Imagine giving someone millions of dollars for doing a bad job. That’s what Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson did on December 15 when he awarded aerospace giant Boeing $148.5 million to complete cleanup efforts at its Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Laboratory by 2006.

Among the more creative reasons Department of Energy (DOE) officials gave in explaining why the department chose to reward Boeing, the parent company of those who created the gooey nuclear mess in the first place, were the “unique and special circumstances possessed by Boeing.” Apparently, the aerospace giant’s special qualifications include its access to the sprawling site that spans the mountains between the Simi and San Fernando valleys, as well as its “infrastructural support.”

The DOE’s list of reasons is doing little, however, to win over activists who have been fighting to ensure quality control during the cleanup. “This is the proverbial fox guarding the chicken coop,” said Joe Lyou of the Committee To Bridge the Gap, one of the groups urging stricter standards. “The money should be given to a truly independent third party that can be trusted to do the job right.” Senator Dianne Feinstein stated in the DOE press release that while she welcomed the funding, she regretted that there weren’t yet resources allocated to fund additional health studies of the communities surrounding the site.

As for the cost of cleaning up the mess, the original 1996 DOE estimate came in at $351 million. Now that figure has shrunk to a little over $200 million, according to the DOE’s Roger Liddle. He says the drop in price shouldn’t be confused with a drop in quality. “The thing I don’t want anybody to imply is that we are somehow cutting money out of this and shortchanging the cleanup,” said Liddle.

But pollutant-oversight analysts aren’t buying the agency’s explanation that new and improved technology, coupled with revamped estimates, have lowered cleanup costs. “The reasons for the reduced costs is that they are going to leave more contamination behind,” said Lyou. “All our protests were about the closed-door meetings with DOE and Boeing, in which DOE agreed to relax the cleanup standards to save money.”

Michael Collins

Big Brother Burbank

In the latest example of a political beast with infinite heads, the city of Burbank has instituted a home-occupation ordinance, joining a growing list of cities — including Los Angeles — that seem hell-bent on increasing revenues even if it means endangering artists’ First Amendment rights.

As in the L.A. ordinance introduced by Councilman Laura Chick, Burbank’s ordinance requires citizens working out of their homes to pay for a business license and pony up a yearly business tax. But what worries organizations such as the Writers Guild of America, west (WGAw) is that defining artists’ homes as “businesses” under the tax code opens a Pandora’s box of possible government intrusions. In Burbank, for instance, artists would have to pass a home building inspection before they could even receive a license. “They’d put in the hands of a building-safety inspector the power to decide whether someone can write in their own home,” says WGAw consultant Mark Ryavec.

For now, ordinances like these are laughably unenforceable; in L.A., only 12,000 homeworkers have come forward to pay up. But many California cities are lobbying for access to now-confidential state tax-return information that would allow them to identify work-at-home artists and force their compliance.

Last year, the WGAw fought a successful legal battle to excise some of the more fascistic aspects of L.A.’s ordinance, including a provision that would have forced writers to get a city permit before they could even write their first draft.

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Tony Cardenas has introduced the guild-backed AB83 in the state Legislature, a bill that would limit the legal definition of a taxable home business and, it is hoped, put the home-occupation beast back in its cage.

—Rico Gagliano

Big Art

Even before it opened in late September, the Richard Serra exhibition at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary, with its massive serpentine sculpture, forged cubes and seven house-size ellipses, was being described in superlative terms.

It is the first one-man L.A. exhibition for the 59-year-old sculptor, known for his large-scale, industrial works, and the last major show for departing MOCA director Richard Koshalek. At 712 tons, it is by far the museum’s heaviest show, and its most unwieldy — the size and weight of the pieces forced Koshalek to knock out a wall to bring them in.

As the show settles into its final stretch before closing on January 3, attendance — at 80,000 visitors and counting — is approaching MOCA records. Which is a good thing, because the museum spent about $1 million on the show, making it one of the most expensive in MOCA history and by far the costliest show the museum has ever mounted for a single artist — especially when you include the price of fabricating the pieces, a cost that is usually covered by the museum, but which in this case was paid for by Larry Gagosian, the Beverly Hills wheeler–arts dealer who represents Serra.

Gagosian refused to discuss the cost of making the works, saying that to do so would amount to “fetishizing numbers.” But Fred Buckel, the Maryland shipyard employee who oversaw creation of the mammoth pieces, was more forthcoming. He estimated that shaping the first ellipse cost upward of $50,000, not including the price of the steel. The rest of the pieces cost about $30,000 apiece.

Still, Gagosian insists, Richard Serra “doesn’t make sculpture of this complex ity to spend a lot of money. His objective is to make great sculpture.” Whatever the artist’s aim, Gagosian must be pleased that the three ellipses in the show that were up for sale have been snapped up by private collectors.

—Sara Catania

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