Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory was on the frontlines of the Cold War. Now some who lived near “The Hill” say they share two distinctions: chronic illness and the unswerving belief that the lab caused it

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles magazine – June 1998

Los Angeles MagazineON A HOT JULY NIGHT IN 1959, on flickering RCAs and Philcos and DuMonts, the residents of Simi Valley watched as Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon toured a Moscow exposition’s exhibit of a model American home. When the Soviet premier and the vice president paused in the kitchen, the televisions suddenly erupted with belligerent voices. “We have means at our disposal which can have very bad consequences,” Khrushchev bellowed through an interpreter. “We have too,” Nixon shot back. “Ours are better,” Khrushchev retorted.

The occupants of hundreds of tract house living rooms shifted uncomfortably in their BarcaLoungers. The image of Nixon and Khrushchev rattling nuclear sabers against a backdrop of American-made appliances—the fabled Kitchen Debate—brought home the Cold War with unnerving intimacy. But events unfolding on a hilltop five miles from town brought it even closer. On a 2,668-acre expanse littered with boulders and blanketed by chaparral lay Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a sprawling, semisecret complex of concrete bunkers, rocket test pads and nuclear reactors. The Rocketdyne lab was a key supplier of America’s rapidly expanding arsenal of nuclear weapons and rocket engines for the coming space race. The work going on at the facility was one of the reasons Nixon could return Khrushchev’s salvos with impunity.

What almost nobody in Simi Valley knew that night was this: A primitive nuclear reactor at the lab was in the throes of a meltdown. The accident, which was not acknowledged until five weeks later, would presage the continuing problems the lab was to have handling radioactive and toxic materials. And 30 years later, those incidents would become a rallying point for San Fernando Valley and Simi Valley residents with little in common except for the fact that they had all lived near the lab and had all become very ill.

When Jim Garner was growing up in Simi Valley, he marveled at the huge clouds of gas that would occasionally drift down from the lab and at how his house trembled when the rockets were tested. It was an era – soon to end – when Americans still possessed something close to blind faith in institutions, especially those doing work perceived to be keeping the Soviets at bay. If Rocketdyne’s lab posed a threat, surely somebody, some “official,” would sound the warning. Children growing up near the site swam and fished in streams and played in the dry wash. And one day, Garner rode the red J.C. Higgins bike he got for Christmas right through effluent flowing from the lab.

Garner, now 44, still lives in Simi Valley. An ironworker, he’s done contract jobs at the lab over the years. In October 1996, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. His wife Leslie had her uterus removed because of cervical cancers. His father – like Garner an ironworker employed occasionally at the lab – has skin cancer and heart problems and is near death. His sister Vickie, 46, has heart and thyroid problems. On one side of a single block of Ramara Avenue in Woodland Hills, five miles from the plant, cancer has been diagnosed in 9 out of 10 houses. Garner believes – as hundreds of residents who live near the lab believe – that irregularities and outright catastrophes in Rocketdyne’s handling of hazardous materials poisoned the air, water and soil around them and made them gravely ill. “If I had taken a handgun or a knife and attacked someone and killed them,” he says, “I would be in jail. These people did that very thing to me, only they didn’t use a weapon. They used chemicals.”

“Every person on our street has had cancer,” says Kathy Hecker, who grew up on Ramara Avenue and has thyroid cancer. “I think there was actually three houses out of thirty that didn’t. Just next door, three women had cancer in that house; the mother died, the daughter has thyroid cancer like me, and the aunt has cancer. I mean, three in one house? What are the odds?”

Says Bob Grandinetti, a 55-year-old Chatsworth resident who blames his stomach cancer on pollution from the lab: “I lived in the west side of the Valley since 1956. When I moved over to Chatsworth, I saw the testing up on the hill—the lights and fire and smoke and rockets. I assumed the government was protecting us, but evidently they weren’t.”

Rocketdyne denies the Santa Susana facility caused the illnesses. “There are special-interest groups that have put out a rash of lies,” says Steve Lafflam, Rocketdyne’s division director for safety, health and environmental affairs. “They’ve gone forward with a lot of litigation that’s going to cost an awful lot of people a lot of money. And there’s no merit to it at all.”

