Rocketdyne’s Red Glare

Pulling up to Simi Valley City Hall the morning of October 21, EPA staffer Vicky Semones was counting on a quiet, efficient work meeting. Her job was to coordinate the scientists, public officials and community representatives monitoring the cleanup from decades of nuclear and chemical experimentation at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, Rocketdyne’s testing ground for the dawning nuclear age.

A previous June session of the cleanup committee had turned into a PR nightmare when a series of vocal public speakers criticized the laboratory and the cleanup, among them a former Rocketdyne employee, Dan Parks, who calmly recited a litany of accidents and radioactive releases at the Santa Susana lab (see sidebar). This time, Semones ordered the meeting closed to the public.

It didn’t work. Semones was greeted at the City Hall entrance by a clutch of 20-odd protesters with signs saying "Stop Rocket-dying" and "Clean Up Your Goo!" Made up in equal measure of Simi Valley residents and anti-nuclear activists, the demonstrators, who had been tracking progress at Santa Susana for a decade and were in no mood to be ignored, forced their way into City Hall. After 10 minutes of heated debate in the meeting room, Semones suspended the session. The Santa Susana Field Laboratory Interagency Work Group hasn’t met since.

Administered by the EPA, comprising nine officials from the EPA, the California Department of Health Services (DHS), the Department of Energy (DOE) and local air-quality officials, along with five community representatives, the work group is charged with coordinating a $58.5 million cleanup of the sprawling, 2,668-acre facility that straddles the mountains between the Simi and San Fernando valleys. Purchased by Boeing in 1996, the Rocketdyne lab tested nuclear reactors, MX missile engines and "Star Wars" lasers — and had a spate of nuclear accidents. It is currently developing the new generation of space-shuttle engines.

Critics say the cleanup has been inadequate so far, that contamination from the facility poses a long-term threat to thousands of Simi Valley residents, and that the government is now seeking to shut down the work group rather than push to remove the toxics at Santa Susana. "The EPA played George Wallace blocking the schoolhouse door," said Dan Hirsch, founder of the activist group Committee To Bridge the Gap (CBG) and a co-chair of the work group. "They are attempting to disband the work group’s oversight of the cleanup and have become a captured agency, bending to Rocketdyne’s attempts to leave the site polluted. The company, which is not part of the work group, is invited — but the press and public are told to hit the road."

Hostility to public input is just one of the areas where critics say federal and state regulators are helping Rocketdyne duck the fallout from its 40-year venture into the world of nuclear fission and caustic, toxic chemicals.

In particular, they say state health officials delayed release of studies critical of the aerospace giant’s handling of hazardous materials, including surveys that found increased cancer rates among plant workers and nearby residents.

The critics also accuse officials at the federal Environmental Protection Agency of granting waivers that will allow Rocketdyne to limit the costs of soil cleanup at the Santa Susana Laboratory.

That allegation is denied by EPA officials, who share jurisdiction over the cleanup with the federal Department of Energy and the state DHS. But documents produced by Rocketdyne show that the company succeeded in setting the levels of radioactivity to be left in the ground to Department of Energy standards, levels that far exceed guidelines put forth by the EPA. While those levels are listed among the EPA’s national standards, the agency has yet to assert its more stringent cleanup standards with the other state and federal officials monitoring the Rocketdyne cleanup.

The question arose in a 1996 safety review, when company officials proposed leaving ground residue of plutonium 239, which has a half-life of 24,400 years, at levels more than 13 times higher than normal EPA standards for preliminary remediation goals. For the poisonous radioactive isotope cobalt 60, Rocketdyne’s remediation levels are 450 times higher than the EPA’s guidelines — 1.96 picocuries per gram, instead of the required .0043.

According to a September 25, 1996, Rocketdyne memo describing its cleanup plan, "These release criteria have been approved by the California Department of Health Services and the Department of Energy." As for the EPA, the project manager for the agency, Tom Kelly, contends that he still hasn’t made a final decision. "I’m leaning against it," he claimed. But the minutes of an October 28, 1997, Santa Susana site cleanup meeting indicate that the EPA did grant approval of the relaxed remediation standards. Under the "resolved issues" section, the minutes state, "Tom Kelly tentatively accepted the DOE/DHS release criteria for rad facilities."


The Santa Susana Field Laboratory has a well-documented history of problems since it opened in 1948. On a hot July night in 1959, when Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev flashed nuclear sabers in the televised "Kitchen Debate," an experimental sodium-cooled nuclear reactor partially melted down at the site. A third of its fuel experienced melting, and an unknown amount of radioactive gases spewed from the unconfined building. The meltdown only came to light in 1979, when a UCLA student, working with Hirsch, discovered an obscure reference to it while conducting research on a term paper.

