Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition protesters at gates of Rocketdyne in 2001.
Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition protesters at gates of Rocketdyne in 2001.

By Michael Collins

LA Weekly – February 2, 2001

Protesters gathered last week at the gates of Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory as trucks rolled out, hauling 14,000 tons of radioactivity-contaminated soil from the military contractor’s site above the San Fernando Valley to a dump in Kern County. Over residents’ objections, the Department of Health Services had approved dumping the hot soil at a landfill near Buttonwillow, a town heavily populated by migrant workers.

Two years ago, Health Services objected when Buttonwillow received radioactive waste from an old Manhattan Project bomb facility in New York state, saying the gunk should go to a licensed facility. Now the department has reversed position, declaring that radioactive waste can go anywhere — a municipal trash dump, a chemical-waste facility — as long as its radiation dosage is calculated at less than 25 millirem per year, the equivalent of 170 additional chest X-rays over a lifetime.

That level is estimated to increase the cancer risk to one death for every 1,000 people exposed — a standard about 1,000 times more lax than is permitted for other carcinogens, the nuclear-watchdog group Committee To Bridge the Gap says. The Kettleman city dump refused the Rocketdyne shipment, but Buttonwillow let it through.

Rocketdyne’s own tests showed that seven out of eight radionuclides in the Rocketdyne soil emitted radiation above normal background levels. One radionuclide, plutonium 238, was measured at 13.5 times the background level. Health officials and Rocketdyne portrayed the radiation as negligible.

“We live, whether we like it or not, in a sea of radiation,” Health Services official Robert Gregor said.

The soil also contains PCBs, dioxin, mercury and the highly toxic rocket-fuel oxidizer perchlorate. The dumping is expected to continue for up to five months.

“The trucks have started rolling out of Rocketdyne, creating the precedent for free release of radioactive material throughout the state,” said Dan Hirsch, president of Committee To Bridge the Gap. “If you thought deregulation of electricity hurt California, just wait until you see the consequences of deregulating radioactive waste.”