EnvironmentFeaturedHot Sheet

Rocky Flats opening was delayed (except not really)

Author: Mark Harden - September 14, 2018 - Updated: September 17, 2018

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Stephen Parlato wears a gas mask next to his sign warning about the dangers of plutonium at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge outside Denver on Sept. 15, the first day the refuge was open to the public. The refuge is on the outskirts of a former U.S. government factory that manufactured plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Dan Elliott)

If a plan to delay the opening of Rocky Flats to the public gets reported, and then it’s announced two hours later that the delay has been canceled, did the delay ever really happen?

While we ponder the metaphysics of that one, here’s what we know:

The Hill reported at (per the time stamp) 2:15 p.m. MDT Friday that Saturday’s planned public opening of the 5,000-acre site of a former nuclear weapons plant northwest of Denver as a wildlife refuge had been delayed by order of U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

According to an Interior Department statement to the news outlet:

Secretary Zinke has heard concerns about the opening of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge and has decided to delay the opening to gather additional information. The secretary has asked Deputy Secretary (David) Bernhardt to look into this matter.

David Bernhardt, as Colorado Politics’ Joey Bunch has reported, is the Colorado native and former lobbyist for Denver-based law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck who is now the No. 2 man at Interior.

Rocky Flats was for years a plant that produced plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons. It was closed in the early 1990s; the plant buildings were removed and the site underwent a Superfund cleanup.

Federal and state environmental agencies have certified the site as safe, but environmental groups sued to block the site’s opening to the public, and U.S. Rep Jared Polis, D-Boulder, a candidate for governor, wrote to Zinke asking for a delay ” until further testing has been completed.”

So there things stood for all of 116 minutes, until we got this statement from Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort at 4:11 p.m. Friday:

The Deputy Secretary has reviewed the refuge and determined it will open tomorrow (Saturday) as scheduled.

That was one speedy review.

Nature-lovers were able to stroll the once-plutonium-infested site Saturday after all. It opened “with no fanfare,” as the Associated Press reported this weekend:

Cyclists and hikers explored a newly opened wildlife refuge at the site of a former nuclear weapons plant in Colorado on Saturday, while a protester in a gas mask brought signs warning about the dangers of plutonium.

While we’re on the topic of Bernhardt, the Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction reports that the Interior official “decided not to speak at a Colorado River District water forum in Grand Junction on Friday after being advised that doing so could raise concerns about a potential conflict of interest.”

Faith Vander Voort, the busy Interior spokeswoman, when contacted by the newspaper, didn’t say specifically what the potential conflict was, but the Sentinel quotes a River District official as saying that the matter had to do with Bernhardt’s previous employment with Brownstein.

Mark Harden

Mark Harden

Mark Harden is managing editor of Colorado Politics. He previously was news director at the Denver Business Journal; city editor, online news editor, state editor, national editor and popular music critic at The Denver Post; and an editor and reporter at newspapers in the Seattle area and San Francisco.