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Rockwell Pleads Guilty to Waste Dumping, Blasts U.S. : Settlement: The firm admits to environmental law violations at Rocky Flats nuclear plant. But it claims Energy Department granted it an exemption.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pleading guilty to 10 criminal counts of environmental law violations at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, Rockwell International Corp. on Thursday accused the U.S. Department of Energy of severely inhibiting its ability to comply with federal regulations.

The huge government contractor told a federal judge in Denver that the Energy Department had restricted funds for environmental protection at the plant and had advised it that the facility was exempt from crucial environmental laws.

Those assertions notwithstanding, the Seal Beach, Calif.-based company agreed to pay $18.5 million in fines for illegal management of wastes generated in the production of triggers for nuclear weapons at Rocky Flats.

The settlement, negotiated by lawyers for Rockwell and the Department of Justice, was taken under advisement by U.S. District Judge Sherman Finesilver, who indicated that he might seek independent technical advice before making a final ruling.

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For 14 years, Rockwell was the prime contractor at the Rocky Flats laboratory, located on the outskirts of Denver. The firm was replaced after a hail of sensational charges and a nighttime raid on the complex by agents of the FBI in 1989.

Closed since that year because of its environmental pollution problems, Rocky Flats has no weapons projects on the horizon. But officials believe that it will be years before the plant can be sufficiently decontaminated so that it can be closed.

Although Rockwell still faces damage suits filed by employees, the agreement presented to the court in Denver is designed to close the books on one of the most contentious disputes in a massive weapons complex pollution scandal.

The agreement calls for Rockwell to pay $16.5 million in fines to the federal government, plus $2 million to the state of Colorado. The sums were assessed for five felony counts and five misdemeanor counts arising from violations of the federal Clean Water Act and the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act.

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Altogether, the fines amount to the second-largest penalty ever assessed against a private company for environmental law violations. The largest was Exxon Corp.'s $125-million fine for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

The specific charges against Rockwell include illegal storage and handling of solidified toxic and low-level radioactive waste called “pondcrete” in leaky boxes. The company also is accused of discharging wastes through its sewage treatment plant, potentially contaminating drinking water in nearby reservoirs.

U.S. Atty. Mike Norton, who represented the government in the 45-minute court proceeding in Denver, called the agreement “fair, equitable and just.” Atty. Gen. William P. Barr cited it as evidence that “the Department of Justice is making it quite clear that environmental crimes do not pay.”

But in agreeing to the fines, Rockwell said that the Justice Department had until June, 1989, supported an Energy Department position that Rockwell was exempt from environmental laws covering vital processes at Rocky Flats.

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The company said that it had, in fact, continued to make “pondcrete” sludge and store it at the complex at the insistence of the Energy Department and the Colorado Health Department, “even though all parties knew there was no long-term storage available.”

Violations of the Clean Water Act at the plant, the contractor insisted, “resulted from antiquated facilities which DOE had not sufficiently upgraded.”

The settlement, which became known Wednesday, came after nearly three years of investigation by a federal grand jury.

The panel pursued its inquiry in the wake of widely publicized charges that hazardous wastes had been incinerated during the night at Rocky Flats’ plutonium processing facility, that wastes had been dumped into streams and that the Energy Department and Rockwell officials had engaged in an attempted cover-up.

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