At virtual ceremonies on Sept. 21-22, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Legacy Management (LM) Rocky Flats Site and Las Colonias Recreation Area in Colorado were recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as models for reuse of contaminated land.

The EPA recognized Rocky Flats near Denver and Las Colonias in Grand Junction with National Federal Facility Excellence in Site Reuse awards. The awards highlight the significant accomplishments of federal agencies, states, Tribes, local partners, and developers in restoring and reusing contaminated land at federal facilities.

LM's Rocky Flats Site won in the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) category, while the Las Colonias Site won in the Superfund National Priorities List non-NPL category. The Rocky Flats award also recognizes the transfer of lands from LM to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those lands became the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge and trails opened to the public in 2018. 

Department of Energy Deputy Secretary David Turk said it was a “huge honor” to be recognized by the EPA.

“Here at the DOE, we make sure every one of our programs helps leave our planet better than we found it, and our Environmental Management and Legacy Management teams are at the heart of this,” Turk said. “Secretary (Jennifer) Granholm and I share the belief that these programs are morally the right thing to do in response to the legacy of radioactive and chemical contamination. But this work is so much more important than just restoring our land. It’s about keeping our promises to the American people.”

The post-cleanup Rocky Flats Site is seen in a photo taken June 11, 2007.
The post-cleanup Rocky Flats Site is seen in a photo taken June 11, 2007.

Peter O’Konski, deputy director of LM, said success at the Rocky Flats site was made possible by a partnership of many people.

“It was a hard lift. It was a hard lift for EM and it continues to be a hard lift for the community to keep it relevant, to keep it focused, keep it moving forward,” O’Konski said of the Rocky Flats cleanup. “We look forward to Rocky Flats being part of the Denver community for years to come, and for it to move on to its next chapter of its mission to the nation.”

Deb Thomas, EPA Region 8 acting regional administrator, said Rocky Flats had earned its reputation as a world-class example of site reuse.

“Today the site is providing great benefits to Colorado’s residents and visitors, as well as being a place of diversity for plants and animals that are clearly thriving there,” she said. “It’s so good to see. It’s an absolute honor to announce these awardees.”

The Rocky Flats Site  was originally a nuclear weapons production facility during the Cold War. After nuclear weapons production ended, DOE completed a 10-year, $7 billion cleanup of chemical and radiological contamination.

In 2001, Congress passed the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act of 2001, creating the 5,200-acre federally protected Refuge. The Refuge now restores and preserves native ecosystems while providing habitat for migratory and resident wildlife, and recreational opportunities for surrounding communities.

“We are proud of our work that created a safer environment and helped shape this valuable resource,” said Andy Keim, LM’s site manager for the Rocky Flats Site. “The daily commitment from our site team helps ensure area communities remain protected now and in the future.”

Keim said areas disturbed during cleanup and closure activities have been reclaimed and revegetated, and the site provides critical habitat for the endangered Preble’s meadow jump mouse, as well as other wildlife.

“I do have to say that the elk herd that lives out there definitely makes good use of it, and they’re frequent observers of our work,” he said.

Las Colonias Park is a former uranium processing facility and has been transformed into a city-owned park that includes a 15-acre business zone, 5,000-seat amphitheater, riverfront park, boat ramp, trails, and an arboretum. The park provides a destination for walking and biking along the Colorado River, and has become a catalyst for redevelopment in the surrounding area with retail and restaurant space under development.

Las Colonias River Park in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Las Colonias River Park in Grand Junction, Colorado.

The reuse and restoration efforts that were recognized by the EPA at the former processing site are located in the industrial area of Grand Junction, along the northern banks of the west-flowing Colorado River. The site began operations in 1899 as a sugar beet factory and in 1950, the Climax Uranium Company converted the site to operate as a uranium and vanadium mill until 1970. 

During the 19 years of site operation, the mill produced uranium oxide or “yellowcake” for sale to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission for Cold War efforts. Production also created 2.2 million tons of radioactive tailings. In 1970 and 1971, after the mill closed, most of the buildings on site were demolished and the site was cleaned up.

As part of its obligations under Title I of UMTRCA, DOE began surface remediation of the processing site in the 1980s. Approximately 4.4 million cubic yards of contaminated process site materials were transported to an offsite licensed disposal facility, known as the Grand Junction Disposal Site. 

Past milling activities also contaminated the alluvial aquifer beneath the site. This residual groundwater contamination from the processing site is addressed and monitored by LM and institutional controls are in place. At the time of site cleanup, extra effort was taken to ensure the riparian areas along the Colorado River were cleaned up to these standards and to ensure contamination did not spread into one of the West’s most vital rivers.

All surface and subsurface soils at the processing site were cleaned up to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and UMTRCA standards. The selected remedy, which relies on institutional controls and uses limitations, is appropriate for current recreational and industrial use scenarios and does not pose a risk to human health and the environment. After cleanup, the site was landscaped, and the property was transferred to the city of Grand Junction in March 1997.

When the city of Grand Junction eventually began redeveloping the site, it named the project Las Colonias Park to honor the culturally close-knit Hispanic settlement known as La Colonia (The Colony) that populated the former sugar beet milling operations during the early 1900s.

“What has taken place here at Las Colonias Park was made possible because of great partnerships and efforts by folks from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the State of Colorado, the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, the City of Grand Junction, the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Mesa University, and many others,” said Sara Woods, site manager at LM’s Grand Junction Office. “The beauty that Las Colonias Park has to offer will allow multiple generations to make memories for years to come.”

The site was included in the city of Grand Junction’s South Downtown Neighborhood Plan, as well as the Downtown Development Authority’s development plan.

The Las Colonias master plan was financed and implemented through a variety of resources and grants. Implementation required creatively leveraging a variety of financial resources from a group of diverse stakeholders. The community raised $2.1 million locally to match a $1.6 million grant from the Department of Local Affairs. Fundraising support is thanks to the Downtown Development Authority, Riverfront Foundation, Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, Grand Junction Economic Partnership, Colorado Mesa University, Great Outdoors Colorado, Goodwin Foundation, Bacon Family Foundation, Grand Junction Lions Club, El Pomar Foundation, Gates Family Foundation, LM Support contractor(s), and the city of Grand Junction. 

Learn more about the 2021 EPA National Federal Facility Excellence in Site Reuse Awards.