample near the proposed trail route.

The particle was well above the “acceptable risk range” of 50 picocuries per gram, at which the maximum limit still results in increased cancer risk, with a measurement of 264 picocuries per gram.

According to Weiner, the project received pushback from surrounding towns, with the town of Superior withdrawing from the project in 2016 and the city and county of Broomfield exiting after the discovery of the “Bill Ray particle.”

Despite the withdrawals and discovery of the plutonium particle, the project marched forward, rejecting requests from the city of Boulder for an alternative route outside the wildlife refuge.

In a statement, Weiner explained that the plaintiffs are seeking a court order to halt work on the project and force the agencies to reconsider the planned route.

“The goal of our lawsuit is to stop the construction of the Greenway through heavily contaminated portions of Rocky Flats until Federal agencies fairly consider alternative trail routes,” Weiner said.