Rocky Flats Becomes National Environmental Crisis
Rocky Flats was the site of an 800-structure cleanup and the largest environmental fine to date

by Jess Brovsky-Eaker

Following WWII, the U.S. selected Dow Chemical to break ground on a centrally located site in Arvada for parts production to support an increase in domestic nuclear weapon manufacturing. The Rocky Flats Plant aided the U.S. government in the manufacturing of nuclear weapons from 1952 to 1992.

By the late ’80s, unsafe production practices at the plant had garnered the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency and the FBI, and the facility was raided in June 1989.

The raid resulted in a guilty plea from plant operations company Rockwell International and what was then the largest environmental fine to date.

In the investigation that led to the raid, the FBI performed a flight over the facility in December and found that an “outdated and unpermitted” incinerator in Building 771 was in active operation after hours. The FBI collected evidence of various violations for several months before informing the Department of Energy of a potential terrorist threat tied to the plant.

After the raid, the federal agencies formed Colorado’s first special grand jury with a trial including testimony from more than 100 witnesses, more than 2,000 exhibits and a plea agreement confessing guilt for 10 federal environmental crimes.

Rockwell’s plea agreement was hotly contested as claims emerged that DOE had exempted the company from most environmental laws, including the pollution of immediate areas with hazardous waste.

Press leaks occurred on both sides of the trial, and while the DOJ sealed the entire grand jury’s special report, Westword published a leaked copy.

The report indicted several DOE officials in addition to Rockwell staff. The full account showed evidence that the plant had, for many years, discharged and leaked hazardous radioactive materials and pollutants into nearby water supplies for Broomfield and Westminster.

According to the Los Angeles Times in August 1993, the DOE released a study one year prior to the FBI raid calling the plant’s ground water the “single greatest environmental hazard at any of its nuclear facilities.”

The event attracted national attention for the magnitude of the grand jury alone and, as details about the collective crimes were released to the press, national news outlets covered the Rocky Flats story.

Reportedly, cleanup consisted of the decommissioning of more than 800 contaminated structures, removal of over 21 tons of weapons-grade material and more than 1.3 million cubic meters of radioactive waste. As part of the cleanup, the federal government also treated more than 16 million gallons of water that was being funneled to local municipalities and replaced the contaminated water with the construction of four new groundwater treatment systems.

The area, known to locals as Leyden, has been tested for EPA compliance numerous times since the cleanup and is now a newly constructed housing development. Among many rumors of the area being haunted and home to several cults, neighborhood residents haven’t reported any complications with the site. But many Coloradans are still haunted by the past dangers of the old Rocky Flats plant.

This article appeared in the June 1 issue of Law Week Colorado. To read other articles from that issue, order a copy online.