CHOOSING SIDES | News | Denver | Denver Westword | The Leading Independent News Source in Denver, Colorado


Melinda Kassen was known as a hard-hitting critic of Rocky Flats when she worked as an attorney for the Boulder branch of the Environmental Defense Fund from 1986 to 1992. Now she's switched sides, some of her former allies are grumbling. Kassen began work in February as environmental counsel for...
Share this:
Melinda Kassen was known as a hard-hitting critic of Rocky Flats when she worked as an attorney for the Boulder branch of the Environmental Defense Fund from 1986 to 1992. Now she's switched sides, some of her former allies are grumbling. Kassen began work in February as environmental counsel for Kaiser-Hill, the contractor that will take over cleanup of the contaminated former nuclear-weapons plant on July 1.

"Melinda's a smart woman and a very intense, hardworking environmentalist," says Jason Salzman of Greenpeace, who has known Kassen for eight years and worked with her on Rocky Flats issues. "Her heart is in the right place. I was surprised she took the job."

Says veteran environmental activist Adrienne Anderson, "It's troubling to see a very talented person moving to the other side. People tend to flee toward the bucks. Melinda's not the first and won't be the last."

Adds Kim Grice, who describes himself as a "redneck Republican businessman and radical Rocky Flats protester," "We all have our price."

Kassen, who worked as environmental adviser to the House Armed Services Committee from 1993 until the new Republican majority ousted her and the rest of the Democrats' staff at the end of last year, bridles at implications she's been co-opted.

"I'm not interested in talking to Westword for a story accusing an environmentalist of selling out," she says. "I took the job because I believe the Kaiser-Hill team has an environ-mental ethic and a willingness to bring a dynamic approach to Rocky Flats that's desperately needed there."

Except for her two years in Washington, Kassen has lived in Boulder since 1983. As an attorney for EDF concentrating on water issues and nuclear-radiation questions, Kassen found that Rocky Flats demanded an increasing amount of time after she was introduced to the plutonium-laden facility and its hazards by a grassroots activist in 1987. She quickly earned the respect of other environmentalists for her knowledge of the law and her ability to distill complex issues down to easily grasped arguments. However, some found her technical and legal approach too accommodating to regulators and contractors at Rocky Flats.

And that's why people like Grice say they're not that surprised at her new job. "She was a moderate environmentalist and we were radicals," says Grice. "EDF did some good things, granted, but they could have been more aggressive. She has always been influenced more by corporate America than environmentalism."

Joan Seeman, a former activist who moved from the Denver area in 1989, is even harsher. "Melinda Kassen took very political positions--political positions don't help human health," says Seeman. "She had her own EDF agenda. She didn't work for the community, I'll tell you that."

Kassen supported an unsafe incinerator for burning radioactive waste at the facility, claims Seeman, who also alleges that Kassen and EDF backed a water standard for plutonium that fails to protect public health.

Kassen angrily denies both charges. "We submitted ten pages of testimony to the health department on the incinerator," she says. "I urge you to check it. We were not in favor of the incinerator. Our testimony may not have been as adamantly opposed to it as that of some others. But if someone is interpreting that as our supporting it, they're wrong."

And Kassen insists that she fought for more stringent limits on plutonium in the plant's stream water than those required by Environmental Protection Agency standards.

That may be so, says Paula Elofson-Gardine of the Environmental Information Network, but because scientists have yet to establish a safe level of plutonium in water, the state health department and EDF should have supported a standard banning the radioactive metal from stream water leaving the site.

Kassen did not improve relations with Grice, Seeman and Elofson-Gardine when she excluded them from a 1990 meeting she brokered between local Rocky Flats critics and a government panel. "Groups like EDF tried to freeze us out," says Grice, "because they thought it was better to work within the system by negotiating with the politicians and bureaucrats rather than making waves."

Kassen refuses to discuss the meeting. "I honestly don't think it was important--then or now," she says.

Other environmentalists disagreed with Kassen over tactics. "Sometimes at EDF, Melinda distanced herself from the grassroots groups and their activities--the ones that scream and yell, like Greenpeace," recalls Greenpeace's Salzman, who argues for street theater and demonstrations as an effective means of protest. "I think it's a mistake when groups like EDF that do fine technical work refuse to try to communicate with ordinary people. Melinda tried to keep the discussion on a technical level rather than a theater level. That's not a criticism; I think that's just what she believed was best."

That difference in style set Kassen apart from the rest of the environmentalist crowd more than once. In 1993, when Greenpeace gave the Rocky Flats grand jurors a "good citizenship" award, a who's who of local environmentalists signed on to express appreciation for the jurors' investigation of the plant. Kassen and EDF declined. "Melinda didn't think that was an EDF kind of thing to do," says Salzman.

Kassen says she doesn't recall the incident. "Jason did all kinds of very creative things," she says. "EDF's role tends to be much more boring. It takes a principled legal position based on fact and technical merit. I acted like an EDF attorney."

And even her critics praise the work she did on the Rocky Flats Environmental Monitoring Council, a group appointed by Governor Roy Romer in the late Eighties.

"Melinda was selected to be on that board--not Greenpeace, not Kim Grice, not Paula Elofson-Gardine," says Salzman. "And there clearly was value in having her there."

Grice agrees. "She was a feisty member of the Council at digging out the truth," he says. "The battle against Rocky Flats then was a bunch of Davids against Goliath. She was one of the Davids that threw a stone. So I consider her a peer. I can't say anything negative about her there."

"I came to appreciate Melinda," adds Elofson-Gardine. "She has a high degree of integrity, and she asked tough questions that they wouldn't let us ask. She played an integral role in hammering Rockwell and getting them to reveal information that they might not have otherwise revealed."

Despite those accolades, Kassen herself says she's proudest of her work out of the public eye as a member of a committee sponsored by the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and the EPA. Meeting at the Keystone Center, the group offered advice to the federal government on the cleanup of troubled sites like Rocky Flats.

David Shelton, then on the committee as a representative of the state health department, calls Kassen "very persuasive" and predicts she'll do well as Kaiser-Hill's environmental counsel, where she'll be responsible for making sure the company complies with federal and state environmental regulations. Kassen says she'll also advise plant managers on how company activities will be received by the public.

Jim Stone of the Rocky Flats Cleanup Commission, a citizens' watchdog group, seconds Shelton's prediction. "She's going to take those wimps out there and straighten them out," he says. "She's very volatile, and she's a dedicated environmentalist. I think she'll tell the bureaucrats, `We know what to do to clean up the place. You guys don't, so get the hell out of the way and let us do it.' I know Melinda's got the guts to do that."

Adrienne Anderson, however, is less optimistic. "She's very talented, but she's only one person," she says. "No matter who you are as a person, you tend to dance to the tune of the people paying your check.

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.