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

Times Staff Writer

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.

The affidavit cites numerous documents and internal memos as evidence of "past and ongoing activities at Rocky Flats, of a protracted and continuous nature."

That statement contradicts one made Tuesday by U.S. Atty. Dick Thornburgh, who emphasized that the investigation focused only on past violations.

Outdated Incinerator

The affidavit used the present tense to note there was probable cause "to believe that Rocky Flats is using an outdated and unpermitted incinerator in Building 771 to illegally 'treat' at least nine hazardous or mixed wastes in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act."

Building 771 is a plutonium reprocessing building that was closed for safety violations last October. In one of the most serious allegations in its affidavit, the FBI said its surveillance flights showed that Building 771 was being operated clandestinely in December.

Romer told a news conference at the state Capitol Friday that it was "absolutely inexcusable" for the federal government to have kept its findings secret until Thornburgh's announcement of the raid Tuesday.

Romer said that state health officials were never informed of the potentially dangerous violations witnessed by the FBI during the December surveillance flights.

"I understand his concern about not knowing about the investigation, but we don't talk about criminal investigations," said David Runkel, special assistant to Thornburgh at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.

"If some sort of incident had arisen, such as TMI, they certainly would have taken action," Runkel said, referring to the nation's worst nuclear accident, at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island plant a decade ago.

"On my set of values," Romer said, "it's more important to protect public health than to put someone in jail."

The thick affidavit outlines instances of illegal treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous and mixed wastes; illegal treatment of hazardous and mixed wastes in an unpermitted incinerator; instances of false statements and concealment by Rockwell International and the Department of Energy, and the illegal discharge of pollutants.

The only plant employee named in the affidavit is Rockwell's top manager at Rocky Flats, Dominic Sanchini, who is accused of lying about Building 771.

The affidavit notes that Sanchini publicly stated on Oct. 8, 1988, that Building 771 would be shut down, due to potential radiation exposure problems, until necessary improvements and clean-up could be accomplished.

"Notwithstanding (and contrary to) such statements by various (Energy Department) and Rockwell officials, FBI surveillance has established probable cause to believe that the Building 771 incinerator was in fact operated in December, 1988," the affidavit said.

The same infrared photography disclosed also that a solar evaporation pond was "thermally active" less than 10 days after the Environmental Protection Agency denied a request by Rocky Flats to transfer liquid hazardous wastes there, the affidavit said. The EPA said that the pond was supposed to have been closed because it was leaky and did not meet minimum technological requirements.

The FBI accused the Department of Energy and Rockwell of lying on at least three occasions about the possibility of discharges into tributary streams.

The affidavit told of pollution being dumped into Woman Creek and Walnut Creek, which feed a lake and reservoir providing drinking water to at least 285,000 people. The dumping has been previously reported and so far no contamination has been found in drinking water supplies.

What was not publicly known until the affidavit was that the 13 pollutants found in Walnut Creek last November--and confirmed independently now by secret FBI water-monitoring devices--were medical waste.

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