That meltdown — considered the world’s first serious peacetime nuclear accident — was among a series of disasters to visit the 16 nuclear reactors operated on the site from the mid-1950s to the early ’80s. In 1964, a reactor designed for the space program also suffered a fuel-cladding melt, in which about 80 percent of the fuel rods melted. This resulted in a "substantial release of fission products," according to a memo released by Rocketdyne’s predecessor, Atomics International. A fuel rod, oozing with sodium, exploded when cleansed with water in a "wash cell" a month before the meltdown. Subsequently, a leach field became contaminated with a high amount of radioactive strontium 90 and was left undiscovered for 14 years before being dug up and hauled away to a waste dump.

While radioactive contamination has kept Rocketdyne in the news, widespread chemical pollution could prove equally hazardous. Records show that for 25 years the company used hundreds of thousands of gallons of solvents to clean test-stand assemblies. The resulting pollution reputedly has been staggering, especially in the ground water. Levels of the chemical hydrazine, which is dangerous to human life at 50 parts per million, have been measured in well water as high as 5,800 ppm.

Chemical experimentation has resulted in its own calamities as well. A 1994 explosion, exactly 35 years to the day after the sodium-reactor meltdown, killed two Rocketdyne scientists. The company paid a record $6.5 million federal fine and pleaded guilty to felony environmental crimes involving illegal disposal of hazardous materials that resulted in the deaths of the two.

"The public has been clearly unaware, as the union boys have been, as to what is really going on up there and what they can really be exposed to," said attorney Ed Masry, who represents more than 200 residents in individual lawsuits against Rocketdyne.

Rocketdyne is currently the target of two class-action lawsuits potentially representing hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs residing downwind of the laboratory. Last year, the company settled out of court with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, in eastern Simi Valley, over charges that Rocketdyne polluted the institute’s ground water and devalued its property.

Rocketdyne dismisses the allegations dogging the company. "It’s not true," said Rocketdyne’s safety director, Steve Lafflam. "There is no evidence for it. The people in the class-action lawsuit live eight or ten miles away. They are not even our immediate neighbors, some of them. These things have developed over time because of an agenda spiraled by the special-interest groups who have one purpose in life, and that is to shut down the nuclear industry."

Added Rocketdyne PR head Dan Beck: "The real losers are the people in the community, who have an objective interest in what is going on, because the real information is not getting out due to the hyster-ia being generated."

CBG’s Hirsch countered, "The loser is, indeed, the community, because of secret meetings and the EPA, DHS and DOE colluding with the company to kill off the work group."

That work group, the interagency task force coordinated by Vicky Semones, came about through the efforts of the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition, formed in 1989 to combat Rocketdyne’s request for a 10-year renewal of its special nuclear-materials license. The coalition managed to thwart the request, and Rocketdyne announced in April 1990 that, with the exception of cleanup work, nuclear activities at Santa Susana would end forever.

But the coalition wasn’t through, and pushed for a study on contamination of neighborhoods adjacent to the site. In 1991, the state DHS, responded with the first independent study of health effects related to Rocketdyne. The findings were mixed: While the study found that "very radiosensitive cancers were not more common among residents near" the lab, researchers did find elevated levels of bladder cancer in census tracts nearest to the facility. No definitive link was established between the cancers and operations at Rocketdyne.

Continuing concern among local residents led then-Assemblyman Richard Katz and other local legislators to pressure the Department of Energy to fund a $1.6 million UCLA study to determine the health effects on 4,563 Rocketdyne workers. "The workers would sort of be like the canary in the mineshaft," said Katz, given that Rocketdyne had data on worker exposure and since workers were likely to be the best barometer of adverse health effects.


The study results were grim. "All available evidence from this study indicates that occupational exposure to ionizing radiation among nuclear workers at Rocketdyne/AI has increased the risk of dying from cancers," wrote Dr. Hal Morganstern, director of the UCLA study. "We found the effect of radiation exposure was six to eight times greater in our study than extrapolated from the results of the A-bomb survivors study."

Rocketdyne ripped the study, pointing out that it showed its employees were healthier than the general population. But as Morganstern noted in the study, the UCLA findings took into account the "healthy-worker effect," which says, in essence, that workers are healthier than the general population because the sick or disabled can’t get to work. "Results of this study strongly suggest that exposure to internal radiation has increased the risk of dying from cancers . . .," the study reported. "We observed a strong dose-response relationship that is not likely to be a chance finding."

The UCLA team followed up last year with a second study on the toxic effects of two of the hazardous chemicals used at the site — that study has not yet been released, but an early draft has been produced and is now being reviewed.

