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FBI Alleges Cover-Up at Rocky Flats : Papers Say Energy Dept. Knew of Illegal Atom Waste Disposal

June 10, 1989|TAMARA JONES | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — The Department of Energy knew of "patently illegal" and potentially dangerous practices at its Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant but nevertheless publicly asserted that the plant was complying with environmental laws, FBI documents unsealed Friday charged.

The documents said also that the department awarded the operator of the plant, Rockwell International Corp., millions of dollars in performance bonuses despite evidence of illegal activities.

Pattern of Polluting

The 116-page affidavit that led to Operation Desert Glow--this week's raid by the FBI and Environmental Protection Agency on the Colorado plant--catalogues a disturbing eight-year pattern of illegal dumping, burning and polluting against a backdrop of bureaucratic cover-ups and foot-dragging.

Included are allegations that Rocky Flats illegally burned hazardous wastes on three nights last December, that it illegally disposed of up to 40 hazardous or mixed wastes on its 6,550-acre grounds and that it dumped as many as 13 toxic chemicals--apparently medical waste--into two creeks that lead directly to drinking water supplies for several suburban Denver cities.

"Voluminous documents" point to repeated lies and cover-ups regarding such activities, the FBI said.

At a press conference after the documents were released, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer complained about "obviously shoddy management" at the plant and denounced the federal investigators for not making their findings public sooner.

"They spent eight months building a case while the rest of us were being exposed to potential risks to our health," he charged.

Rocky Flats, the country's sole manufacturer of plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads, has been dogged by a spotty safety and environmental record since it went into production 35 years ago.

Both the Justice Department, which is overseeing the investigation, and the Department of Energy have asserted that the alleged violations pose no "imminent danger" to the public.

But the Sierra Club said that the discovery of medical waste, along with telephone calls the environmental group said it received Friday from whistle-blowers at Rocky Flats, hints darkly at unauthorized medical experiments being conducted on some of the plant's 5,300 employees.

The affidavit did not make that specific charge, but it did conclude that one of the dumped chemicals "has been experimentally tested concerning its ability to protect against radiation-induced cellular damage."

"Why is there any medical waste? It's clearly not necessary to build plutonium triggers," said Maggie Fox, regional director for the Sierra Club. "The question is what are they doing, why, and on whom?"

Wants Plant Closed

The Sierra Club, which filed suit over the alleged illegal burning before the criminal investigation was announced, demanded that Rocky Flats be closed at least pending the outcome of the current investigation.

"The affidavit shows that the amount of waste generated at Rocky Flats is more than can be legally stored or disposed of," Fox said. "How can the public be safe then? There's no way!"

Rockwell International, the El Segundo, Calif.-based company that has run Rocky Flats since 1975 under a Department of Energy contract, has refused to comment.

A statement issued Friday by the Department of Energy did not address any of the allegations but promised that, "if any health, safety or environmental problems are found, (department) teams are in position to take immediate action to notify the public."

About 75 agents from the FBI and EPA continued searching the sprawling plant 16 miles northwest of the Colorado capital for a fourth day Friday as part of the unprecedented criminal investigation.

Damaging Memos

Some of the most damaging evidence cited in the FBI affidavit came from the Department of Energy itself. A July 14, 1986, department memo addressed to an unidentified assistant secretary concluded that Rocky Flats "is in poor condition generally in terms of environmental compliance."

It further acknowledged that some of the waste facilities at Rocky Flats "are patently illegal" and that "we have serious contamination . . . ."

The memo, whose author was not identified in the affidavit, noted that the public had no idea "just how really bad the site is."

Despite these findings, the FBI affidavit points out, the Department of Energy in May, 1987, awarded Rockwell a performance bonus of about $8.6 million for "excellent" management of Rocky Flats.

The Rocky Mountain News reported Friday that the General Accounting Office is now investigating the millions of dollars in bonuses Rocky Flats received regularly over the last 14 years.

Part of its $4.9-million reward in 1988 was forfeited after employees were discovered using government property to make gadgets and toys at a clandestine model shop at Rocky Flats.

In the affidavit, the FBI contends that it documented illegal burning and dumping at the plant with infrared videos taken during surveillance flights over the plant on three nights last December.

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