FEATURE - US weapons arsenal becomes wildlife refuge
DENVER - Near a poisonous patch of ground in the shadow of Colorado\'s Rocky Mountains, mule deer graze on native prairie grasses, bald eagles build their nests, and foxes and coyotes hunt prairie dogs.
While environmental groups say the Rocky Mountain Arsenal - a Cold War relic that once produced deadly chemical weapons like mustard gas, napalm and sarin - remains dangerously contaminated, the wildlife is thriving, stirring hopes that it may soon become a popular draw for tourists and naturalists.
\"This was once a natural prairie until society needed it for defense purposes,\" said Dean Rundle, a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. \"In the process, we messed up with some pollution, but now we\'re ready to turn it back to the wildlife.\"
Cleaning up has been a big job. The U.S. Army\'s defunct arsenal installation, 10 miles (16 km) northeast of downtown Denver, is undergoing a $2.2 billion face lift, with the ultimate goal to convert the high-plains wetland into an urban wildlife center, where the public can view the 300 species of animals that live on the site.
Designated a National Wildlife Refuge by the federal government in 1992, the 27-square mile (43-square-km) arsenal is also an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, with the Army overseeing clean-up, scheduled to be completed by 2011.
LOOK AT THE BOMBLETS
Portions of the sprawling site were open to the public in 1996 for wildlife viewing, but sightseeing tours were curtailed in October 2000 after crews discovered 10 nerve gas \"bomblets\" on the grounds.
The bomblets - grapefruit-sized aluminum spheres containing liquid sarin and a small explosive charge - were manufactured at the arsenal in the 1950s.
Army ordnance experts disarmed the bombs. But the discovery raised fears that the arsenal was not as safe as had been advertised, and a thorough mapping of the grounds was undertaken to pinpoint other areas that may contain munitions or chemical pollutants.
Charles Scharmann, the Army\'s project manager for clean up, was joined at a recent news conference by EPA and wildlife officials to announce that they believe all the problem areas are isolated and pose no public health threat.
\"We are getting ready to restart public access maybe by late summer or early fall,\" Scharmann said. \"But safety for the workers and the public remains our number one priority.\"
Built in 1942 on what was then remote countryside, the arsenal was designed by World War Two military planners as a weapons factory far from possible enemy attacks along U.S. coastlines.
During its peak production years, from 1947 to the mid-1950s, the arsenal churned out a number of chemical weapons, but it stopped making them in 1969.
Rocket propellant and agricultural pesticides continued to be produced at the site until 1982, when all chemical production was halted.
Although weapons and chemical manufacturing was confined to a relatively small tract on the 17,000-acre (6,800 hectare) arsenal, environmental problems arose. In the late 1950s, chemicals leached into the water table beneath the site, causing crop damage on farms that drew on the groundwater for irrigation.
In the 1960s, workers pumped chemical waste two miles (3 km) below the arsenal, setting off thousands of minor earthquakes and tremors. The quakes subsided when the Army agreed to halt the underground disposals.
Officials say waterfowl and other migratory birds who passed through the arsenal were also affected by the chemicals, but their populations are are now recovering.
\"Prior to the clean up, the birds were dying here from things like feeding on contaminated insects, but we\'re not seeing that as much now. It\'s been quite remarkable,\" said Rundle of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
White pelicans now flourish on the refuge\'s marshes and waterways. In the past year a nesting pair of bald eagles hatched the first eaglet born on the arsenal. Other birds, like burrowing owls and red-tail hawks also thrive on the wetlands.
READY FOR VISITORS?
While government officials are eager to show off the arsenal as an example of a successful environmental clean-up, private conservation groups say it\'s too soon to allow the public near the toxic areas before the 2011 target date for final certification.
\"There\'s no reason to have visitors and tourists on site during the remediation period,\" said Sandy Horrocks, who monitors the arsenal clean up for the Sierra Club, the 110-year-old environmental watchdog organization.
\"They said 10 years ago it was safe, and then the sarin bombs were found and they\'ll probably find more,\" Horrocks said. \"The concentration should be on the clean up, and not on a rush to have people on the site.\"
Officials concede the arsenal is not entirely pristine.
\"We expect that more munitions could be recovered from the clean-up areas, and we are confident in the Army\'s ability to handle them safely,\" said Max Dodson, assistant regional administrator for the EPA.
But they say that lingering problems should not prevent the public from enjoying portions of the arsenal that have already been cleaned - noting that tons of contaminated soil have been removed while polluted ground and surface water had also been dealt with.
Rundle said the water projects had gone so well that ponds on the arsenal have been stocked with fish such as largemouth bass, channel catfish, northern pike and blue gill.
Because of residual chemicals in the food chain, fishing will be allowed on a strict catch-and-release basis.
Story by Keith Coffman
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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