Aurora may join swell of schools forbidding unpopular field trips to Rocky Flats nuke site

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AURORA | Field trips for Aurora Public Schools students and others to the metro area’s closed nuclear weapons plant are seriously in jeopardy.

There is no punch line.

Aurora Public Schools board members are pondering a resolution that would forbid school field trips to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, even though it’s unclear what kind of impact this would have.

“No APS students have visited Rocky Flats as part of a field trip and we have not received any requests for field trips to Rocky Flats,” said spokesperson Corey Christiansen. 

Rocky Flats was run by private military contractors for decades and created nuclear weapons triggers using plutonium during the Cold War. The plant was famously raided once by the EPA and FBI and ultimately closed in 1992.

APS isn’t the only school district nixing field trips where no one appears to have gone.

Aurora would join at least seven metro-area school districts that have banned student field trips to the newly-opened wildlife refuge of flat, brown plains that surrounds a Superfund site. 

Board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero championed a district-wide ban at a board meeting last week. The board was slated to consider the ban this week, but Armstrong-Romero now says she will wait for newly elected school board members to take their new seats next month and introduce a resolution then. 

The Colorado Department of Health and Environment has said there’s a one-in-a-million cancer risk for a refuge worker or a visitor exposed to potential toxic waste or radioactive emissions from the plant. 

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge consists of the former buffer zone area separating plains, and residents, from the infamous plutonium pit manufacturing site for use in nuclear weapons. Plutonium and a who’s-who of toxic chemicals and compounds plagued the site before an approximately $7 billion cleanup effort. 

CDPHE officials referred The Sentinel to a website FAQ page. 

“Areas within the refuge were never used for processing, storage or disposal activities, and sampling confirms they are unaffected by site activities from a hazardous waste perspective; that is, no hazardous wastes or constituents have been placed in or migrated to the area that is now the refuge,” the document says. 

The issue of safety in the area has made headlines again recently.

The idea of a prospective field trip ban in APS was revived last week after citizen activists and scientists told the school board Rocky Flats is still dangerous. 

“It’s very important that that land not be open for public recreation, and it’s especially important that kids not visit that land,” activist Chris Allred told The Sentinel after testifying before school board. He’s with Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice, an anti-nuclear and anti-war organization that has successfully persuaded more than half-a-dozen districts and officials not to let their students on Rocky Flats. 

He’s never been to the refuge himself and advised others not to go. 

The field-trip bans are largely preemptive. Principals must approve all school field trips, as do parents and legal guardians. 

But for Rocky Flats, Superintendent Rico Munn has the power to personally weigh any request to visit the site. That’s the result of a 2018 policy change instituted after a similar activist request to school board members, according to school officials. 

That policy “isn’t enough” for Armstrong-Romero. 

“There were some pretty serious concerns,” she said of the refuge. “Although certain officials have said the site is safe, I thought that, in solidarity with our partners, like Denver Public Schools and Adams (county school districts) that it would be beneficial to forgo those field trips.”