Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Rocky Flats judgment appealed while plaintiffs wait... and wait

Plutonium lasts forever, and so do legal cases involving Rocky Flats.

Yesterday, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges Stephen Anderson, Jerome Holmes and Michael Murphy heard arguments in the appeal of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant class-action lawsuit -- filed by neighbors of the facility back in 1990, six months after the feds raided the plant. They claimed that Rocky Flats was a hazard to both their property values and their health, and by the time the case went to trial in 2005, more than 12,000 nearby property-owners had signed on for the cause -- and some of the original plaintiffs had passed away during the fifteen-year wait.

In February 2006, after months of testimony, a federal jury found that Dow Chemical Co. and Rockwell International had negligently allowed plutonium from the former nuclear weapons plant to contaminate thousands of homes and businesses near Denver, placing the plaintiffs "at some increased risk of health problems.'' And the verdict for this behavior? Punitive damages of $110.8 million against Dow and $89.4 million against Rockwell; the jury also recommended that the companies pay $352 million in actual damages. Today, that judgment has grown to close to a billion dollars.

But the plaintiffs have yet to see a cent. Dow and Rockwell appealed, arguing that U.S. District Judge John Kane had improperly instructed the jury and claiming that scientific studies have shown no harm to residents' health or property.

(They apparently didn't pay attention to former FBI agent Jon Lipsky, who led the raid, testified at the 2005-'06 trial and sat in on yesterday's appeals arguments, after testifying at the State Capitol the day before regarding state representative Wes McKinley's bill proposing educational signage at Rocky Flats, which is slated to open to the public as a nature center.)

And even if the appeals court upholds the verdict and the companies actually pay up, they'll be paid back: Because they operated Rocky Flats for the Department of Energy as indemnified government contractors, they'll be reimbursed by the feds.

Your government at work.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun