Former Workers Petition for Access to Sealed Rocky Flats Documents

Signage at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge near Arvada, Colorado. (Amanda Pampuro/CNS)

DENVER (CN) – Community members and former facility workers petitioned a federal court Thursday for access to documents sealed 30 years ago during a grand jury investigation into the former Rocky Flats Plant where nuclear weapons were once manufactured.

“Because this grand jury ended decades ago, because these documents would have been created under routine business operations anyway, there are exceptions to the rule that permit disclosure in the proper circumstances,” said environmental attorney Pat Mellen who is representing the plaintiffs. “We believe those circumstances apply here because we are seeking these documents preliminary to litigation.”

The former nuclear weapons manufacturing located 16 miles northwest of Denver opened to the public as the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge last September and remains the subject of a separate lawsuit filed last May by the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The petition sponsored by the Alliance of Nuclear Workers Advocacy Groups anticipates five imminent threats that will likely lead to future litigation, including the construction of parkways around the site, hiking trails through it and applications recently submitted to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission seeking to drill for resources underneath.

Community groups tailored the request for “documents directly related to identifiable pending and/or anticipated litigation. Plaintiffs anticipate litigation will be required to oppose imminent threats as efforts short of litigation have not been fruitful.”

The documents may also be used to expand the pool of former workers who are eligible for compensation.

Currently, Rocky Flats workers are eligible for compensation if they developed specific cancers and were employed at the plant prior to 1984. Members of the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Group said they want to expand that eligibility pool, but lack “the smoking gun documentation to prove our case,” said founding member Terrie Barrie. “That evidence may be included in the documents given to the Rocky Flats Grand Jury.”

From 1952 to 1992, the Rocky Flats Plant produced an estimated 70,000 plutonium pits, the device responsible for detonating nuclear bombs.

The plant closed after an FBI raid discovered mishandling of radioactive materials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared it a Superfund site. Special Federal Grand Jury 89-2 was launched August 1, 1989. Through subpoenas and informal requests, the grand jury collected more than 760 boxes of documents containing 3.5 million pages of information which remains under seal three decades later. 

Following the federal investigation in March 1992, the facility’s former contractor Rockwell pled guilty to 10 criminal offenses and paid an $18.5 million fine.

In 2001, Congress passed the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act and allocated $7.7 billion over a decade to clean up the area with plans to open 11 miles of trails encircling the buffer zone to the public.

The 1,300-acre core of the refuge where the actual manufacturing took place has been designated a legacy site by the Department of Energy and will be closed indefinitely.

Literature circulated by the Fish and Wildlife Service highlight 630 plant and wildflower species as well as 239 animal species that call the site home, including prairie falcons, deer, elk, coyotes, songbirds and Preble’s meadow jumping mouse.

“Levels of residual contamination on the refuge land are very low and meet state and federal cleanup standards and regulatory guidance,” announces the sign outside the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge. “While small amounts of contamination remain above background levels, the corresponding radiation dose a visitor receives is small (<1 millirem/year compared to the average American’s annual dose of 620 mrem). If you visited the refuge hundreds of times in a year, your dose still would be much less than a medical X-ray.”

Reiterating federal and local government findings, the sign concludes: “The refuge is safe for recreation, refuge workers, and wildlife.”

While government agencies and development groups are ready to move on, local residents and former workers say not so fast.

“We’ve reached a stalemate in this region between advocates for economic development at or near the refuge and the community groups who believe that economic development is not safe yet,” Mellen said. “So we are seeking the disclosure of this information in order to audit the clean up that happened, the risk assessment that followed it, and the determination that the refuge portion of that property is actually safe for unlimited use and exposure.”

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