THE SINS OF ROCKETDYNE
By Michael Collins and Sharon McKenna
Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – July 3, 2003
Last week’s news that the toxic chemical perchlorate was found gurgling from a groundwater well, nearly a mile outside the northern border of the Rocketdyne facility, shocked many Simi and San Fernando valley residents. But former Rocketdyne worker Lynwood Sibley was hardly surprised. Sibley worked for the aerospace company decades ago, when perchlorate was used in massive amounts at the site. Sibley’s stint at Rocketdyne was brief and, today, he still shows no ill effects from his possible exposure to poisons at the site.
“I worked at CTL-3 and CTL-4, and another big test stand [above the] canyon, the closest one to Ahmanson,” says Sibley. “We had all the ‘exotics’ [chemicals] there – all the devil’s brew. A lot of people have died from cancer from the exotics up there in recent years. I got caught in a monomethylhydrazine cloud up there, and they sent me down for a physical right away because it’s that bad a stuff.”
The Rocketdyne facility sits upon 2,668 acres of land in the Santa Susana hills between the San Fernando and Simi valleys and, for decades, used vast amounts of the fuel oxidizer perchlorate in rocket tests. According to government records, nearly a ton of the poisonous substance was burned at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), nicknamed “the Hill.” Now the site is polluted with all manner of chemical and radiological contaminants. One spot at SSFL registered 1,600 parts per billion (ppb) for perchlorate. California considers any water registering over 4ppb to be unsafe for human consumption.
Sibley worked at SSFL for only one year in 1962. “My wife said that when I quit Rocketdyne, it was the best thing I’d ever done,” he says. “I didn’t die of cancer like everyone else I worked with.”
But other workers and residents who have survived cancer and other illnesses are suing. The litigation has been slow, and resistance fierce. Two class-action lawsuits were filed in 1997 against Boeing, which owns Rocketdyne, contending that claimants were made sick or put in harm’s way by Rocketdyne’s pollution problems. One lawsuit was filed by Erin Brockovich’s boss, Edward L. Masry, whose firm helped garner a $333 million settlement against Pacific Gas & Electric over cancers in Hinkley, California, regarding toxic chromium-6 pollution. (Brockovich and that case were the subject of the like-named Oscar-winning motion picture.)
However, the Rocketdyne class actions were quashed in October 2000 by Van Nuys-based U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins. She ruled that news reports in the Los Angeles Daily News about Rocketdyne’s discharge of hazardous and radioactive toxins, published between 1989 and 1991, should have prompted the plaintiffs to file proceedings at that time, despite repeated statements from Rocketdyne that it wasn’t responsible for offsite contamination. Under past California law, plaintiffs had only one year to file a lawsuit if they believed they’d been harmed. Since January 1, this period has been doubled to two years.
On November 27, 2002, the Ninth District Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s decision to throw out 18 individual toxic tort cases against Boeing. The Court ruled that the plaintiffs met the statute of limitations requirements since they filed their cases after UCLA released a 1997 toxic contamination study. That survey showed that 4,563 of Rocketdyne’s past and present nuke workers had elevated rates of cancer, and that exposure to radiation causes health risks at levels lower than previously known. But Boeing appealed. Just last month, on June 6, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Boeing’s final attempt to stop sick people from suing the company.
“It’s taken several years to get to where we are,” says Santa Barbara-based attorney Barry Cappello, who represents 317 people and parties suing Boeing. “But we now have the opportunity to bring at least a hundred additional cases, people who have cancer or have passed away – children, husbands, wives, and moms – that now have an opportunity to have their cases heard in court that would have been thrown out.”
Boeing may now be deluged by lawsuits. Chatsworth resident Betty Reo is one person encouraged by the decision. Reo is now looking for an attorney to handle her case, in which she would allege that her husband, a former Rocketdyne worker, died from toxic exposure at SSFL. “This is great,” she says. “We are going to fry them.”