HOT ZONE

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Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory was on the frontlines of the Cold War. Now some who lived near “The Hill” say they share two distinctions: chronic illness and the unswerving belief that the lab caused it

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles magazine – June 1998

Los Angeles MagazineON A HOT JULY NIGHT IN 1959, on flickering RCAs and Philcos and DuMonts, the residents of Simi Valley watched as Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon toured a Moscow exposition’s exhibit of a model American home. When the Soviet premier and the vice president paused in the kitchen, the televisions suddenly erupted with belligerent voices. “We have means at our disposal which can have very bad consequences,” Khrushchev bellowed through an interpreter. “We have too,” Nixon shot back. “Ours are better,” Khrushchev retorted.

The occupants of hundreds of tract house living rooms shifted uncomfortably in their BarcaLoungers. The image of Nixon and Khrushchev rattling nuclear sabers against a backdrop of American-made appliances—the fabled Kitchen Debate—brought home the Cold War with unnerving intimacy. But events unfolding on a hilltop five miles from town brought it even closer. On a 2,668-acre expanse littered with boulders and blanketed by chaparral lay Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a sprawling, semisecret complex of concrete bunkers, rocket test pads and nuclear reactors. The Rocketdyne lab was a key supplier of America’s rapidly expanding arsenal of nuclear weapons and rocket engines for the coming space race. The work going on at the facility was one of the reasons Nixon could return Khrushchev’s salvos with impunity.

What almost nobody in Simi Valley knew that night was this: A primitive nuclear reactor at the lab was in the throes of a meltdown. The accident, which was not acknowledged until five weeks later, would presage the continuing problems the lab was to have handling radioactive and toxic materials. And 30 years later, those incidents would become a rallying point for San Fernando Valley and Simi Valley residents with little in common except for the fact that they had all lived near the lab and had all become very ill.

When Jim Garner was growing up in Simi Valley, he marveled at the huge clouds of gas that would occasionally drift down from the lab and at how his house trembled when the rockets were tested. It was an era – soon to end – when Americans still possessed something close to blind faith in institutions, especially those doing work perceived to be keeping the Soviets at bay. If Rocketdyne’s lab posed a threat, surely somebody, some “official,” would sound the warning. Children growing up near the site swam and fished in streams and played in the dry wash. And one day, Garner rode the red J.C. Higgins bike he got for Christmas right through effluent flowing from the lab.

Garner, now 44, still lives in Simi Valley. An ironworker, he’s done contract jobs at the lab over the years. In October 1996, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. His wife Leslie had her uterus removed because of cervical cancers. His father – like Garner an ironworker employed occasionally at the lab – has skin cancer and heart problems and is near death. His sister Vickie, 46, has heart and thyroid problems. On one side of a single block of Ramara Avenue in Woodland Hills, five miles from the plant, cancer has been diagnosed in 9 out of 10 houses. Garner believes – as hundreds of residents who live near the lab believe – that irregularities and outright catastrophes in Rocketdyne’s handling of hazardous materials poisoned the air, water and soil around them and made them gravely ill. “If I had taken a handgun or a knife and attacked someone and killed them,” he says, “I would be in jail. These people did that very thing to me, only they didn’t use a weapon. They used chemicals.”

“Every person on our street has had cancer,” says Kathy Hecker, who grew up on Ramara Avenue and has thyroid cancer. “I think there was actually three houses out of thirty that didn’t. Just next door, three women had cancer in that house; the mother died, the daughter has thyroid cancer like me, and the aunt has cancer. I mean, three in one house? What are the odds?”

Says Bob Grandinetti, a 55-year-old Chatsworth resident who blames his stomach cancer on pollution from the lab: “I lived in the west side of the Valley since 1956. When I moved over to Chatsworth, I saw the testing up on the hill—the lights and fire and smoke and rockets. I assumed the government was protecting us, but evidently they weren’t.”

Rocketdyne denies the Santa Susana facility caused the illnesses. “There are special-interest groups that have put out a rash of lies,” says Steve Lafflam, Rocketdyne’s division director for safety, health and environmental affairs. “They’ve gone forward with a lot of litigation that’s going to cost an awful lot of people a lot of money. And there’s no merit to it at all.”

“Rocketdyne is our Chernobyl,” counters Jonathan Parfrey executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, an anti-nuclear activist group. “People have died, others are chronically ill. But because it’s so damn hard to link a hypothetical incident of exposure to the onset of a specific disease, I bet Rocketdyne will never be accountable for their acts.”

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