Capping one of the broadest and most far-reaching criminal investigations into an environmental crime, the Justice Department will announce today that Rockwell International Corp. will plead guilty to criminal charges for its conduct in running a government-owned nuclear weapons plant near Denver, federal officials said.
The company is expected to enter guilty pleas to several charges of breaking federal environmental laws when it appears in U.S. District Court in Denver and agree to pay a fine of $15 million to $20 million, the officials said.
A lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council who specializes in the now-closed Rocky Flats weapons complex, Dan Reicher, said a fine of that size would be the second-largest ever levied, exceeded only by the $25 million penalty paid by Exxon Corp. after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.
But it was not clear who would pay the fine. The Energy Department's agreements with its contractors make the department liable for fines stemming from the operation of the plant; the agreements, however, do not address criminal penalties.
A spokeswoman for the department, Debbie Smith, said last night that no one there knew whether the department would be liable.
Rockwell and the Justice Department refused to comment last night.
Rocky Flats, about 15 miles northwest of Denver, was raided by scores of FBI agents and other law-enforcement officials in June 1989.
In an affidavit seeking a search warrant before the raid, the FBI said it had evidence that the company had dumped toxic waste into drinking water and surreptitiously burned radioactive waste in an incinerator that had been ordered shut for safety reasons.
The plant also appeared to violate federal laws on storage of toxic wastes.