FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN
Simi Valley’s Rocketdyne facility was blasted by 50 years of rocket engines and nuclear reactor meltdowns, leaving a toxic disaster atop what residents call “The Hill.” Runoff may be poisoning Southland residents. And now the government just broke a promise to clean it up.
By Michael Collins and Sharon McKenna
Los Angeles ValleyBeat – June 12, 2003
Simi Valley’s Rocketdyne facility was blasted by 50 years of rocket engines and nuclear reactor meltdowns, leaving a toxic disaster atop what residents call “The Hill.” Now runoff may be poisoning Southland residents, and the government just broke a promise to clean it up.
Mark Blocksage looks, talks, and acts like any typical Southern California teenager. He’s a big kid, 6′ 5″, with tousled sandy blond hair and blue eyes. Kicking back in the room that he shares with two of his four younger brothers, Blocksage fiddles with his stereo, turning the volume up on a Bob Marley CD. Their modest Simi Valley home is kept by his stay-at-home mom and a dad who works for L.A. Deptartment of Water and Power. But a closer look reveals that all is not okay: Bottles of a powerful painkiller are scattered across his messy room, and the high school student seems unusually exhausted.
“I feel like shit all the time,” he says, nervously fingering a scar on his neck. “I’m only 18, and I’m fucked. I’m on pain medication – a brand-new medicine called Ultracet or something. They’re trying to test me out on it. It sucks. I know there are other people out there with the same shit. It just hasn’t clicked where it’s coming from. It’s Rocketdyne, and it’s all downhill right to where I live. There’s too many coincidences going around my neighborhood.”
Blocksage is one of many Simi and San Fernando Valley residents, in both Ventura and Los Angeles counties, who link cancers, serious illnesses, and deaths to Rocketdyne, a sprawling missile development complex that sits atop a ridge less than a mile from the Blocksage home. More than 300 people, backed by the Santa Barbara-based law firm Capello and McCann, have filed individual lawsuits against the company since the late ’90s. These people link their diseases to the deadly chemicals and radioactive particles, or “radionuclides,” that have poisoned the soil and groundwater at the Rocketdyne facility – including an array of radioactive goo ranging from plutonium-239 to cesium-137, and now the problematic rocket-fuel oxidizer, perchlorate.
For more than 20 years, community activists and environmentalists have fought to have the site cleaned up, in a battle that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated is the most contentious such conflict in the nation.
Rocketdyne’s 2,668-acre complex – nicknamed “The Hill” – sits high in the Santa Susana Mountains. Officially, it’s called the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), and, since the late 1940s, it has been one of the premier developers of intercontinental ballistic missiles, including the Atlas and Jupiter rockets. SSFL also helped develop rockets for the space shuttle and was one of the first compounds to build and test experimental nuclear reactors. Those included space power systems and the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) that, for one brief shining moment, supplied electricity for 1,200 folks in the then-tiny town of Moorpark.
In July 1959, the SRE suffered a partial meltdown, with a third of its core melting and deadly radioactive vapors escaping into the air. In 1964, 80 percent of an experimental space reactor’s core melted (see sidebar).
Toxic contamination, in fact, may be SSFL’s most lasting legacy. The presence of radiological and chemical toxins on the site has been an established fact for years. Many of these may now be migrating into local communities, a charge that the developers of the nearby Ahmanson Ranch, which is less than two miles from SSFL, adamantly deny.
New information obtained by ValleyBeat suggests that radiological and chemical contamination has migrated offsite of SSFL into the Simi and San Fernando valleys, the adjacent Ahmanson Ranch, and down into the headwaters of the Los Angeles River. Indeed, one of the prime pollutants, perchlorate, is not only found on Rocketdyne and its adjacent environs; its impact could extend into Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley.
Worse, the picturesque hills of the Rocketdyne facility itself may one day be the site of a residential community replete with homes, schools, and parks. The land is currently zoned “RA-5,” or “rural-agricultural – 5 acres,” and, with a proposed cleanup, could be cleared for “unrestricted” use. Recently, this designation has been a precursor to transformation from farmland to housing tracts. To overcome these obstacles, Rocketdyne would have to garner a zoning variance and also seek Ventura County voter approval.
Blocksage is convinced that Rocketdyne’s legacy is responsible for his mysterious illness. He has three tumors in his neck, wrapped around his jugular. More lumps infest his armpit, groin, and stomach. The tumors began developing when he was 12. The part-time Taco Bell employee has lost 60 pounds in the last six months alone and is now losing weight at the rate of six pounds a week. A friend on an adjacent street started developing similar tumors in his neck at the age of 10. “I went to UCLA and went to the pathological dude, and they did a biopsy on one of my tumors. They said it looks like Hodgkin’s Disease, but it’s not. There’s no reason for these tumors to be [there]. I have, like, three of them, the size of quarters. They don’t know what the hell it is.”