Criminal charges filed in fatal explosion

By Michael Collins

(LA Weekly – May 5, 1999)

Blast from the PastOn July 26, 1994, two scientists at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory, Otto Heiney and Larry Pugh, “placed [rocket propellant] in a container over a bed of sawdust and then ignited [it] with an electric match to see how [it] would burn,” according to the county coroner. The resulting explosion blew the two men apart.

Heiney’s hands and lower arms were obliterated; Pugh could only be identified from information found in his billfold. A third member of the ill-fated team was treated for serious injuries.

In 1996, Rocketdyne pled guilty to environmental crimes involving improper storage and disposal of hazardous materials related to the tragic explosion and agreed to fork over $6.5 million in fines. Now, after a four-year investigation, a federal grand jury has handed down criminal indictments against three Rocketdyne employees. The trio is charged with violating federal environmental laws by illegally storing and burning explosive waste, resulting in the untimely deaths.

Named in the indictments is Joseph Flanagan, a former Woodland Hills resident and director of Rocketdyne’s Chemical Technology Group, along with fellow employees James Weber and Edgar Wilson. The trio faces a maximum of five years each in federal prison and $250,000 apiece in fines for outlawed activities occurring between July 21 and July 26, 1994.

The nature of the landmark legal filing troubles some Rocketdyne watchdogs. They claim that the feds are ignoring company higher-ups. “I’m not disappointed with these indictments,” said Dr. Bennett Ramberg, vice chairman of the Southern California Federation of Scientists, “but where is upper management’s responsibility?”

Thom Mrozek, public-affairs officer for the U.S. attorney for the central district of California, disagrees: “If I get into ‘Why wasn’t he charged?’ or ‘Why hasn’t he been charged yet?’ — whatever it may be — then we are getting into very specific elements of an investigation that just isn’t public at this time,” he said. “This guy is not like a janitor exactly . . . these guys. Particularly Flanagan — you could call him management.”

Jim Asperger, attorney for defendant James Weber, dismisses the idea that his client is being used as part of a Rocketdyne cover-up. “The fundamental premise there is that somebody was doing something wrong. That is something that I strongly disagree with. In the end, our client and I believe the other two will be vindicated. If that’s the case, the scapegoat theory — in the sense of management saying, ‘Have these guys take the fall’ — makes no sense.”

The indictments come at a time when Rocketdyne is hoping to draw attention to recent kudos from the National Safety Council, which commended the aerospace firm with its top workplace-safety award. Rocketdyne topped all other Los Angeles– area businesses and, for the fourth straight year, trumped its large aerospace competitors. “At Rocketdyne, safety is a number-one priority,” said Steve Lafflam, Rocketdyne’s division director for Safety, Health and Environmental Affairs. “Our staff of more than 100 professionals — one of the largest in California — is entirely dedicated to a safe workplace and a clean, healthy environment.”

Of course, the judges from the National Safety Council never got to ask Heiney and Pugh for their opinion of Rocketdyne’s safety program.

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