Before the radiation report was released in early 1997, officials with the state DHS forwarded the draft study to Rocketdyne, allowing company officials to pressure UCLA with a rebuttal that dwarfed the final study. "We got lots and lots of pages of their comments," said Morganstern, "which makes you want to suspect something. It kind of reminds you of the play within a play in Hamlet. Somebody says, ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’"

Such controversies in the handling of the two-part UCLA study led anti-nuclear activists following the Rocketdyne case to charge that the Wilson administration was colluding with the company to deflect its critics. Aside from the early release of the UCLA drafts, which critics contend violated the rules of the work group, the state delayed releasing the final radiation study at a time when Rocketdyne was up for sale.

Rumors of the impending merger in early 1996 of Rocketdyne with Boeing led some members of the oversight panel to believe there was a connection between the two events. "This action creates the unfortunate appearance of giving Rockwell an opportunity to attempt to prevent potentially damaging findings from interfering with, or reducing the sale price for, Rocketdyne’s proposed acquisition by Boeing," claimed an August 2, 1996, press release by the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition. "DHS’s unilateral action has given Rocketdyne an opportunity to lobby secretly for changes in the study before it is made public some months from now."

Boeing eventually bought the Rocketdyne division from Rockwell for $3.2 billion in December 1996. "We found out later that the report had been delayed for six to nine months," claimed former Assemblyman Katz. "The Wilson administration was concerned that releasing it early would adversely affect the sale price of Rockwell to Boeing," he said.

Katz’s charge brought a sharp response from the DHS’s Larry Bilick, who denied that the sale of the company had anything to do with the delay of the radiation study. "It was sort of a red herring back then," Bilick said. "It was Katz saying anything that occurred through his warped brain at the time."

Bilick strongly contends that his department was obliged to share the UCLA draft. "The Department of Health Services believes that we share things with labor and management. Since labor is on the panel and got a copy, we feel that therefore Rocketdyne should have access to it," Bilick said. "Also, because the data comes from Rocketdyne, we thought that it’s important that Rocketdyne see the report early on, to clarify any errors in the use of the data, rather than at the time of the release, so that UCLA had the opportunity to make the technical changes if they chose to."

And the DHS has repeated the practice, sharing the as-yet-unreleased chemical phase of the study. "Rocketdyne has a copy and they’ve had it reviewed," said DHS official Robert Harrison. "They’ve given us comments which we’ve shared with the advisory panel and with UCLA."

Here the two sides battling over Rocketdyne step up to outright warfare. Critics say Rocketdyne sought the draft in order to water down the findings, as well as slow the process until after the working group is dissolved.

Harrison denies feeling any pressure. "The original release date was going to be in the fall, but UCLA has gone back and done some re-analysis as we looked at some exposures up at the Santa Susana Field Lab," he said. "That’s delayed getting a final revision from them. Just to be honest with you — the original target date has slipped for all the usual academic reasons. It was in response to the advisory panel’s suggestions to look at all the exposures that could have potentially occurred at the Santa Susana Field Lab. It wasn’t to Rocketdyne’s suggestions, it was to the advisory panel’s."


That assertion is dead wrong, said CBG’s Hirsch, co-chair of the oversight panel. "Robert Harrison should be ashamed of himself. The panel wanted the study released months ago, and it was Harrison who blocked it. He is stalling the report as the government and the company try to figure a way to kill off the oversight panel."

"The truth is somewhere in between," added Morganstern. He blamed the delay on "administrative issues" that he said he could not elaborate on because of the confidentiality agreement.

The DHS’s decision to distribute the chemical-study draft incensed state Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Sheila Kuehl and state Senator Cathie Wright. "On Friday, June 19 [of 1998], your department once again leaked the advance text of the study to Rocketdyne," they wrote in a letter to the DHS director, Kimberly Belshe. "Both of us were in touch with the DHS officials involved, requesting that they hold off until we could sort out the issue. Rather than even having the courtesy to wait, given the request to do so, DHS outrageously broke the agreement hammered out years ago, violated the confidentiality pledge, abrogated the direction of the Oversight Panel, and ignored our intercession . . . It violates every principle of science to permit a party with a major economic interest in the outcome to attempt to alter a scientific study in advance of its release."

More broadly, critics say the skirmishes at Santa Susana may obscure a long-term health threat posed by early experiments with the nuclear genie and its near-infinite half-life. "What’s getting lost in the mix here is that if Rocketdyne isn’t forced to clean up its act, untold generations of Angelenos may suffer from this toxic legacy," said Jonathan Parfrey, director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a public-health advocacy group. "But under Governor Wilson, it appears the regulatory agencies charged with protecting the people have been more concerned about the company’s corporate well-being."

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