Originally created 03/28/04

New book castigates government over nuclear weapons plant



DENVER -- Secret midnight burning of radioactive waste. An FBI spy flight with infrared cameras. An employee who claims she was contaminated by fellow workers for reporting safety violations.

It sounds like something out of a paperback thriller. But the allegations are contained in a new book that says the Justice Department covered up environmental misconduct at the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Denver more than a decade ago.

Federal and state health officials say they are looking into the claims raised by the book, "The Ambushed Grand Jury: How the Justice Department Covered Up Government Nuclear Crimes and How We Caught Them Red Handed."

The book was written by Wes McKinley, the foreman of a grand jury that investigated activity at Rocky Flats, and attorney Caron Balkany. They said the book is worth the risk of jail for violating grand jury secrecy rules.

"I am doing my patriotic duty," McKinley said. "These people are criminals."

In addition to interviews with former plant workers and investigators, the authors relied on a journal McKinley kept during the grand jury sessions. They said they were able to independently confirm all the evidence discussed in the book.

A former federal prosecutor dismissed the allegations, and the plant's former operator said all the claims have been investigated and found to be groundless.

Rocky Flats, situated on the edge of the foothills outside Denver, made plutonium triggers from the 1950s until 1989. The Energy Department complex is being cleaned up and officials hope to turn it into a wildlife refuge by 2006.

Tipped about potential safety violations, the FBI in 1988 used infrared cameras during flights over Rocky Flats and detected what agents claimed was a burning incinerator in Building 771, the plutonium-reprocessing facility. At that time, the building was supposed to be shut down after an employee was exposed to radiation.

FBI and Environmental Protection Agency officials raided the plant in 1989 as part of an investigation called Operation Desert Glow.

Investigators subsequently looked at whether Rockwell International, the plant's operator at the time, knowingly discharged chemicals into creeks that flowed into municipal water supplies, burned toxic waste and failed to adequately monitor groundwater.

From 1989 to 1992, a federal grand jury heard testimony and reviewed evidence against Rockwell. The panel wanted to indict eight people and two corporations involved with Rocky Flats and recommended closing the plant.

But then-U.S. Attorney Michael Norton refused to sign the indictments and worked out a plea bargain.

Rockwell pleading guilty to 10 hazardous waste and clean water violations in 1992 and was fined $18.5 million. The company admitted it stored hazardous waste without a permit, in containers that leaked, and that its actions caused hazardous waste to wind up in reservoirs that supplied drinking water to nearby cities.

At the time, it was the biggest fine levied against a company in a hazardous-waste case.

A Justice Department review of the plea bargain supported the prosecutors. The review said a charge of illegal burning had to be withdrawn because Allen Divers, a former military analyst who was working for Lockheed and reviewed the infrared photos, had changed his mind and could not be sure.

However, the book's authors contacted Divers, who said he had never changed his opinion. Divers confirmed this in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

The grand jury's report remains sealed, and as recently as this month, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch refused to allow grand jurors to break their oath and speak publicly about the case. Matsch did not respond to a request seeking comment.

Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Denver, would not comment on whether McKinley would be prosecuted for violating grand jury secrecy.

In an interview with The AP, Norton said that the grand jurors let their emotions take control and that the most serious allegations were not borne out.

"There was not the kind of mass conspiracy cover-up that was thought at the outset to have occurred," he said. Asked about Divers, Norton said, "I've never heard of him."

Similarly, Rockwell spokesman Matthrew Gonring said the accusations were thoroughly investigated.

The book includes material from interviews with FBI agent Jon Lipsky, who led a raid on the plant in 1989, and Jacque Brever, a Rockwell employee who worked in a building where processed plutonium was stored.

"My superiors have ordered me to lie about a criminal investigation I headed in 1989. We were investigating the Department of Energy, but the U.S. Justice Department covered up the truth," Lipsky said in the book. He confirmed his statement in a brief telephone interview with the AP.

Brever's account is more chilling. She said she is suffering from thyroid cancer she believes is the result of her fellow union workers deliberately damaging her protective gear because they feared her testimony would force the shutdown of the plant and cost them their jobs.

Officials at the Energy Department did not return calls and an e-mail for comment.

Representatives of the EPA and the Colorado health department said they are looking into the allegations in the book.