TWO MILE ISLAND
The Rocketdyne facility is more poisoned than anyone knew. Now residents and community leaders of the northwest San Fernando Valley and Ventura County supervisors want more testing before new homes get any closer.
By Michael Collins
Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – July 22, 2004
“I didn’t know anything when I worked up at Rocketdyne, I just didn’t know anything,” said Bonnie Klea. “I didn’t have a clue how dangerous it was up there.” The West Hills resident sure knows now. Years after working at Rocketdyne’s sprawling Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) high in the hills between the San Fernando and Simi valleys, she came down with a rare bladder cancer in 1995. Ever since, she has been a vocal critic of the military and aerospace company now owned by the largest private employer in Southern California, Boeing.
Klea has fought Rocketdyne tooth and nail and has little to show for it. Her successful struggle against cancer is another story. “I had surgery and was in the hospital nine times in nine months. I had the tumor taken out. I had four different kinds of chemotherapy and I did a full term of radiation on top of that. I didn’t want it to come back so I said ‘give it all to me.’”
Of the cancer itself, Klea says, “It’s in the neighborhood. On my little street alone, I have two neighbors that have had bladder cancer.” Sixteen cancers have afflicted residents in 15 homes on Klea’s block. A 1990 state health department survey of cancer records showed elevated levels of bladder cancer in the census tracts closest to the lab. That includes tract 1132 where Klea lives, less than two miles from SSFL. The 2,668-acre lab has an abysmal pollution record of partial nuclear meltdowns, radiological mishaps, and chemical contamination, making it one of the most fought-over environmental cleanup sites in the nation.
Regardless, three housing projects are popping up within two miles of SSFL including a massive development at the former Runkle Ranch and the proposed Colton Lee Communities, both in Simi Valley. On the Los Angeles County side of the border, the Dayton Canyon Estates proposes new homes along a creek that carries Rocketdyne runoff through it. Even more bold, Boeing still hopes to release the lab land for unrestricted use including housing developments.
But new government data reveals pollution problems at SSFL are far worse than ever before realized. Groundwater under the lab is hot with dangerous levels of radioactive tritium. Rocketdyne dioxins register hundreds of thousands of times higher than previously known. The rocket fuel oxidizer perchlorate has been discovered at unprecedented levels resulting in extensive recent excavation of part of the lab, and the chemical is now found in numerous offsite wells. Trichloroethylene (TCE), a toxic rocket engine solvent, was found in SSFL soil vapor billions of times over limits considered even moderately safe for humans. And the volatile organic compound is slowly spreading offsite.
Against this gloomy backdrop, Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks is attempting to enact regulations that would have developers within two miles of rocket testing facilities test for perchlorate and TCE before breaking ground. Rocketdyne, which is in east Ventura County and releases lab effluent into Parks’s district, is fighting the initiative. Boeing is also attempting to prove that evidence of offsite pollution is either faulty or cannot be traced back to SSFL, apparently in order to keep cleanup costs and mounting legal bills from rocketing out of sight. The company seems confident that through its largess and cozy government connections, it can succeed.
“Even without these shocking new facts, what we already know should be greatly concerning not just to the hundreds of thousands of people living in the shadow of Rocketdyne, but to all of us,” said Jonathan Parfrey, director of the L.A.-based public health organization Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Although the meltdowns at Rocketdyne were smaller than the one at Three Mile Island, at least that disaster was largely held at bay by a containment vessel. The reactors at Rocketdyne had none. Add to that the inconceivable amount of chemicals polluting the lab, and what you’ve got is a never-ending nightmare of epic proportions.”