DENVER – In a grand irony, the land no human being wanted to touch became a buffer zone where wildlife has been able to thrive, and now it's theirs forever.
The Army and Environmental Protection Agency are in the process of transforming Colorado's Rocky Mountain Arsenal, once a polluted wasteland where war weapons and later pesticides were produced, into a wildlife refuge.
Already grey-blue herons, white pelicans and bald eagles have taken up residence in the deserted 27-square-mile outdoor lab, and there is no sign of contamination in the birds.
"There's no pesticide in the eagles. We've checked their blood," said Dean Rundle, the refuge manager.
The arsenal is the first site to attempt the environmental change, beginning a decade ago to strip the facility of residue from mustard gas, sarin nerve agents and chemical weapons produced by the Army during the Cold War.
The transformation process received the help of the departments of Defense and Energy, which lent support when the arsenal's pollution started to threaten other states.
"A lot of these national groups took somewhat of an interest in this because we are the headwaters of many of these streams, and what happens up here can have an impact on those waters as they flow downwards," said Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., who helped spearhead the project.
Total cleanup will take another 70 years and $147 billion dollars. The arsenal has since become a test case for weapons plants in Georgia, Idaho, Washington, and Tennessee.
"There will be a continued obligation by the Department of Energy to make sure we don't have unexpected contamination that would show up in the ground," Allard said.
Even environmentalists who are used to protesting weapons plants are softening at the idea of transforming contaminated land into a wildlife refuge.
"It was polluted. We're cleaning up the pollution and giving it back as something good," Rundle said.