AT the time, the United States Justice Department presented it as a major victory. Last spring, after a five-year government investigation, Rockwell International pleaded guilty to mishandling toxic wastes at the Rocky Flats plant near Denver that it ran for the Department of Energy.
The fine Rockwell agreed to pay was $18.5 million, the second largest ever levied for illegal pollution.
But now a congressional subcommittee that has analyzed the case claims the perpetrators got off lightly. Justice Department prosecutors were too quick to cut a deal, according to a just-released report by the investigations panel of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
"Main Justice officials who ultimately signed off on the agreement appeared to place little value on environmental crimes," the study states. The report observes, for instance, that the impressive-sounding $18.5 million fine was actually $4 million less than Rockwell earned operating Rocky Flats during the period in which it illegally polluted, 1987 to 1989.
By settling fast, the Justice Department gave up the chance to pursue individual indictments against Rockwell employees and possibly against Department of Energy (DOE) officials as well.
Energy Department inattention made it culpable in the case, according to congressional investigators. Case documents show that for much of the 15 years Rockwell made plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs at Rocky Flats, the department had the equivalent of only two full-time workers assigned to environmental oversight.
The Department of Justice denies the allegations. "It's easy to criticize someone else's decision after the fact, especially when you don't have all the facts," the department said in a statement. "The department made sound prosecutorial judgements based on evidence and expertise. Contrary to the subcommittee's allegations, there was no `mindset' or direction to go easy on Rockwell, DOE, or any individuals involved in running the DOE facility."
But as a result of the Rocky Flats settlement, the congressional study recommends that Congress consider taking all nuclear-weapons development and production away from the Energy Department, and giving it to the Department of Defense.
"The dismal record of DOE in addressing the nation's energy problems confirms this [change]," says the House subcommittee.
When Federal Bureau of Investigation agents raided the Rocky Flats plant three years ago, it seemed sensational convictions might be in the offing.
Among the allegations were that Rockwell was secretly burning toxins in an incinerator regulators thought closed, and that operators hid the dumping of polluted water onto the ground by doing it at night.
In the end, prosecutors felt they could prove none of the most important charges. Among other reasons, few plant employees proved cooperative. Under the plea bargain, Rockwell admitted guilt on five felony and five misdemeanor counts of mishandling toxic wastes. Prosecutors said that none of these violations resulted in a release of pollution that would imminently endanger anyone off plant grounds.
In addition, prosecutors found that some allegations they intended to pursue were legally out of bounds. Though they had evidence of worker health and safety violations Congress had made the Energy Department exempt from Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.
The Energy Department was supposed to establish its own worker safety guidelines, but it had not properly done so. Additionally, a culture of conservative enforcement of environmental law also allowed Rockwell more lenient treatment, the subcommittee report claims.
For instance, the lead Justice Department trial attorney in Denver favored a settlement with a $20 million to 30 million fine, and admittance by some individuals that they were personally guilty of misdemeanors, at least. Yet at the beginning, Justice attorneys in Washington thought a $1 million to $6 million fine might be enough, according to testimony given to the congressional panel.
Some members of the grand jury empaneled in Colorado to hear Rocky Flats testimony have themselves criticized the settlement agreement. Among other actions, they produced a report on their findings and apparently leaked it to the press - a violation of federal law.