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Rocky Flats – Protecting America’s Cold War Warriors

During the decades-long period of American history when the Soviet Union was our primary threat, and our stockpile of nuclear weapons our most important deterrent, a little known facility just south of Boulder was ground central in the cold war. The euphemistically named Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site produced warheads and conducted research using some of the most dangerous materials known to mankind. Its workers were exposed to untold doses of exotic, radioactive chemicals like beryllium, plutonium, and others and, as result, have been contracting deadly diseases at a greatly accelerated rate.

Click here for more information on the history of Rocky Flats.

Rocky Flats officially closed in 1989 and has recently been converted into a National Wildlife Refuge, thanks to the hard work of local leaders, the Rocky Mountain Stewardship Council, and former Congressman (now Senator) Mark Udall. Today, the radioactive isotopes are long gone, but the diseases those workers contracted are not. Sadly, their numbers continue to dwindle. The programs the federal government has set up to help them and their families have become bureaucratic nightmares, well meaning but failing in their fundamental mission: To provide some measure of thanks and compensation for dangerous work.

One of my highest priorities as a first-term Congressman is to reform the way the Departments of Labor and Energy treat these cold war heroes. In April 2009, I introduced the Charlie Wolf Nuclear Workers Compensation Act in honor of Charlie Wolf, a long-time Flats employee who died of radiation-caused brain cancer earlier in 2009. The Wolf Act would cut through red tape and make former workers with obviously radiation-caused diseases eligible for medical and other compensation much more quickly. One of the hurdles workers currently face is the secrecy of the nuclear program, which makes proving and quantifying their exposure nearly impossible. The Wolf Act simply makes their presence at the site – in most cases – proof enough.

One of our greatest duties as nation, recognized from George Washington’s time to the present, is to take care of our wartime veterans and their families. The Rocky Flats workers deserve that care every bit as much.

Pine Beetle Epidemic

Visitors to Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District may notice an abundance of red lodgepole pine trees in the mountain communities and wonder why a pine tree would change colors. Unfortunately, Colorado and many other western states have been infested by the Mountain Pine Beetle. The insects, which are about the size of a grain of rice, are responsible for about 2 million acres of infected trees since the outbreak began in 1996. Once a tree is infected by the beetle, it can take up to three years for the tree to die and for its needles to turn from green to red. As the trees die, the wood underneath the bark takes on a blueish tint, known as “blue stain.”

Since the beetles know no boundaries, it is critical for communities, various agencies and businesses to work together to help mitigate the effect of the beetles. The beetles can’t be stopped, but we can formulate plans for how we react to the infestation. Congressman Polis works closely with the entire Colorado Delegation, our local state representatives, the USFS and community organizations to address this issue.

Of critical importance is the protection of the communities surrounded by the infestation due to the increased threat of wildfires. We need to reduce the fuel load of dead trees in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI, pronounced “woo-wee”) where development and the forests meet. Thinning this zone creates fire breaks so that if a wildfire breaks out, the threat to structures and communities is lessened. Funding for fire mitigation rather than fire fighting has been a challenge for the USFS. Therefore, the House passed the FLAME Act, which separates fire fighting and fire mitigation accounts within the USFS budget. Another solution is to create a market and increase the value of the dead trees and use the wood for blue-stain products such as flooring, siding, and furniture to name a few. The wood can also be utilized as woody biomass in the form of pellets.

In order to highlight the importance of the pine beetle issue, Congressman Polis testified at the June 16, 2009 Joint Oversight Hearing on "Mountaintop Pine Beetle: Strategies For Protecting The West", in front of the House Natural Resources Committee on the status of the strategic efforts to mitigate the effects of the pine beetle epidemic. The hearing highlighted the scope of the pine beetle problem and why this most recent outbreak demands the prompt attention of Congressional leaders, the Obama Administration, and state and national lands management officials. During the hearing, current solutions were discussed as well as what is needed to responsibly and effectively mitigate the damages of the outbreak. The challenges that face Colorado communities in developing and implementing these solutions were also cited. We will continue our efforts at the federal level to assist our local communities with the pine beetle infestation as this is an issue critical to our District.

Moffat Tunnel

Since 2003, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been studying the environmental, economic, and social impacts of Denver Water’s proposed expansion of the Moffat Tunnel system, which delivers water from Grand and Summit counties to the Gross Reservoir near Rollinsville. Recently, they have been accepting public comments for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the second-to-last step in the long expansion process. Since this proposed project would take precious water resources from already taxed rivers on the West Slope and would greatly expand the size of Gross Reservoir, the proposal has been highly controversial for Second Congressional District residents on both sides of the Continental Divide.

Click here for my official comments on the Draft EIS.

Other links:

USFS Rocky Mountain Region’s Bark Beetle Page  

Colorado State Forest Service

Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative 

Colorado High Country Forest Health Task Force  

Gilpin County Citizen’s Initiative

Northern Front Range Mountain Pine Beetle Working Group

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