Boeing’s bold plan to greenwash the polluted Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), more infamously known as Rocketdyne, isn’t surprising taking into account the corporate behavior of Boeing and preceding SSFL owners.
That behavior indicates an “anything goes” mentality that existed for decades, much to the detriment of its workers according to several health studies, as well as impacting the communities around Rocketdyne and possibly the Los Angeles River as public access increases.
Boeing’s cavalier approach carries on today as evidenced by its complex and costly campaign to avoid cleaning up the contaminated site to background. The only difference is unlike discovering pollution problems from decades ago and reporting their significance, this stratagem is ongoing and developing according to the Make Over Earth draft media campaign. The plan to paint Rocketdyne clean and green just doesn’t gel with the history of Rocketdyne.
In testimony before the US Senate in 2008, Dan Hirsch, president of the nuclear watchdog organization Committee to Bridge the Gap, told quite a different story about the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.
In the late 1940s, the Atomic Energy Commission commenced a search for a remote site in Southern California for nuclear work too dangerous to perform near populated areas. In the decades since SSFL was established, the Southern California population mushroomed, so that now more than half a million people live within ten miles of the site. Over the years, SSFL was home to ten nuclear reactors, a plutonium fuel fabrication facility, and a “hot lab” for cutting up irradiated nuclear fuel shipped in from around the country, plus over 20,000 rocket tests, as well as munitions development and “Star Wars” laser work. Sloppy controls, an indifference to environmental rules, and a history of spills and accidents have created a legacy of radioactive and chemical contamination. A history of broken cleanup promises has left the vast majority of that contamination still in place.
Indeed, several accidents involving nuclear reactors have released radioactive gases into the atmosphere. In 1959, a fuel rod exploded at the lab while being washed with water, flooding the reactor with radioactivity that was vented outside. In 1960, a reactor pipe being moved outdoors for decontamination exploded and sailed across a ravine. In 1997, Rocketdyne settled out of court with Brandeis-Bardin Institute, in eastern Simi Valley, over charges the company had polluted the institute’s groundwater and devalued its property. Two Rocketdyne physicists were killed in 1994 when the chemicals they were incinerating exploded. Following a federal grand jury investigation, Rocketdyne’s former parent company Rockwell International pleaded guilty to felony counts of improper storage and disposal of hazardous materials and was fined $6.5 million.
Workers like Jim Economopoulos, featured in the Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat cover story “The Sins of Rocketdyne“, were regularily exposed to toxins. Working at SSFL from 1975 to 1978, Economopoulos was splashed with trichloroethylene (TCE) on his pants up to his knees. He lost 40 pounds from sickness, his pancreas blew up and he became a Type 1 diabetic. Later, he contracted bone cancer which he said was a result of working at Rocketdyne.
“I thought I was doing something for the country, but I didn’t know I was killing myself. If I had known that…,” Economopoulos said, and then broke off in a painful silence.
It is hard to believe that individuals like Economopoulos took it upon themselves to operate unsafely and deliberately vent gaseous goo into the atmosphere on their own volition. Owners of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory past and present have had a long litany accidents and deliberate releases that indicate a corporate cowboy culture where anything goes.
Mitt Romney famously said “Corporations are people, my friend.” In Boeing’s case, it is a person that will live a very long time and it can afford to use that time wisely. The company seems so sure of itself that it is beginning to congratulate itself over the SSFL cleanup even as new and shockingly high readings of contamination are made public. Boeing has bet that the public has forgotten about Rocketdyne and that it’s time to come in for the peachy-keen kill.
Boeing’s creative spark to repaint the Santa Susana Field Laboratory broke new ground September 20 at the Rococo Room in Old Town Pasadena during a dinner and presentation held by an industry group called the Los Angeles Basin Section of the California Water Environment Association.
The presentation, “Sharing An Open Space Vision – The Boeing Experience in Clean-Up and Environmental Services,” was given by Paul Costa, senior manager for Environmental Protection for SSFL. Costa also sits on the board of directors for Friends of Ballona Wetlands. The colorful invitation to the $40 dinner applauded Boeing’s work on cleanup of the lab.
