Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant deal between Rockwell and feds turns twenty today

In June 1989, the FBI led a spectacular dawn raid on Rocky Flats, then an operating nuclear weapons plant sixteen miles northwest of Denver, to collect evidence of alleged environmental crimes. A special grand jury wanted to indict eight individuals. But instead, the government cut a deal with Rockwell International, which operated Rocky Flats, on March 26, 1992.

By then, U.S. Attorney Mike Norton had told the grand jurors to go home, and the deal was made behind closed doors. Rockwell signed a five-page agreement with the Department of Justice, pleading guilty to ten environmental crimes and agreeing to pay a fine of $18.5 million. In return, the government promised not to bring any further environmental criminal charges against the corporation or its officers, directors or employees stemming from Rockwell's management of Rocky Flats. In addition, the feds pledged not to sue or take other administrative action against Rockwell based on violations of certain environmental statutes.

But twenty years later, this case is not closed.

Many of the grand jurors are still hoping to tell their story publicly; the closest they've come is a September 1992 cover story in Westword that described how they were stymied in their pursuit of justice. Grand jury foreman Wes McKinley, now a state rep, joined with John Lipsky, the FBI agent who led the raid and had been investigating Rocky Flats for months before that, on The Ambushed Grand Jury, a book that told how justice had been denied at Rocky Flats.

Lipsky also testified at the class-action case that property-owners had filed against Rockwell and Dow Chemical, the earlier operator of the plant. The plaintiffs won that case, but more than twenty years later, it's still mired in appeals.

Rocky Flats itself is being turned into a wildlife refuge; a deal to add open space on the southwest corner in exchange for letting the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority take a right-of-way on the east for a toll road has also stalled in the courts.

Like plutonium, the saga of Rocky Flats lasts forever.

More from the Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Yellow Cab takes a hit in arbitrator's decision on racism case."

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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

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