A half-century after his death, Jack Parsons’ twisted legacy lives on in the toxic soup his experiments created – and still hasn’t been cleaned up
Part 2 of 2
By Michael Collins
Pasadena Weekly – January 10, 2002
Accursed indeed. When famed rocket scientist Jack Parsons was blown to smithereens in his Pasadena home in 1952, his legendary and lethal legacy didn’t die with him. As we reported last week, Parsons was the co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the military-industrial giant company, Aerojet. The occult-obsessed, drug-addicted man, with a serious and apparently acted-out Oedipus complex, was also key in implementing the idea to start using potassium perchlorate as a rocket fuel oxidizer. This led to the evolution of ammonium perchlorate, which is still used today in American nuke-tipped rockets and the Space Shuttle.
While this seems a laudable legacy in America’s quest to conquer the skies, it also has left us with an apparently poisonous posterity that Parsons may have never imagined when he came to his untimely demise at the age of 37. Today, NASA-owned JPL, whose prime contractor is Caltech, is gravely polluted requiring an intense Superfund cleanup, an Environmental Protection Agency program that targets the most serious hazardous waste sites across the nation. Two of Aerojet’s facilities, in the San Gabriel city of Azusa and the Sacramento County community of Rancho Cordova, are also Superfund sites. Indeed, Parsons’ innovations in the use of perchlorate have led to pollution problems across the state.
Quite a fitting legacy for the man who envisioned himself the Antichrist.
“Caltech and JPL have done some pretty terrific things,” asserts Jonathan Parfrey, local director of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning group Physicians for Social Responsibility, “but there is a rarely reported dark legacy as well. Advances in technical science do not equate advances in ethical behavior.” Jonathan Parfrey is the brother of Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey, whose book “Sex and Rockets,” based on Jack Parsons’ eerie epoch, was profiled in last week’s cover story.
“Robert Millikan made Caltech a technical school to provide engineers for Los Angeles’ burgeoning aircraft industry — so over the past eighty years, its students and professors, as a matter of course, have bent the laws of nature to make the most destruction weapons on the planet,” Parfrey said, referring, in part, to the missiles that propel America’s nuclear-tipped warheads.
“Borne of Caltech, JPL’s first mission was to move jet-propulsion from the theoretical, from the chalkboard, into a weapon of war. When the Army ran JPL, between 1945 and 1957, in the midst of the Cold War, they operated in this rarified culture. Because there was this state of national emergency, the lab didn’t really consider the long term environmental effects of its work. For forty years the good people living downstream of JPL drank their tainted water. So badly polluted, the local aquifers are now a Superfund site. And some of Pasadena’s wells have been shut down and local water will need to be treated for a very long time.”
The Weekly first reported on JPL’s pollution woes in July 1998. At that time, the paper revealed that the 176-acre JPL site was plagued by numerous volatile compounds (VOCs) including the carcinogenic solvents trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene, and carbon tetrachloride which has resulted in a $114 million dollar cleanup.
Since then, the Weekly has discovered that the sources of contamination at JPL include “approximately 35 seepage pits where liquid and solid wastes were reportedly disposed of, a settling chamber in the JPL storm drain system, contaminated soil excavated from part of that system, and an area where waste solvents were dumped into three separate holes,” according to an EPA document obtained by the paper. “Hazardous substances located at JPL include waste solvents, solid fuel rocket fuel propellants, cooling tower chemicals, sulfuric acid, freon, mercury, and chemical laboratory wastes.”
VOC contamination in the groundwater forced the shutting of four Pasadena municipal wells, which were reopened again for “service” after NASA installed a treatment system. Additionally, the Lincoln Avenue Water Company installed treatment systems to rid the water of toxic goo at two of its wells. The systems “reduced,” but did not apparently eliminate, “potential risks to human health” for the “approximately 120,840 people (who) live within 4 miles of (JPL); an estimated 68,000 people obtain drinking water from municipal within 4 miles of the site,” according to the EPA. Dozens of sick folks, some afflicted with Hodgkin’s disease, ended up filing a class action against JPL, Caltech and the U.S. government over this poisonous part of Jack Parsons’ posterity.
The total mass of the VOCs at JPL in the vadose zone, which is the soil between the ground surface and the water table about 200 feet below, is estimated to be no more than 5,040 pounds. A soil vapor extraction (SVE) system pilot test was installed at JPL in 1998 and at least 200 pounds of the VOC goo was removed during the test extraction. The EPA was pleased with the results and has stated that “SVE is a feasible option for remediation of VOCs in soils.”