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.”
“A neighbor of ours died of cancer from working up there,” adds Sibley. “There was some bad stuff up there. I had a friend over in Simi who had a daughter who was born with extreme birth defects. We think it was from the chemicals over at Rocketdyne. It might have been from the perchlorate in the groundwater.”
‘Goo’ is not three-quarters of the word ‘good’
The recently discovered high perchlorate readings were found in a Simi Valley artesian well called the “Bathtub Well 1”– water that literally drips into an old iron bathtub – that was sampled by the Ventura County Public Works Agency on February 21. The test results, a reading of 82ppb, prompted Ventura to contact the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). That agency tested the well May 30 and came up with two samples registering 140ppb and 150ppb. The DTSC later retested the well, which sits on undeveloped land within the Jewish day camp Brandeis-Bardin, on June 11. Two perchlorate readings dipped to 36ppb and 39ppb at the “bathtub.” Oddly, the toxin was not detected in a March 20, 2002, sampling of the well. The wildly fluctuating readings may be a prime example of the still-not-well-known ways in which perchlorate moves through groundwater.
Because of these most recent findings, the DTSC has now ordered Rocketdyne to come up with a plan by August 18 to determine if the contamination emanated from SSFL. The company will be required to do aerial photography, geologic mapping, aquifer monitoring, and well testing, said the DTSC’s Gerard Abrams.
Abrams, a geologist and SSFL project manager for the DTSC, noted that the source of the toxin could be Rocketdyne. Both the company and its parent, Boeing, have consistently denied that any pollution has migrated off the heavily contaminated site, which is undergoing a multi-million-dollar cleanup. “For us, it’s very important to understand how the material got there,” Abrams says.
“This is the smoking gun. It overwhelmingly suggests that Rocketdyne’s activities may have resulted in contamination of nearby communities,” says Jonathan Parfrey, director of the Los Angeles-based public-health advocacy group, Physicians for Social Responsibility. Parfrey is also a member of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Workgroup, charged with overseeing the Rocketdyne cleanup. “Perchlorate is an indicator chemical – being a salt, it moves quickly through the water table,” he says. “Finding perchlorate down the Hill powerfully suggests that Rocketdyne’s more troubling chemicals and radionuclides may soon follow.”
“Perchlorate is a serious threat to public health and to our children,” says Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California). “I strongly support the efforts of the state to get to the bottom of this issue and to insure that our people are protected from perchlorate contamination. I will continue my efforts, at the federal level, to insist on a tough perchlorate standard.” Perchlorate, a growing problem in California and 10 other states, has been found in non-drinking-water wells across Simi Valley. Rocketdyne maintains that the source of that pollution could be from fireworks and road flares.
Denial: a deadly disease
Betty Reo, 75, lost her husband, Cosmo, to a lurid litany of illnesses that she blames on Rocketdyne. Cosmo was working on the Bravo rocket test stand in 1959, when a nearby experimental nuclear reactor suffered a partial meltdown, releasing radioactivity into the environment. He became ill three years later. At age 53, the SSFL employee-turned-stockbroker began breaking out in red sores all over his body, his neck artery started to close up, his kidneys failed, and he seemed “out of it all the time,” according to Reo. “It ruined his whole body getting that into his system.”
Reo says her husband was eventually straitjacketed in the hospital because, in fits of insanity, he would tear intravenous needles out of his arms. Cosmo died in 1980, after suffering four heart attacks.
“His whole family lived until their late 80s, so it just didn’t make sense,” says Reo. “When he died, the doctors wanted to do an autopsy but I said, ‘Leave my husband’s body alone. I want him buried with dignity.’ They didn’t know what was wrong with him.” Not having an autopsy performed was a decision she would regret. When she later applied for funds under the Employee Occupational Illness Compensation Program, she was denied any benefits because Cosmo’s death certificate did not specify cancer as his cause of death. “The federal government has been exposing workers and members of the public to radiation since the Manhattan Project,” says Daniel Hirsch, president of the Los Angeles-based environmental group Committee to Bridge the Gap and a member of the SSFL Workgroup. “Fairly quickly, it became apparent that those radiation doses were potentially harmful, especially to the workers,” says Hirsch.
The Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Department of Energy (DOE), continued for decades to deny that radiation was causing any harm to their employees, according to Hirsch. Eventually, because of disclosures showing that substantial numbers of cancers were being generated in workers who were exposed to radiation, including the Santa Susana workers, members of Congress put forth legislation to compensate the nuclear workers. President Clinton signed the legislation into law. Hirsch says that one problem with that legislation, however, is that it has to be implemented by many of the same people who actively denied that there had been any harm.