“Rocketdyne is our Chernobyl,” counters Jonathan Parfrey executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, an anti-nuclear activist group. “People have died, others are chronically ill. But because it’s so damn hard to link a hypothetical incident of exposure to the onset of a specific disease, I bet Rocketdyne will never be accountable for their acts.”

The Santa Susana lab has had a well-documented history of problems since it opened in 1948. It is now in the midst of a $55 million cleanup, funded by Rocketdyne and supervised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered after a 1989 Department of Energy study found radioactive contamination in soil and water near the nuclear-research portion of the lab. Several accidents involving nuclear reactors, including the partial meltdown the night the Nixon-Khrushchev debate was broadcast, 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. Last year, 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.

Two class action lawsuits filed late last year charge that 84 claimants were made sick or put at risk because of substances released at Santa Susana and other Rocketdyne facilities. Attorney Edward L. Masry, whose firm helped win a $333 million settlement against Pacific Gas & Electric over cancers in Hinkley, California, has been doing extensive water and soil testing around Rocketdyne. Masry’s suit contends that approximately one million gallons of trichloroethylene, or TCE, a carcinogenic solvent used to clean rocket engine hardware, was deposited in unlined ponds during the ’50s and early ’60s and subsequently found its way into groundwater outside the facility. Rocketdyne is vigorously contesting the suits and insists its own tests prove that no hazardous levels of pollution migrated offsite. “The farthest we have found is about 800 feet off our property,” says Lafflam.

A team of epidemiologists from the UCLA School of Public Health studied the effects of radiation on 4,563 past and present Rocketdyne workers. Released last September, the study found that, while the overall cancer death rate at Rocketdyne is lower than that of the U.S. population as a whole (due to the “healthy worker” effect, which says that people who have jobs are generally healthier than those who do not), exposure to radiation create health risks at levels much lower than previously believed.

Members of a state-appointed panel of scientists and community members endorsed the study, and residents said that it demonstrated the need to examine people in surrounding neighborhood: (A 1990 state health department survey of cancer records found elevated levels of bladder cancer in the census tracts nearest the facility, although a review of the data in 1992 concluded there was no definitive link between the additional cancers and operations at the lab.) “What the UCLA study examined was the effect that the aggregate of radiation exposures had on the workforce,” says Dan Hirsch, founder of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a Los Angeles – based antinuclear group. “The $64 million question is whether or not the general public was also affected.”

Rocketdyne criticized the results of the employee study for the relatively small sample size used. Company officials pointed out that the study did not take into account other cancer-causing factors like smoking and the employees’ previous exposure to radiation and asbestos. Both the California Department of Health Services id the federal EPA determined that the radiation pollution at Santa Susana posed no health risk to the surrounding community, Rocketdyne officials add that no nuclear research has been conducted at the site since 1988.

The studies, conclusions and counterconclusions have done little to mollify the anger felt by some who grew up around the facility. “Over the years we lived there, we could hear the rocket engines going off, but we always assumed that [Rocketdyne] would look out for the safety of the surrounding community,” says Hecker. I never thought that there actually could be any danger. A stupid assumption, but you think a company like that would consider the health risks they are putting into the area. We always assumed they would take care of it.”

Barbara Johnson moved to Simi Valley in 1970. In 1990, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has since filed suit against Rocketdyne and was a member of an oversight committee that worked with UCLA researchers on the study of the Santa Susana facility’s employees. “I had a call today from some people whose children are going to nursery school in Simi Valley and did I think it was safe,” she says. Johnson says she could empathize. “When I moved here, I had no idea they were carting plutonium through our neighborhoods. No idea.” Holly Huff’s family moved to the Santa Susana section of Simi Valley, four miles from the lab, in June 1959. “The meltdown was in July,” Huff says. “You can’t help thinking about it.”

