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Deliverance

Time's a-wastin' at Rocky Flats.

Plutonium lasts forever...or close enough.

Certainly the stories surrounding Rocky Flats, the now-defunct nuclear-weapons plant sixteen miles northwest (and that means upwind) of Denver, are never-ending.

The most controversial current chapter involves the six tons of weapons-grade plutonium scheduled for transport to South Carolina, so that the last phase of the cleanup can be completed by 2006, as the Department of Energy has promised. Promised the people of Colorado, again and again.

The plutonium shipments were supposed to begin on May 15. But that was before South Carolina's governor, Jim Hodges, threatened to block the shipments with his body (while wearing a University of Colorado football helmet) -- if his lawsuit didn't do the job first.

A hearing on that legal action is set for June 13. Not coincidentally, the newest start date for the Rocky Flats shipments is now June 15.

Hodges says he's worried that the federal government has made no hard-and-fast guarantees that the plutonium shipped to South Carolina's Savannah River site will be processed in a timely fashion for eventual shipment out of that state. For starters, the $4 billion mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) recycling plant that's supposed to convert the waste plutonium has yet to be built. And without that plant in place, he argues, there's no reason to move the plutonium now -- particularly when it could prove a vulnerable target for terrorists. "Since the plutonium is only to be moved from one place of storage to another place of storage," Hodges wrote Department of Energy secretary Spencer Abraham as word of new terrorist threats spread, "there is no sufficient reason to endanger so many of our citizens by transporting it from one side of the country to the other."

Terrorism is only the latest bogeyman that Hodges has employed in his efforts to block the delivery of Rocky Flats waste to a state that had eagerly campaigned for the recycling facility; Hodges, a Democrat up for re-election in November, has also suggested that Senator Wayne Allard is hot to jettison the plutonium from this state because it will help the Colorado Republican's chances at the polls.

"It's the issue du jour for Hodges," says Allard spokesman Sean Conway.

But Representative Mark Udall, the Democrat whose second congressional district includes Rocky Flats, is no happier than Allard to see the stuff stay here. "All of these postponements were creating a concern for Mark, who wanted to protect Colorado's interests," says Udall spokesman Lawrence Pacheco. And so on May 15, Udall joined Allard in proposing legislation that would allow the State of Colorado to fine the Department of Energy up to $100 million a year if the DOE has failed to remove all of the plutonium from Rocky Flats by November 2003.


The DOE knows all about Rocky Flats-related fines.

Back in June 1989, the FBI raided the then-operational plant, looking for evidence of alleged environmental crimes. A federal grand jury spent two years sifting through that evidence and ultimately decided to indict eight individuals, including employees of both the DOE and Rockwell International, which was running the plant for the feds. Instead, the Department of Justice cut a deal with Rockwell, allowing the company to pay an $18.5 million fine -- less than Rockwell had earned in bonuses for its performance at Rocky Flats -- to settle the case. The grand jurors were so outraged by the deal that they wrote a report to the federal judge overseeing the case, Sherman Finesilver, and asked him to reject the settlement. Instead, ten years ago next month, the judge accepted the deal and sealed the grand jurors' report.

Although much of that report has since been released, a majority of the grand jurors are still waiting for U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch to rule on their request that they be allowed to break confidentiality and testify as to what went on behind closed doors more than a decade ago.

The grand jury's foreman, Wes McKinley, is not included on the list of plaintiffs. He decided to take a different route to justice: He ran for Congress as an independent in 1996. And while he placed a distant third in that race (although his mule, Marvin, did snag a major endorsement), he hasn't given up on politics altogether. McKinley is now running for a seat in the Colorado Legislature, in new House District 64, which stretches to the far southeastern corner of the state. This time around, he's running as a Democrat.

And so last week McKinley made the drive up from Walsh, his home hard by the Oklahoma border, to attend a Democratic fundraiser celebrating the end of the last legislative session and the start of the campaign season. The event had a particular resonance for McKinley: It was held at the law firm of Haddon, Morgan & Foreman, the attorneys who represented Rockwell when it cut its deal with the Justice Department.

While McKinley is still legally muzzled from talking about the grand jury's activities, he was looking forward to meeting Hal Haddon, the longtime Democratic power broker who was the lead attorney on the Rocky Flats case. But it was not to be.

"I wasn't at that Democratic fundraiser, and I didn't get to meet Mr. McKinley," Haddon says. And there's absolutely no truth to the rumor floating around Democratic circles that he will host a fundraiser for McKinley.

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