Twenty years later, there's still much we don't know about Rocky Flats

Photo of Rocky Flats from the Atom Curtain exhibit.
Robert Del Tredic

Plutonium lasts forever. So does the saga of Rocky Flats.

By U.S. District Judge John Kane's count, the jurors had spent 69 days sifting through the evidence, then another seventeen deliberating. "Through this trial, I had a clipping from one of the newspapers that said — the headline was 'Rocky Flats Gets Its Day in Court.' It's a typical newspaper understatement," Kane told the jurors.

"I don't know how to say this as evocatively, as forcefully as I really want to, but we are all committed to the jury system in this country, and to allow citizens to be in this particular venue of the courtroom with a jury, to be government by the people, of the people, and you have served in that capacity far more than most other jurors do because of the length and time and the complexity of the case. You have set an example and a standard that all of us respect, and I want you to carry with you the notion that you are doing something to preserve, protect and defend the integrity of our government system by the work that you've put in, the concentration, the effort and the time."

The time.

Kane uttered those words in early 2006 — sixteen years after property owners living near Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant first filed suit in 1990, claiming that operations there had affected both their health and their property values. They'd been cataloguing the health problems — high rates of cancer and strangely deformed animals — for years. But the property values had taken a major hit just the year before, in June 1989, when the FBI led a spectacular pre-dawn raid that made headlines around the world. It was the first time one federal agency — the Department of Energy, which owned the plant — had been raided by another. And it wasn't the last of the firsts to leak out of Rocky Flats.

A grand jury, the first-ever special grand jury in Colorado's history, was impaneled in August 1989 and charged with considering all the evidence seized in that raid, a task that continued for more than two years — until then-U.S. Attorney Mike Norton told the jurors that their services were no longer needed. And in March 1992, Norton announced that Rockwell International, the company that had operated the plant for fourteen years, was pleading guilty to ten charges. He was recommending the company pay an $18.5 million fine — which would be the largest ever collected by the federal government for violations of hazardous-waste disposal laws.

It was also less than the government bonuses that Rockwell had been paid.

That's not the only way that Rockwell got off easy. It turned out that the grand jurors had wanted to indict both employees of Rockwell and the DOE for alleged environmental crimes at Rocky Flats, but the Department of Justice had refused to issue those indictments.

The grand jurors wrote a report describing how their work had been stymied, which they asked Judge Sherman Finesilver to release. Instead, he ordered it sealed — and then signed off on the Rockwell settlement deal. Three months later, though, the secrets of the grand jury spilled out in "Justice Denied: The Secret Story of the Rocky Flats Grand Jury," which appeared on the cover of Westword.

The time.

Although the jurors' report was ultimately released (albeit in redacted form), for the past two decades the jurors themselves have been gagged from talking about the case. In defiance of that order, jury foreman Wes McKinley co-authored a book, The Ambushed Grand Jury, with Jon Lipsky, the FBI agent who'd led the raid. And Lipsky himself got to testify about the raid, the investigation that led up to it, and the actions that followed, in Kane's courtroom during the class-action case, which by then had grown to include more than 12,000 plaintiffs — even as some of the original plaintiffs were dying off.

The ten-member jury found in their favor, awarding the plaintiffs $554 million — a record judgment in this state. Both Rockwell and Dow Chemical, which had run the plant previously, were indemnified by the government, but they appealed the verdict anyway, and in 2010 the appeals court threw out the jury's verdict, which by then had grown to $926 million.

The plaintiffs asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn that ruling. But this summer, the Supreme Court declined to consider reinstating the verdict, sending the plaintiffs back to the beginning. Twenty-two years after they first filed suit.

The time.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife is in the process of turning the former plutonium-processing plant into a wildlife refuge. Nearby suburbs have sued to stop a road from passing through the contaminated eastern edge; that case is still pending. But while the property itself is still off limits, the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum, located in an old post office in Arvada, will open its first show this weekend, titled Behind the Atom Curtain: Life and Death in the Nuclear Age.

Meanwhile, McKinley is back at the ranch in Walsh where he received his jury summons. Since then, he's run for Congress, served eight years in the Colorado Legislature and lost a primary for county commissioner. But he's never lost his interest in Rocky Flats. "There is still so much we don't know," he says. "And what we do know makes it even worse."

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