Rocky Mountain Arsenal gets $7.4M wildlife center | VailDaily.com

Rocky Mountain Arsenal gets $7.4M wildlife center

JUDITH KOHLER
Associated Press Writer

COMMERCE CITY, Colorado – Once a Superfund site that was the U.S. military’s biggest chemical weapons factory, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is getting a “green” visitor’s center that will be an urban showpiece for the American West’s wildlife system.

The refuge – where hawks swoop down for prey and bison roam over rolling hills – will receive $3.2 million in federal stimulus funds to help complete the center just 11 miles northeast of downtown Denver.

Powered by a wind turbine, solar panels and geothermal heat, the center will be the gateway to miles of prairie, woods and wetlands that is home to deer, coyotes and hundreds of bird species.

Nationwide, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received $280 million in stimulus funds, and $30 million of that went to its eight-state Mountain-Prairie region.

The Arsenal will be the region’s gem, officials say.

“Really, our only big urban area in this eight-state region is Denver and this place is unique because we’re smack dab in the middle of that big urban area,” said agency spokesman Matt Kales.

The 14,000-square-foot visitor’s center will feature an observation deck, an aviary, an auditorium and exhibits chronicling arsenal history. The $7.4 million center is scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2010, said park ranger Sherry James, who heads visitors’ services.

Refuge officials had socked away nearly $4.7 million for the center by selling 920 acres of land to suburban Commerce City. Officials weren’t sure where the rest would come from.

“We held out long enough, then the stimulus package came through,” James said.

Visits are expected to jump from 35,000 to 200,000 a year when the center opens, she said.

Arsenal construction began in 1942 as the U.S. Army scrambled to match a chemical weapons threat from the Axis powers during World War II. It produced mustard gas, lewisite, chlorine gas and more than 100,000 tons of incendiary bombs such as those used on Tokyo in March 1945.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Army produced incendiary cluster bombs, nerve gas and rocket propellant at the facility. For three decades, Shell Chemical Co. manufactured herbicides and pesticides there.

Production stopped in 1982, and the arsenal was declared a priority under the federal Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program. Soil, buildings, surface water and groundwater were contaminated from decades of toxic waste disposal.

Shell and the Army reached agreements in the 1990s over how much each should pay for cleanup and what to do about polluted groundwater. The Army is responsible for five groundwater treatment plants.

Wildlife made itself at home despite ponds of chemical goo and trenches containing munitions and pesticide byproducts. The discovery of bald eagles nesting in winter led to the idea of turning it into a national wildlife refuge. Congress approved the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Act of 1992.

A $2.4 billion cleanup begun in 1997 is expected to be completed next year. The Army will maintain control of a 1,100-acre parcel where contaminated material is capped and contained.

Sixteen buffalo were moved to the arsenal from the National Bison Range in northwestern Montana in 2007. The herd has grown to 27 and, if all goes well, could surpass 200.

Critics questioned the safety of the site, along with a planned wildlife refuge at the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant northwest of Denver. There were reports of dead birds on arsenal grounds when cleanup started.

In 2001, workers found sarin-filled bomblets about the size of grapefruit. Last year, the arsenal was closed when crews excavating a trench detected lewisite. Arsenal officials said only trace amounts were found.

The Army is confident property turned over to Fish and Wildlife will be safe, said Charlie Scharmann, the Army’s program manager. Landfills have multiple liners, and barriers and caps will prevent water and snow from spreading contamination. An Army contractor will monitor the arsenal.

Stimulus dollars are funding other western projects, including an improved irrigation system at the National Elk Refuge in northwest Wyoming. The refuge will spend $3.2 million to increase forage and reduce the need for supplemental elk feeding in winter.

In south-central Colorado, the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge will spend about $1.5 million to build a dam to divert water from the Rio Grande for wetlands. Refuge manager Mike Blenden said the dam failed in 2001.

“It has been a high priority for regional funding, but there has been so little construction funding since this thing washed out,” Blenden said.

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On the Net:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain-Prairie Region: http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/

Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/rockymountainarsenal/




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