From a tiny Pacific island to a leafy Indiana forest, a handful of sites where the US manufactured and tested some of the most lethal weapons known to humankind are now peaceful havens for wildlife, the AP reports. An astonishing array of animals and habitats flourished on six obsolete weapons complexes—mostly for nuclear or chemical arms—because the sites banned the public and other intrusions for decades. The government converted them into refuges under US Fish and Wildlife Service management, and they now protect black bears and black-footed ferrets, coral reefs, and brushy steppes, rare birds, and imperiled salmon. But the cost of the conversions is staggering, and some critics say the sites have not been scrubbed well enough of pollutants to make them safe for humans.
The military, the US Department of Energy, and private companies have apparently spent more than $57 billion to clean up the six heavily polluted sites. And the biggest bills have yet to be paid. The Energy Department estimates it will cost between $323 billion and $677 billion more to finish the costliest cleanup, at the Hanford Site in Washington state where the government produced plutonium for bombs and missiles. Researchers have not examined the health risks to wildlife, but few problems have been reported. At least 30 of the 560-plus refuges managed by the wildlife service have some history with the military or weapons production. Many of the conversions came after the first and second world wars. It was an inexpensive way to expand the national refuge system. (Meanwhile, the Endangered Species Act has lost some of its bite.)