By Michael Collins

LA Weekly “Offbeat” column – November 9, 2000

Hot Zone - Aerojet Chino Hills

OffBeat was sitting at home last month, when the phone rang. Jonathan Parfrey, of the Los Angeles branch of Physicians for Social Responsibility, was on the line. “Aerojet’s on fire!” he blurted out. As longtime reporters on hazardous contamination at the defense-contracting giant’s Chino Hills installation, we, of course, were interested. We turned on the TV to see images of the blaze moving up the facility’s northern buffer zone — the same place where the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) last year identified traces of the poisonous incendiary chemicals Royal Dem olition Explosive (RDX) and High Melting Explosive (HMX).

“RDX is a highly combustible white powder that can get into the lungs and cause seizures,” said Parfrey. “HMX, used in nuclear devices, plastic explosives and rocket fuel, is a mega-nasty concoction that explodes violently at high temperatures.” We were also aware that levels of the rocket-fuel oxidizer perchlorate in the creek at Aerojet’s perimeter were nearly five times higher than the state danger limit. Frantic, we hit the phones, and eventually reached San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty. He told us that his department had no idea of the hazards at the site. He also said that the men and women on the fire line were not wearing respirators.

As Brierty recounted to us later, he immediately ordered a change in tactics. “I called the incident commander and said, ‘Do not send anybody into that facility with the intention of cutting a fire line, fighting fire or protecting those structures,’” he said. With the help of water-dropping aircraft, the flames were beaten back. Aerojet, which did not return phone calls for comment, along with the DTSC, later claimed that the RDX and HMX were buried too deep to pose a problem. But last week, the L.A.-based Committee To Bridge the Gap wrote a letter asking Governor Gray Davis to order state regulatory agencies to review the adequacy of fire protection at facilities that have hazardous contamination on site. The group also asked that new regulations and/or legislation be enacted that would require prior notification to fire agencies of on-site contamination in soil and vegetation.

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