Dan Beck, Rocketdyne’s public relations chief, strongly disputes that the company withheld information. “Back during the Cold War years, when KGB agents were working the San Fernando Valley, we were required to maintain a degree of secrecy. But we have never engaged in activities related to the environment that were secret. There have been times in the distant past where, perhaps, the company wasn’t as forthcoming in sharing information with the public as to the things that were going on, but we put that era behind us years ago. Since the ’80s, we’ve been very open, very responsive to the community. The idea of Rocketdyne being super secretive and hiding things just isn’t true.”

TODAY, THE ONCE STATE-OF-THE-ART Santa Susana field lab looks like it’s losing a battle -with nature. The rains of El Nino have given the usually sparse brown vegetation the strength to poke through the cracked asphalt of the roads connecting the ramshackle structures. The facility employs only 600, down from 6,000 in the Cold War go-go years of the 1960s, and is primarily devoted to rocket development and testing. The work to decontaminate and decommission the polluted areas is apparent at every turn. The remnants of long-dormant reactor housings dot the site, surrounded by piles of concrete that have already been cleaned. Workers chop up the last slabs of the old “hot lab” where the company used to strip the uranium off spent fuel rods. In the Radioactive Materials Handling Facility, stacks of bright yellow boxes filled with waste await transport to DOE disposal sites in Nevada and Washington State.

The reactor housing where the meltdown occurred in 1959 sits abandoned in an isolated canyon. Phil Rutherford, Rocketdyne’s manager of environmental remediation, walks through the lime green structure and waves a tan, football-size gamma Geiger counter. It registers lower than average background radiation. “We’ve made amazing progress over the years,” Rutherford says. “We had over two dozen buildings involved in nuclear research. Of those, 22 have been cleaned up and 17 have been released for other uses as clean. We’ll be finished by 2006.”

Rocketdyne complains that the antinuclear activists, far from being effective advocates for rehabilitating the contaminated spots at Santa Susana, are actually slowing down the process. “As long as they can point and say, ‘Look how bad this stuff is, look how contaminated it is,'” says Lafflam, “it’ll never be cleaned up.” Even though the cleanup work is supervised by government agencies, he says, the activists still question their results. “They try to poke holes in it continually: ‘You’re not doing enough. How clean is clean? Are you doing it the right way?”

“Why would we spend 19 years of our lives to get that facility cleaned up if they would do it without our pestering?” says Joe Lyou of Committee to Bridge the Gap. His colleague Dan Hirsch has dogged the cleanup efforts since 1979, when he was a lecturer at UCLA and one of his students showed him an instructional film obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that depicted workers at the facility cleaning up after the 1959 reactor meltdown.

The handling of the incident is a telling example of the attitudes in the days of atomic energy’s infancy. On July 13, an experimental sodium-graphite reactor at the lab experienced a “power excursion” that caused its output to surge out of control. The reactor—part of an Atomic Energy Commission program to develop civilian nuclear-power sources—had been acting up for weeks, and the technicians moved swiftly to stop it.

“They tried to scram the reactor,” says Hirsch, “meaning jamming the control rods in to shut it down—basically putting the brakes on. But the power was still going up even as the control rods were being pushed in. They managed in the end to shut it down, miraculously. About an hour and a half later, after being unable to determine what caused the excursion, they started the reactor up again.” An AEC report later stated that “continuing to run {the reactor} in the face of a known tetralin leak, repeated scrams, equipment failures, rising radioactive releases and unexplained transient releases is difficult to justify.”

On July 26, the reactor again surged out of control, causing 13 of its 43 uranium fuel rods to rupture or melt. Radioactive gases spewed from the building. “It is incomprehensible to me that the radiation that was released stopped at the site boundary,” says Hirsch. “The meltdown occurred in a reactor that had no containment structure. When we think of reactors, we think of Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, with these huge concrete domes to protect against radioactivity being released. But the sodium-reactor experiment and all the other reactors that were on the property had no containment dome, so the radioactivity in the accident was released into the atmosphere and settled on the communities below the site. The question we cannot answer is how much that was and how much it affected people.”