“While the technical challenges of this site were being assessed, public concerns regarding site contamination lead to cleanup that is vastly more stringent than well-established state and federal law,’ the invite read, leaving out that Boeing fought the state Department of Toxic Substances Control – and won – in court over having to clean up to these higher standards. “This presentation provides a case study on how Boeing integrated the technical challenges of cleanup with community concerns to demonstrate to local stakeholders that Santa Susana could be – and would be – a public benefit if comprehensively and responsibly remediated using standards that are both protective and responsible in returning the area back to open space parkland.”
Seated in the audience that night was somebody to whom LABS may wish they hadn’t sold a ticket. William Preston Bowling is a Rocketdyne cleanup activist who knows the site as well or better than anyone. Bowling’s Aerospace Contamination Museum of Education, or ACME-LA, has been a major Rocketdyne cleanup resource since it first began September 13, 2006. ACME-LA had a bricks and mortar museum from 2008 to 2009 which was then called the Aerospace Cancer Museum of Education.
Bowling nearly dropped his fork as Costa embarked on a voyage of Boeing self-congratulation, but not because of the undeserved self-awarded green bona fides that he already expected. It was because of what Costa said about the future use of youths at risk from the LA Conservation Corp (LACC) doing Rocketdyne’s dirty work creating in the field Best Management Practices systems usually involving the making and placing of hay bales. BMPs in this case would involve using these hay bales to funnel SSFL runoff.
These BMPs would help retard the flow of goo in an attempt to keep it on the lab proper instead of what it has doing for years, flowing down into the Brandeis-Bardin campus of American Jewish University which is north of Rocketdyne in Simi Valley. Brandeis’Bardin sued then-lab owner Rockwell in the late 1990s over the pollution, which resulted in a confidential settlement said to be quite robust. That settlement included Boeing, lab owner since 1996, buying tritium-tainted land from the campus and renaming it the Northern Buffer Zone.
“We hired the LA Conservation Corps to put BMPs in the Northern Drainage,” Costa told the crowd of around forty people according to Bowling who was accompanied by an official from Friends of the Los Angeles River, FoLAR. “We just sent them the check!”
Bowling knows all about the Northern Drainage. In 2007, with then-partners Christina Walsh and John Luker, Bowling discovered a huge amount of toxic debris from NASA’s LOX plant on the northern edge of the property that utilized liquid oxygen and, in the process, created tons of waste. EnviroReporter.com and the Ventura County Reporter both covered the remarkable cleanup:
“The Boeing workers in the otherworldly suits looked out of place trudging through the dry creek bed that separates Sage Ranch Park and the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Nov. 20. Outfitted in head-to-toe translucent plastic uniforms with air filter masks, goggles and gloves, they chain-sawed a swath through the brush and trees blocking the seasonal stream. As they worked, their quarry appeared: black and grey blocks of lung-destroying asbestos and broken pipes with the toxic heavy metal antimony. All the while, a worker used a high pressure hose to spray down the area to keep the lung-destroying asbestos from becoming airborne.”
Expensive professionals come equipped to protect themselves from the types of toxins that have contaminated Rocketdyne. The less costly LA Conservation Corps workers do not have a history of donning haz-mat outfits when working sites like SSFL.
Usually unskilled but eager to learn, the LACC’s teams of at-risk young adults and school-aged youth built or maintained an astonishing 393,373 linear feet of trails from 2009 to 2010 according to the non-profit’s annual report for the period. With 993 young employees, LACC also managed to plant and maintain 2,521 trees and 204,332 square feet of gardens, remove 75,418 square feet of graffiti and collect and dispose of 1,543,395 pounds of litter and debris.
Using potentially unawares youth to work the land that previous skilled workers in hazmat suits had toiled in to remove the goo made Bowling livid. He was shocked hearing Costa announce this at the dinner especially with such pride.
“This is very disturbing, how they are taking these kids to install BMPs in the Northern Drainage of the field lab, the same drainage where they had to remove 3 football fields of contaminated soil and they still keep finding stuff, like 1100, yes Eleven Hundred Class C explosives buried under some trees,” Bowling said in an e-mail September 24. “This area was a dumping ground and they planted on top of it, hence the findings under trees. What Boeing is doing is getting around paying experts to do this work and having the LACC do it for minimum wage all the while the LACC does not know the dangers of working up there.”
Perhaps it’s a case of Boeing drinking its own PR Kool-Aid believing that it’s A-OK to have these kids on the site instead of professional remediation experts. After all “The site poses no significant risk to human health today” according to the Make Over Earth plan.