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.”
The hard-fought campaign to rid SSFL of radioactive toxins suffered a major setback on April Fool’s Day. The Department of Energy (DOE) announced that the site would not have to undergo a meticulous environmental review and maximized cleanup before the property is released for unrestricted use. The cleanup would use DOE standards rather than the approximately 300-times more stringent EPA standards.
“The government is breaking its promise to clean up Rocketdyne to the strictest EPA standards that it signed on to in 1995,” said Daniel Hirsch, president of the environmental watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap. Hirsch is also a member of the EPA-sponsored Santa Susana Field Laboratory Workgroup, which is made up of government agencies and community activists charged with monitoring the cleanup of SSFL.
And there is a lot to clean up. SSFL’s radiological facility, site of the two partial meltdowns, was also the site of nearly a dozen experimental nuclear reactors, a plutonium fabrication facility, and a “hot lab” designed to disassemble radioactive fuel rods, according to environmentalist Hirsch. Plus, it was the site of a burn pit where radioactive waste was ignited, burned, and released into the air. A sodium burn pit at SSFL has been found to contain perchlorate. Water readings as high as 1,600 parts per billion (ppb) of perchlorate have been found in the eastern area of the lab overlooking the San Fernando Valley, where the chemical was once disposed and where munitions and propellant testing took place. State-suggested acceptable levels for water are 2ppb.
Also, approximately 1,890 pounds of perchlorate were burned at SSFL from 1960 to 1990. No studies have been undertaken to determine the hazards of breathing in airborne perchlorate or its effects due to skin exposure through contaminated water droplets.
A vocal critic of Rocketdyne, Hirsch first discovered information about the 1959 partial meltdown when he was a lecturer at UCLA. A student obtained a film showing Rocketdyne workers struggling to clean up the disabled reactor. Hirsch fed the information to the press and has been the bane of Rocketdyne ever since. “Now, instead of a one-in-a-million fatal- cancer-risk-cleanup level, as mandated by the EPA, the DOE will allow an approximately one-in-3,333 chance of contracting an incurable cancer,” Hirsch said. “The government is breaking its promise to the community.”
“The government is getting away with murder,” says Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of the Los Angeles-based public health group Physicians for Social Responsibility. “The Energy Department, by trying to save a buck or two, is endangering workers, residents, and generations to come.” Parfrey is also a member of the cleanup Workgroup.
Indeed, the hard science seems to support this claim. A comparison of some DOE cleanup levels for radionuclides versus the EPA’s Preliminary Remediation Goals (PRGs) is unsettling. For example, allowable plutonium-239 levels could be 5,576 times higher than the EPA’s PRG. Tritium-3 would be 198,137 times higher. Iron-55 would be 786,250 times the EPA’s PRG, resulting in 1,761 cancers per generation based on population density if SSFL were developed residentially.
DOE officials have publicly stated that the chances of someone dying from cancer by living on the site would be less than the odds of someone getting killed from all the truck trips required to remove the 450,000 cubic meters of contaminated dirt from the 90-acre radiological site at SSFL. Instead, a proposed $100 million cleanup would remove only 5,500 cubic meters or about 1 percent of the poisonous soil from the site.
“It’s outright immoral to let people build homes up there on radioactive waste,” says Parfrey. “But then again, the Department of Energy brought us the nightmares at the Nevada Test Site, Tennessee’s Oak Ridge facility, and the Hanford complex in Washington State. It’s up to the EPA and the State of California to protect us.”
The EPA is not pleased by DOE’s decision but says its hands are tied since the decision came from the “highest level,” or the Executive Branch, according to Stuart Walker, the federal EPA’s “Superfund Radiation Issues” expert. Speaking at a community meeting sponsored by the EPA and the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) in Simi Valley on April 24, Walker said that Rocketdyne wasn’t a Superfund site, which is a designated polluted place cleaned up to the strictest EPA levels – because no one lived at the site. Ironically, he pointed out that if homes were built at SSFL and the EPA found the pollution levels ¯ exceeding its standards, the homes would have to be torn down and the DOE would have to resume cleanup. He stated that the only way Rocketdyne could be given Superfund status was through a citizens’ petition drive, which he admitted had never succeeded at other polluted sites around the country. He added that it could be possible if Governor Gray Davis petitioned the federal government himself, but environmentalists dismiss this as a pipe dream.
Decanting and Deceiving
Even the pollution found so far on SSFL might be underestimated. Rocketdyne tests the water and soil there, but there have been questions about its methodology. After referring to the DOE’s method of sampling as “old science,” Walker also decried Rocketdyne’s history of decanting and filtering suspect water at SSFL. That practice was never condoned by the EPA, he said. He stated that it skewed the results so much that they were essentially meaningless, and that Rocketdyne’s records could be suspect.
