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A $550 Million Question: How Risky is Rocky Flats?

Rocky Flats, a former nuclear-weapons manufacturing complex 16 miles northwest of Denver, is considered the greatest threat to public safety of any US Department of Energy facility in the nation.

Some 14.2 tons of plutonium - the radioactive element used to make nuclear-weapons triggers - are stored at this site, much of it in containers not intended for long-term storage.

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"Being so close to a large metropolitan area, our top priority is to clean up the site and prepare the plutonium for safe storage," says Pat Etchart, DOE spokesman for Rocky Flats, which ceased bomb production in 1989. "The motto we've coined here is, 'Make it safe, clean it up.' The DOE is committed to removing all plutonium from the site by 2014."

But for nearby residents of Rocky Flats, that promise isn't enough. Last month, some 50,000 Coloradans joined a $550 million class-action lawsuit against the former contractors of the plant - Dow Chemical and Rockwell International. The suit calls for compensation for diminished property values and money to set up a medical monitoring fund for neighbors of the plant.

By far the biggest and potentially most expensive case of its kind, the suit is raising anew questions about how far government and corporate responsibility should go in cleaning up and paying for one of the grim legacies of the nuclear age.

Similar cases are pending against other federal weapons facilities across the country. The Hanford plant in Washington state, the Oak Ridge plant in Tennessee, and the Mound weapons plant in Ohio are all under attack from class-action suits. In 1990, the government paid $78 million to settle a community suit against the Fernald bomb plant in Ohio.

Yet none of these sites has the population density found around Denver. Thus the Rocky Flats suit is being closely watched to see what direction the government and courts will go.

Although the federal government is not named in the Rocky Flats suit, DOE contracts with former plant operators guaranteed those companies protection against damages. So Uncle Sam is picking up the tab for Dow and Rockwell's legal expenses: So far, that cost exceeds $20 million.

When Rocky Flats was built in 1952 on a 16-square-mile patch of scrub prairie, there were no nearby neighbors. Forty-four years later, more than 2 million people live within 50 miles of the plant. Almost 1.2 million live within a 20-mile radius.

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"You've got a major population center immediately adjacent to that plant," says Merrill Davidoff, lead attorney for the Colorado plaintiffs. "If there were an incident at the plant, it could eclipse anything we've ever seen. A major release there could be worse than Chernobyl," says Mr. Davidoff, of the law firm Berger & Montague in Philadelphia. Davidoff also leads the Hanford class-action suit in Washington, and his firm represented plaintiffs in the Three Mile Island and Exxon Valdez cases.

Some believe an escalating trend of mass tort litigation says more about lawyer greed than legitimate injury.

"This takes ambulance-chasing to a new level," one federal employee says privately.

"It's really not appropriate for the Department of Energy to be spending taxpayers' money without just cause," adds Mark Johnson, deputy general counsel for the DOE in Washington. "Yes, we should provide compensation to people who have been injured by the Department of Energy's actions. But when there's no evidence that anyone has been injured, it's something very different."

David Bernick, lead attorney for Dow - which operated Rocky Flats from 1952 until 1975 - similarly questions the grounds for the residents' lawsuit. "No one has ever found that Rocky Flats poses a health risk."

The suit against Rocky Flats arose after the 1989 FBI raid of the plant for alleged environmental crimes - which later resulted in fines of $18.5 million to then-operator Rockwell. Nearby residents then approached Denver attorney Bruce DeBoskey with concerns about their health and property values.

Mr. DeBoskey bristles at allegations that his clients saw dollar signs: "These plaintiffs aren't people with the temperament or the time to sue government weapons contractors on a whim. They are ranchers, businesspeople, parents. Two are former mayors of local communities. None views the lawsuit as a shortcut to riches."

Davidoff says money isn't sufficient motivation for an attorney to take such a case, either. "This is the hardest case I've ever been on," he says. "You've got a federal judge trying to rein in the government that employs him."

One of the difficulties, he adds, is lack of data to determine health effects on residents. Exposure to plutonium can be fatal. What isn't clear is whether exposure to plutonium at low levels is unsafe or whether radiation from the Rocky Flats site has exceeded safe levels.

"People don't agree on this. There's no definitive answer," says Neils Schonbeck, a chemistry professor at Metropolitan State College in Denver. Dr. Schonbeck, who serves on a state panel studying the health effects of Rocky Flats on neighbors, notes: "There are anecdotal stories. There's nothing conclusive at this point, only suggestive."

RE/MAX real estate agent Joe DiVito - who lives about four miles from Rocky Flats - says, "I don't personally think that being near Rocky Flats is a negative. Prices are no different than anywhere else; most people don't feel threatened by it." But ironically, publicity from the lawsuit "could potentially negatively affect sales," Mr. DiVito says.

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