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Judge Releases Rocky Flats Report

Air Date: Week of

Scott Schlegel reports from Denver on the latest twist in the increasingly unusual case of the prosecution of environmental crimes at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. The judge in the case has released a secret grand jury report blasting the management of the plant and demanding indictments, along with a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges by prosecutors.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

When President Clinton's Justice Department gets up and running under a new Attorney General, it will face a number of thorny problems. Among them are allegations by Congressional investigators and others that Federal prosecutors have a pattern of going too easy on environmental criminals. There are more than 20 such cases being tracked by Capitol Hill, and many of the questions involve civil service prosecutors who wouldn't ordinarily be replaced by a new administration.

One of those prosecutions under scrutiny involves the hazardous waste scandal at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant outside Denver. And this case has recently taken an extraordinary turn: a Federal judge has released portions of a secret grand jury report that recommended aggressive prosecutions, along with a point-by-point response from the Federal prosecutors who rejected the jury's findings. From Denver, Scott Schlegel reports.

SCHLEGEL: When Rockwell International agreed last March to pay $18.5 million dollars in fines for environmental crimes at Rocky Flats, the Department of Justice hailed the largest hazardous waste settlement in US history. But members of the grand jury that investigated the case for two and a half years believe the fine was just a slap on the wrist for Rockwell. For months, the jurors pressured U-S District Judge Sherman Finesilver to release their report, which they say shows reckless disregard for environmental laws by both Rockwell and Department of Energy workers. The report was leaked to a Denver newspaper. Finally, in response to a lawsuit by Denver news media, Finesilver released heavily-edited portions of the report. In it, the grand jurors describe Rockwell and the U-S Department of Energy as being co-conspirators in an ongoing criminal enterprise at Rocky Flats. The report also alleges intentional violations of Federal environmental laws regulating the storage, treatment and disposal of hazardous wastes. In releasing the report, Judge Finesilver accused the jurors of relying on rumor and conjecture and engaging in political argument outside the bounds of the case. The attorney who's representing the grand jurors, Jonathan Turley, says in many ways the report is a victory.

TURLEY: The position of Judge Finesilver and the Department of Justice has been that they would not release this report and specifically they would not answer criticisms by the grand jurors themselves who had been dismissed as uneducated or somehow uninformed.

SCHLEGEL: But Turley says it's difficult to fully understand the report when so much information was left out, including allegations of crimes committed by specific employees of Rockwell and DOE. The grand jury's report was also accompanied by point-by-point responses from prosecutors. The Justice Department says that what the grand jury labels as criminal is not. Outgoing US Attorney Mike Norton says the responses weren't meant to be a rebuttal to the grand jury charges, as much as a review of facts in the case.

NORTON: I think it should be clear to anyone that reads, takes time to read the document, which I hope people will for a change, that there were a raft of allegations for which there was absolutely no evidence.

SCHLEGEL: But prosecutors and jurors agree on at least one major point, that the Department of Energy was at times Rockwell's puppet at Rocky Flats. The release of the report comes as the grand jurors are under threat of prosecution for violating their oath of secrecy, and the Rocky Flats case is one of more than 20 environmental cases in which the Justice Department's conduct is being reviewed by Congress. Sources close to the congressional investigation say there are many troubling details of the Rocky Flats case which are not the original grand jury report and have yet to be made public. The jurors say they'll ask Congress for immunity so they can testify about the case. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Schlegel in Denver.



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