Groups take legal action over missing Rocky Flats records

Documents could shed light on safety of upcoming projects

Posted 8/6/19

Several groups have filed a motion in federal court calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to locate more than 60 boxes of case records related to Rocky Flats, said a release from Pat Mellen Law, …

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Groups take legal action over missing Rocky Flats records

Documents could shed light on safety of upcoming projects

Posted

Several groups have filed a motion in federal court calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to locate more than 60 boxes of case records related to Rocky Flats, said a release from Pat Mellen Law, the firm representing the groups.

Located just southwest of the junction between Indiana Street and Highway 128, Rocky Flats was established as a nuclear weapons manufacturing plant in 1952 and was closed by federal agents in 1989. An investigation revealed that a number of incidents, such as fires and spills, had allowed potentially cancer-causing substances like plutonium to contaminate the plant’s soil, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

A Grand Jury investigation took place from 1989 through 1992, and the site cleanup concluded in 2007. The grand jury’s boxes of investigation records were sealed by the court, and the grand jury placed under a gag order.

Community groups petitioned at the start of 2019 for the release of the sealed records. The judge in that case has not yet made a decision on whether to unseal the records, attorney Pat Mellen said.

More than six months later, the groups have learned that the Department of Justice cannot locate the records, she said.

“It doesn’t seem like something you would just misplace,” she said. “The goal here is to encourage the department to look, and to reach out to folks who have left the department and can say, `we sent them here.’”

On Wednesday, the community groups filed a motion that, if granted by the court, would require the department to find and identify the location of the sealed records within 30 days. Should the department be unable to do so, “then we go into contempt motions,” Mellen said.

In the meantime, the ongoing case of whether to unseal the files could be resolved “tomorrow, (or) it could be months from now,” she said.

The groups have sought access to the records in response to a number of construction projects in the area, including amenities of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2018 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the Rocky Mountain Greenway, a trail project primarily sponsored by Jefferson County Open Space; and the Jefferson Parkway, a toll road that will run near Rocky Flats, overseen by the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority (JPPHA).

Those opposed to the projects believe the construction could pose a safety threat to workers and community members by stirring up contaminated dirt during the building process.

Cancer concerns

“In my neighborhood, there’s incredibly high levels of cancer,” said Bonnie Graham-Reed, who founded community organization Rocky Flats Right To Know and lives in the Lake Arbor neighborhood. “I believe most have breathed in plutonium because we have strong winds here.”

The groups suspect the investigation records will indicate whether the projects can safely continue, Mellen said. “Without these records, we believe (the organizations behind) the construction projects don’t have the information they need.”

These projects have long been met with passionate approval and strong opposition, including a separate legal case that would require further safety studies of the area. The court has yet to make its decision on the case, said attorney Randall Weiner.

Already, Jefferson County Open Space and surrounding cities and counties launched three soil studies at Rocky Flats this July. The studies began partially in response to community feedback on construction projects, said Roy Laws, environmental engineer for Jefferson County Public Health (JCPH).

However, for those who live in nearby neighborhoods, soil samples will never tell the whole story.

“You can collect soil samples till your blue in the face, but let’s look at how many people in the community have cancer,” said Tiffany Hansen with community group Rock Flats Downwinders.

She called on national and local organizations to conduct a study documenting instances of rare cancers and other diseases near Rocky Flats before moving forward with development.

The CDPHE published one such study in 2016, finding that the “incidence of all cancers combined for both adults and children was no different in the communities surrounding Rocky Flats than would be expected based on cancer rates in the remainder of the Metro Denver area,” the study said.

However, the Rocky Flats Downwinders have critiqued the study as lacking in crucial data, as the survey only included those who currently live in the communities and did not gather input from individuals who formerly lived near the plant and have since moved.

For the most recent soil study, Consulting firm Engineering Analytics will continue analyzing soil samples through September, Laws said.

As the groups await the results of the study, they also await the judge’s decision on the Gran Jury document motion.

Regardless of whether the judge grants public access, “we need to find the documents,” Mellen said.

Should the documents show the construction projects can continue safely, “that goes a long way in reassuring the public,” she said. “But to the degree those documents prove there is material buried in places that were not cleaned up, that raises significant safety concerns.”

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