This story has been corrected from an earlier version to show the correct day for Lpisky’s Santa Fe talk, Tuesday, Nov. 18.
Jon Lipsky is a retired federal agent with a big notch in his gun – he shut down a plant that made plutonium parts for the nation’s nuclear weapons.
In an episode unique in American history, in June 1989, Lipsky led the FBI’s raid on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, where the cores of nuclear weapons, or “pits,” were made.
Later, under a plea deal, the private contractor that ran the plant for the DOE – Rockwell International – admitted to four felonies and six misdemeanors for environmental crimes and paid the government $18.5 million. The plant formally closed forever in 1992 and the U.S. has made only a handful of pits since.
Lipsky, who continues to raise concerns about the dangers of radioactive waste, will be in Santa Fe this week for a workshop organized by Nuclear Watch New Mexico, which opposes plans for pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The event takes place Yuesday evening at the Mud Gallery.
Lipsky was the “new kid on the block” at the FBI’s Denver office in the 1980s when somebody had to take on the job of liaison with the Environmental Protection Agency. “I like to joke that I used to write littering tickets when I was cop, so I was supremely qualified to do environmental cases,” he said in a phone interview last week.
He began to focus on Rocky Flats when a DOE memo that said some of the waste operations at the plant “were patently illegal” was leaked to the Denver Post. He said the investigation stalled during the Reagan administration, but got a green light after Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, was elected in 1988.
The raid on June 6, 1989, actually took place with the cooperation of the DOE hiearchy, Lipsky said. Bush administration DOE secretary Admiral James D. Watkins “was in tune with how bad Rocky Flats really was,” he said.
Although the then head of the FBI’s criminal division Robert Mueller – yes, the same Robert Mueller who investigated Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election – wanted to obtain subpoenas for grand jury proceedings, Watkins “really took this as an opportunity to give them (Rockwell) a good spanking,” said Lipsky.
“You might think it (the raid) was contentious,” he said. “It kind of was.”
First off, the FBI lied to plant managers, pretending they were there for a safety briefing after an attack by a radical environmentalist on power lines from a nuclear power plant in Arizona. But dozens of armed agents showed up as part of “Operation Desert Glow.”
At one point, Rocky Flats officials told the FBI officers they needed visitor badges. Lipsky said his FBI boss “looked right at them and said, ‘We’re not visitors.’ ”
In the following days, Rockwell personnel followed Lipsky around as he checked up on tips. At one spot, a guard wouldn’t let him pass. His surveilling “shadow” soon showed up and ticketed Lipsky’s car for being in a handicapped parking spot that wasn’t properly marked.
The next morning, Lipsky told his boss, “I’m sorry I’m a little late. I had to stop by the office and get me a shotgun.”
“I wasn’t there for games,” he said.
The raid was just the start of a long saga over Rocky Flats that continues to this day. The grand jury investigating the case after the raid wanted to charge eight people – from both Rockwell and the DOE – but instead the Department of Justice struck a plea deal, only charging Rockwell as a company.
There is also a continuing fight, in which Lipsky is a player, over whether the $7 billion cleanup at the Rocky Flats site was adequate. A buffer zone has been made into a wildlife refuge.
And in a new controversy, the Denver U.S. Attorney’s Office this year informed activists seeking release of documents from the nearly 30-year-old grand jury investigation that it can’t find the files.
Lipsky is critical of the plans to ramp up pit production at Los Alamos, which he says will create “a huge waste problem.” Like other critics, he says there’s no need to make more pits, with thousands made at Rocky Flats still in storage. “It’s ludicrous,” he said.