Over the course of the following year, radioactive xenon and krypton gases were released as technicians struggled to clean up the reactor. “The radiation monitors went off the scale during the accident, so we have a very poor idea of how much stuff got out,” says Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Parfrey. “The company says that 10,000 curies of radioactive iodine were re¬leased. Radioactive iodine may cause thyroid cancers in people who inhale or ingest it.”

The accident was not publicly acknowledged until five weeks later in an impenetrable AEC press release that stated “no release of radioactive materials to the plant or its environs occurred, and operating personnel were not exposed to harmful conditions.” In fact, at the time, it was one of the worst nuclear accidents in history. “[Rocketdyne] never really got around to telling the public that the core melted and that this was a very serious nuclear accident,” says Hirsch.

In the meantime, the toxic mess had to be removed. In the film discovered by Hirsch’s student, workers crawl over the top of the reactor trying to extract the melted fuel. Another peers into the melted core using a periscope-like device called a boroscope. Others are shown grappling with huge wrenches and riding a truck carrying spent fuel. Although the workers wear protective suits, Hirsch contends that they surely received significant doses of radiation. Viewed in a post-Chernobyl/Three Mile Island context, the images are disturbing, reminiscent of the photos taken on the factory floors of the women in the ’20s who, innocent of the peril, painted luminescent numbers on watch faces with, radioactive radium.

Cleaning out the melted fuel from the reactor core would ultimately take more than a year and a half.

JIM GARNER WORKED IN THE LATE 70S for a company; called Brownyard Steel Fabrication, which was doing con¬tract work for Rocketdyne at the Santa Susana lab. He recalls standing in a steel vault 60 feet underground, tearing out old ironwork and putting new pieces in. “I was down there with a cutting torch, a hard hat, a pair of burns glasses, gloves and a T-shirt. I kept hearing a funny noise; and looked around, and there were two gentlemen about ten feet away from me with full-on hazardous-material; fresh-air breathers and Geiger counters. I asked my foreman, ‘What’s going on? Who are these people?’ His reply was, ‘Don’t worry about it. They work for Rocketdyne. Just go back to work.’ Later; I find they’re taking radiation levels and that there was also al gamma radiation detector installed at the bottom of that vault. I also found out that they were taking helicopter readings on how hot that area was.”

Garner is utterly convinced his cancer was caused by Rocketdyne. “They put me in jeopardy, deliberately. They knew what was there. They did not protect me whatsoever. They did not care whether I lived or died.”

As for the class action suits filed against Rocketdyne, such “toxic tort” class actions, says Deborah Hensler, professor of law and social science at USC’s School of Law, are notoriously difficult and contentious to litigate. “How can victims prove where and when they got sick?’ Hensler says. “How can they prove their kids got it? Then there are arguments over levels of chemicals and relative amounts of exposures among the class.”

An epidemiological study of area residents such as the UCLA survey of Rocketdyne workers might help, but UCLA assistant professor of epidemiology Dr. Beate Ritz, one of the study’s directors, says that would be unlikely. “I have a feeling a community study will not lead to anything at this point,” she says. “The reason is that what we had for the [Rocketdyne] workers — which are irradiation records as well as who was working at the facility — doesn’t exist for the community. I very much sympathize with all the people there, but even if we go now and select all the community members, which would be a huge study to do, you don’t know if maybe all the exposed people moved out. If you have a mobile population that can’t be traced, then you’re in real trouble. That’s why we usually do worker studies, because there are record systems. You can’t trace health effects if you can’t trace people.”

Garner, in any event, has heard it all before. With his father ravaged by cancer, respiratory problems and blood clots and his own illness to manage, he’s more concerned about the future. Staring out the window of his attorney’s office, as the rain and wind slash the Simi Valley hills where he’s spent his whole life, Garner is alternately quiet, angry and reflective. But he’s mostly angry.

“What really pisses me off is that my kids have never offered to risk their lives, yet they have,” he says in his deep, commanding voice. “They may have virtually killed my children, and it just hasn’t happened yet.” Garner pauses. “And if that happens, there’s no litigation that could compensate me.”

Letters to Los Angeles magazine about the piece appeared on page 14 of the August issue and page 20 of the September issue.