Supreme Court Declines Appeal by Rocky Flats Case
Amid the outcry about the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act, it was easy to miss another decision that might have even graver consequences for the health of American citizens. I’m referring to the Supreme Court’s decision not to review Cook v. Rockwell. Most Americans haven’t even heard of this case, yet the ramifications of the class-action lawsuit against Rocky Flats, America’s most notorious nuclear bomb factory, will have a very long half-life.
I grew up next to that bomb factory, but we knew little about what went on there. The rumor in the neighborhood was that they were making household cleaning supplies. For nearly 40 years, Dow and then Rockwell secretly produced more than 70,000 plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs, each one deadly enough to kill every person on earth. Plutonium and other contaminants traveled into my neighborhood and the Denver metro area. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years.
Following a shocking 1989 FBI raid on the plant for environmental crimes, more than 12,000 property owners with health and property concerns filed suit. The plaintiffs argued that “a landowner whose property is devalued because of plutonium contamination has suffered both an invasion of his property and genuine, immediate economic harm.” Never mind cancer and other health effects, which are higher than average in areas around Rocky Flats. It took nearly 20 years for Cook v. Rockwell to wind its way through the courts. In 2006, after deliberating for 17 days, a jury awarded the plaintiffs a total of $554 million. Rockwell appealed. Three judges with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision.
And now the Supreme Court has weighed in. They declined to review the case.
For the people of Colorado, this is bad news indeed. But what’s really at stake here is accountability. Who is responsible when U.S. nuclear facilities contaminate the neighborhood? The 1957 Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, extended until 2025, largely indemnifies private contractors like Rockwell and Dow Chemical from nuclear mishaps. But it’s been nearly impossible for citizens whose health and properties are contaminated by nuclear facilities to recover damages. A similar situation exists for the thousands of U.S. nuclear workers who became ill from their jobs and applied for compensation through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program. Most workers remain uncompensated.
And controversy continues over the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which is what remains of our old nuclear bomb factory. Slated to open for hiking, biking, and public recreation, 1,300 acres of the site are so profoundly contaminated that they can never open to the public, and the remaining 4,000-plus acres contain controversial levels of plutonium and other contaminants just below surface levels. But you wouldn’t know it. You can’t see, feel, or smell miniscule particles of plutonium, most dangerous when inhaled. Attempts by local residents to post signs at the site informing potential visitors of the story of Rocky Flats and the deadly legacy left behind have thrice been defeated by local business and development interests. Home development continues at a brisk pace, and a proposed new highway on contaminated land promises to spur more.
When I was a kid, I could see Rocky Flats from my back porch. The lights of the plant twinkled on the horizon like a secret, magic city—but it was no city. We were on the front line of the Cold War, but no one warned us of its dangers. Today, we continue to live with the high cost of our nuclear weapons program to the environment and to public health. Who will be held accountable for nuclear mishaps? By declining to review this case, the Supreme Court has given a tacit nod to the corporations that operate U.S. nuclear facilities, and leaves citizens to wonder what recourse they may have when exposed to toxic or radioactive contamination. Bad decisions are being made about things that are going to affect our health for a very long time.
Kristen Iversen is the author of Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. She directs the MFA program at The University of Memphis.