This alleged bad practice began in 1989. A report by a company subcontractor, Groundwater Resources Consultants Inc., advised the company how to reduce high concentrations of radionuclides found in the water there. “It is likely that high gross alpha and beta [radiation] activity is correlated with high sediment content in samples,” the report stated. Rocketdyne then contacted Dr. George Uyesugi of the California Department of Health Services Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, who advised it on decanting and filtering methods.
ValleyBeat has obtained an internal EPA document after the agency’s first site inspection in 1989 by Gregg Dempsey, a Las Vegas-based EPA radiation expert. He called Rocketdyne’s soil and water sampling totally inaccurate, noting the filtering and decanting and other technical mistakes. He faulted SSFL washing of plants in vegetation tests, removing any possible air residue, and the technique where Rocketdyne “ashes,” or burns plants before radiation testing, which aerates the vegetation, driving off unknown amounts of radionuclides. “It is also clear to me that Rocketdyne does not have a good ‘handle’ on where the radiation has been inadvertently or intentionally dumped onsite,” Dempsey wrote. “Most of the evidence on site is incompletely documented or anecdotal.”
It’s the Water
Residents, activists, and government officials are more concerned about what pollutants are leaching offsite and possibly making people sick – and perhaps even killing them. “Senator Feinstein’s position has always been to make sure that contamination from Rocketdyne is cleaned up to a standard that is not hazardous to the community,” says Feinstein aide, Scott Gerber. “She’s monitored cleanup efforts, asked for a community health study, and has requested funding to make sure that the cleanup is done in a way that is satisfactory to the residents.”
Officials at Ahmanson Ranch, which has been dogged by environmental issues for years, deny that there are any problems. “At this point, available evidence does not support the conclusion that Rocketdyne has contaminated the site of the Ahmanson Ranch project,” says Tim McGarry, spokesman for Washington Mutual, which owns the Ranch property. “No federal, state, or local agency responsible for the Rocketdyne cleanup has concluded or suggested that Rocketdyne contaminants have migrated to the Ahmanson Ranch property – or, indeed, have migrated off the Rocketdyne property.”
Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, who openly opposes the proposed Ahmanson Ranch development in her district, is worried about the Rocketdyne cleanup. “Leaving contamination on site can pose a health risk, depending on future uses of the site, and the associated contaminated rain runoff will continue to be an issue,” says Parks. “I would like to see a concerted effort to place the contaminated soil at a proper waste site.”
Parks has concerns that the toxic rocket-fuel oxidizer, perchlorate, is flowing into her district and then into the headwaters of the Los Angeles River. A March 9, 2000, check by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program revealed a reading of 17ppb draining from Rocketdyne into Happy Valley, a drainage outlet that leads down into the San Fernando Valley through Dayton Creek and Bell Canyon and ends up flowing into the headwaters of the Los Angeles River.
California’s “public health safety goal” of acceptable levels of perchlorate in water was lowered in December from 4ppb to 2ppb in response to growing alarm. “Perchlorate disrupts how the thyroid functions,” according to the EPA. “Impairment of thyroid function in expectant ¯ mothers may impact the fetus and newborn and result in effects including changes in behavior, delayed development and decreased learning capability. Changes in thyroid hormone levels may also result in thyroid gland tumors.”
Rocketdyne has consistently denied that there is any offsite migration of toxins from SSFL. (Rocketdyne officials did not return calls for this story.) In a previous interview, Steve Lafflam, Rocketdyne’s Division Director for Safety, Health, and Environmental Affairs, had harsh words for environmentalists critical of Rocketdyne. “There are special-interest groups that have put out a rash of lies,” Lafflam said. “They’ve gone forward with litigation that’s going to cost a lot of people a lot of money. And there’s no merit to it at all.”
However, sampling of Ahmanson Ranch’s groundwater last summer revealed that one well, Well M-1, had a reading of 28ppb of perchlorate. Remember, that’s less than two miles from the SSFL. When the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in favor of the Ahmanson development in December, it was aware of the problems up on “The Hill.” The Supes addressed that niggling issue by ordering that the well with perchlorate be eventually destroyed and never used to irrigate Ahmanson Ranch’s proposed golf courses, playgrounds, and common areas.
In December, it was revealed that perchlorate had been found in 18 wells in Simi Valley. The highest reading was 19.2ppb – nearly 10 times the new health limit concerning the powdery white substance in California drinking water.
Rocketdyne has said that there is no evidence that perchlorate has migrated offsite toward Simi or Ahmanson Ranch, and has actually suggested that children playing with fireworks may be the cause of the pollution. This, despite the fact that the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) states that perchlorate “occurrence [is] closely associated with aerospace and defense sites.”
