Ventura County imposes testing for development within two miles of Rocketdyne

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – August 12, 2004
Between Rocketdyne and a Hard Place

The battle over managing toxics at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory took a historic turn last week with a victory for environmentalists seeking to protect future neighbors of the facility. On August 3, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to require testing for pollutants near the Boeing-owned facility, which sits in the hills between the Simi and San Fernando valleys. Cheers erupted from a crowd of over 50 people as the board passed the controversial measure, which was proposed by Supervisor Linda Parks and requires major developers of property within a two-mile radius of Rocketdyne to check groundwater and soil for the toxic rocket fuel oxidizer perchlorate, and the poisonous industrial solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE.

Perchlorate affects the thyroid, and is especially dangerous for fetuses, babies, and toddlers, and can cause lowered IQ, mental retardation, and diminution of motor skills. TCE causes liver, kidney, and immune function damage, and can volatilize in groundwater and soil, resulting in lethal gases collecting at dangerous levels in above-ground structures. Both chemicals have been found at high levels at the lab, and evidence suggests that the pollutants are spreading offsite into Simi Valley and toward Chatsworth.

Parks had proposed the two-mile radius-testing plan May 4, when it was also approved on a 3-2 vote and sent to the county’s Resource Management Agency for further development. When the matter came up for consensus before the board on July 27, Oxnard-based Supervisor John Flynn had reservations about the measure, saying he didn’t know enough about the issue, and the final vote was delayed a week. Previously, Flynn had told CityBeat that he supported Parks’s program.

With his swing vote at stake, the meeting began with Simi Valley-based Supervisor Judy Mikels attacking the proposal as yet another salvo aimed at “good corporate citizen” Rocketdyne. The supervisor pointed out that if the regulations were really about health, they would apply to all new development around Rocketdyne, not just to major projects. “This is not about health or perchlorate; this is about Boeing/Rocketdyne and what bad actors they are,” Mikels said, defending the company. “The field site is regulated to the nth degree,” she continued. “This is an exercise in harassment and dominance one more time.”

Fellow supervisor Kathy Long also opposed the proposal and stressed that the board already relied on the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (LARWQCB) for groundwater pollution data, making the Parks initiative redundant. “My concern is local government stepping into that mandate,” she said. “It’s an issue of creating fear in the community.”

Parks then pointed out that the LARWQCB had requested the county’s help in identifying potential places in Simi Valley that may need to be tested for groundwater pollution in a June 28 letter. She also noted that it was only because of citizen pressure that Ventura County tested a well on the Rocketdyne-adjacent Ahmanson Ranch property in 2002, which ended up reading positive for perchlorate. Parks added that out of 337 sampling events for surface water pollution at the infamous lab since 1998, over one in eight showed guideline violations. The freshman supervisor also took issue with Mikels’s characterization of the issue. “It is a public health issue because if we don’t take this step, it could endanger public health,” Parks said. “It will be useful to give developers a clean bill of health.”

With board chair Steve Bennett in Parks’s camp, the decision came down to Flynn, who pointed out that a government report noted that there is a “high level of mistrust of the government” regarding the contentious Rocketdyne issue. But Flynn was troubled by the two-mile radius and sought to have it pared down to a mile and a half. He also wanted to make an exemption for the Brandeis-Bardin Jewish day camp that sits on Rocketdyne’s northern border. Parks quickly acceded to the compromise, but Bennett made clear that he’d withdraw his support for the proposal if it were modified without further study. In the confusion that followed, the original Parks proposal was finally adopted with Bennett and Flynn siding with Parks – but not before Mikels had one quixotic comment about Simi Valley drinking water, of which 20 percent is blended groundwater. “You don’t want to drink the local water,” she said. “It sticks between your teeth.”

After the decision, Supervisor Flynn appeared confident that the right thing had indeed been done. “I think the vote came out fine,” he told CityBeat. “I like it. I think it’s what we needed to do.”

“This is a significant victory,” said Rocketdyne critic Dan Hirsch who, along with two Simi Valley residents, had met with Flynn on July 30. “For the first time, major new developments close to this horribly contaminated site will need to undergo testing for pollution before children could end up living there and getting exposed. It’s nice to win one, but we’ve got a lot of work to do before the public is really protected from this highly polluted site.”

In a related development, Hirsch is leading a fight over how to monitor surface water runoff that flows into nearby communities and the Los Angeles River.

The same day Hirsch met with Flynn, his West L.A-based environmental group, Committee to Bridge the Gap, appealed the issuance of a five-year water pollution permit for SSFL. The legal move asserts that the license will unacceptably weaken environmental and public health safeguards, which could aid polluters seeking to weaken enforcement of water contamination policy statewide.

The appeal challenges the July 1 issuance of a surface-water discharge permit by the LARWQCB because the new license abolishes prior enforceable restrictions for 16 toxins in discharges from two SSFL outfalls (spots where surface water leaves the property) and nine poisons from five other outfalls. Eleven new discharge points that the LARWQCB has claimed are more far-reaching than the previous permit required, have virtually no enforceable limits at all.

At a May hearing before the water board, the LARWQCB staff, which has been accused of secretly doing the bidding of Boeing as reported by CityBeat (“Two Mile Island,” July 22), proposed that many of the past permit’s limits be axed and to impose few other contaminant ceilings. After hearing impassioned testimony from concerned citizens and environmentalists, the board instructed its staff to figure out a way to reinstate the previous limits and to mull over limiting all known toxins at SSFL.

Nevertheless, in July, the staff came back to the board and argued that it was prevented from including the prior limits, expanding restrictions to other toxins, or even taking into account the sky-high pollution levels found at the lab. Despite the staff’s obstinance, the board did reinstate one limit for TCE at two of 18 SSFL outfalls, but failed to restore others after considering staff assertions that they weren’t needed.

Boeing has also appealed the new water permit as being too strict and “based solely on emotional pleas from the public rather than scientific evidence.” Hirsch scoffs at this notion and warns that the new lax water rules threaten Californians. “If enforceable limits can’t be imposed on a site this contaminated, water pollution laws will have been rendered toothless and regulators handcuffed statewide from taking actions to protect water quality,” said Hirsch.