Groups file legal action to halt looming construction at Rocky Flats

Denver community and environmental groups today took legal action to block the construction of hiking, biking and equestrian trails and a visitor center at Rocky Flats, the former nuclear weapons plant about 15 miles northwest of Denver.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and Rocky Flats Right to Know, among other groups, filed a preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court in Denver, alleging that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not complete an up-to-date environmental analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. The last environmental review was conducted more than 12 years ago. The groups filed a lawsuit on the matter in May 17.

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Plaintiffs argue that both plutonium contaminants and radiation pose threats to human health, making the area unsafe for visitors, particularly children. The injunction would halt construction scheduled for June.

“What the public does not know can hurt us and our children,” said Bonnie Graham-Reed at a press conference this morning in Denver. Graham-Reed is a co-founder of plaintiff organization Rocky Flats Right to Know. She added, “That’s why a thorough environmental analysis is so important.”

Rocky Flats manufactured plutonium components for nuclear weapons for nearly 50 years beginning in 1953. In 1989, the FBI raided the facility and found operators in violation of environmental laws. The plant shut down and never reopened.

After more than a decade of cleanup, during which it was classified as an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, Rocky Flats was established as a national wildlife refuge in 2007.

“The lack of a thorough environmental analysis allows expert opinions about risks from the site to be swept under the rug,” Jon Lipsky, a former FBI Special Agent who led the raid that shut down the plant, said at today’s press conference. Lipsky has been involved in the fight to inform the public about Rocky Flats for years.

An independent, on-site soil analysis is necessary he said. The Department of Energy currently oversees the science and research of Rocky Flats.

Randall Weiner, a Boulder-based attorney called for federal agencies to “complete mandatory environmental analyses before construction can legally begin.”

Parts of Rocky Flats are on the Superfund list of the nation’s most polluted sites. The EPA, Colorado Fish and Wildlife and the Colorado Department of Health have declared the site safe.

But critics in groups such as Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice, many of whom are career scientists in various fields, say that radioactive and toxic materials continue to contaminate soils and sediments. They base this allegation on two federal court rulings, one in 2012 and one in 2015, that confirmed prior plutonium contamination had migrated beyond the area of the actual plant and into the area of the proposed refuge.

They also cite a 2006 report from the Department of Energy, which confirms that contaminated areas are covered with little more than dirt, which is easily moved by wind and burrowing animals. They complain that their questions about the accuracy of past plutonium sampling remain unanswered.

Those critics also note the low cost and short timeframe of the cleanup as partial evidence of its inadequacy: Original estimates anticipated that the process would take 65 years and cost $37 billion, but the total cost of cleanup, which ended up taking fewer than 20 years, was just $7.7 billion.

Weiner has said that the agency is “virtually thumbing its nose at its obligations to consider the risks its plans pose to the public.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Colorado office did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.


Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Creative Commons, Flickr