The RWQCB plans to re-test Well M-1 for perchlorate on June 13. In a May 15 interview, ValleyBeat asked the RWQCB if it also planned to test for radionuclides. Executive Officer Dennis Dickerson said that Rocketdyne had “the option to test for radionuclides if perchlorate is found again.” In a memo received May 30, a team of RWQCB executives wrote: “Sampling and analysis of groundwater samples for radionuclides will be performed at the Ahmanson Well No. 1.”
A recent California-EPA Department of Toxic Substances Control map of perchlorate hits on SSFL, compiled with the same water district, shows that another hot hit of perchlorate was found on the Ahmanson Ranch property on March 6. There is a reading of less than 40 ug/l on the Ahmanson property close to Rocketdyne’s property. (Ug/l is the same as ppb but is used for water measurements instead of the “parts per billion” measure for soil.) Dickerson said this measurement is, basically, dicey. “It’s 1 to 39.9ppb – we can’t be sure,” he said in an interview. This seems to contradict Rocketdyne claims that no poisonous perchlorate is leaching offsite – and is not good tidings for Ahmanson Ranch.
Rocketdyne seems confused when releasing information about offsite pollution migration. In a “fact sheet,” issued in May, the company states “hundreds of samples collected outside the SSFL boundary do not contain perchlorate and do not show a pattern of contamination.” Yet, accompanying that sheet was a Rocketdyne map that shows perchlorate hits in three offsite locations – and doesn’t even note the proximity of the site to Ahmanson Ranch. The RWQCB reports that approximately 20 percent of 880 groundwater samples at or near SSFL detect perchlorate. One SSFL Happy Valley groundwater sample clocked in at 280ppb, 140 times over what the state considers safe for drinking water.
Here, There, and Everywhere
Perchlorate contamination isn’t unique to Rocketdyne. Military-industrial giant Aerojet, in the San Gabriel Valley city of Azusa, has so polluted the area that neighboring Baldwin Park has hits as high as 2,180ppb. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena registered 1,500ppb.
Pasadena has the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of the rocket-fuel oxidizer. And now it’s paying the price – JPL is a Superfund site. JPL co-founder Jack Parsons, with a partner, came up with the perchlorate formula back in 1928 and it is still used in fireworks and road flares.
U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer recently introduced Senate bill 820, the Perchlorate Community Right-to-Know Act of 2003, to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to establish a perchlorate pollution prevention fund and to enact safety standards. Senator Feinstein has weighed in on the matter, as well. “In the Defense Authorization Bill, that passed the Senate, Senator Feinstein included a provision on perchlorate,” said staffer Gerber. “Apparently, the Department of Defense did a study on perchlorate on many of its facilities but it hasn’t released that to the public. In the Senate bill is an amendment, sponsored by Feinstein, which would require them to release the findings of their study within 30 days of enactment.”
Nor is perchlorate the only toxin plaguing Rocketdyne. The toxic rocket-engine solvent, trichloroethylene (TCE), dioxins, and other nasty pollutants have plagued the site.
SSFL’s radiological releases are of particular concern. ValleyBeat has obtained a copy of the “Ahmanson Ranch Hydrogeological Monitoring Program. September 2002 – November 2002 Quarterly Report” prepared by Washington Mutual subcontractor, California- and Utah-based Psomas. The company specializes in land development, water, transportation, and information technology. In one survey of Ahmanson wells, under a column called “Radiologicals Alpha/Beta,” wells came in at high hits of radiation, including one well that registered 72.34 Pico curies per liter (pCi/L). Radiation at this level should be reported, according to Parfrey. “Plus the radionuclides must be determined. And [Psomas] didn’t even bother to test for radionuclides at a number of other wells, like, ‘Why bother?'”
McGarry notes that only one of some “30-odd” samples in these tests was above the dangerous mark, and that it was reported, saying, “The data generated by our monitoring activities have been promptly and fully shared with the appropriate public agencies.”
Parfrey puts it more bluntly, saying, “Ahmanson Ranch seems to be in hot water, literally. It has all the fingerprints of Rocketdyne offsite pollution.
“The Department of Health Services rules [Parfrey] referred to concern drinking water standards and apply only to the monitoring of potable ‘community water systems,'” countered McGarry. “They simply aren’t applicable to the monitoring program at Ahmanson Ranch. Ahmanson Ranch groundwater will not be extracted or put to any use at all.
Mark Blocksage doesn’t really care about all the science involved in the Rocketdyne controversy. All he knows is that he’s sick. “There are huge pits up there where they used to burn chemicals that are, like, where I live, where it would run straight down,” he says. “I know people that have told me that they used to just burn crap up there for years.”
Blocksage changes the music on his stereo to his favorite genre, classic rock. The group Kansas’s anthem, “Carry on Wayward Son,” fills his disheveled bedroom. “I just think the citizens of Simi Valley should be aware of what’s up there.”