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The battle over the massive Ahmanson Ranch housing development heats up amid growing concerns about possible water and soil contamination from nearby Rocketdyne.

By Michael Collins

Ventura County Reporter – December 12, 2002

rocketdyneranchcroppedJuly 1959. Eastern Ventura County. Simi Valley folks squirmed uncomfortably in their chairs as they watched their flickering black and white television sets. They stared in nervous awe as Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon toured a Moscow exposition of a model American home. When the pair paused in the kitchen, they erupted into a bellicose argument. “We have means at our disposal which can have very bad consequences,” Krushchev hollered through an interpreter. “We have too,” Nixon countered. “Ours are better,” Krushchev shot back.

The image of the two leaders threatening each other in the comfy setting of American-made appliances—the legendary Kitchen Debate —brought home the deadly seriousness of the Cold War. No one knew at the time that events unfolding on a picturesque hilltop just five miles from town were bringing the grim reality of that era even closer. On a 2,668-acre complex covered with boulders and blanketed by chaparral lay Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), a giant semisecret expanse of rocket test stands, concrete bunkers and nuclear reactors. The laboratory was intricate in developing America’s arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles including the nuke-tipped Minuteman rocket. The work going on at the laboratory was one of the reasons that Nixon could confidently stare down the Soviet premier.

What nearly no one knew in Simi that hot summer night was this: a primitive Rocketdyne nuclear reactor, the Sodium Reactor Experiment, was in the throes of a meltdown. Nearly a third of the reactor’s core melted and slopped onto the floor of the core and radioactivity spewed into the environment from the unconfined building. The disaster, which wasn’t acknowledged until five weeks later, would forebode the continuing problems that Rocketdyne would have in handling radioactive and toxic materials for decades to come. That same year a fuel rod exploded at the lab while being washed with water, flooding a reactor with radioactivity that was vented outside. In 1960, a reactor pipe that was being moved outdoors for decontamination exploded and flew across a ravine. The facility would also experience another catastrophe in 1964 when an experimental space reactor melted down with eighty percent of the nuclear fuel melting and radiation escaping into the environment.

Now, fifty-four years after Santa Susana opened in 1948, America’s third largest bank, Washington Mutual, is attempting to complete plans to build 3,050 luxury homes, two golf courses, and 400,000 square feet of commercial space on 2,783 acres within three miles of SSFL. Critics have long assailed the proposed Ahmanson Ranch project since it would develop the largest remaining privately owned land between Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley. They decry what they claim would be a traffic congestion nightmare and have voiced concerns over the endangered California red-legged frog and the San Fernando Valley spineflower found at the site. But recent revelations regarding chemical and radiological pollution at the site possibly emanating from Rocketdyne’s adjacent lab have come to the forefront in the battle over Ahmanson Ranch.

December, 2002. Eastern Ventura County. Puffs of dust are created by Jonathan Parfrey’s footsteps as he walks a trail through Ahmanson Ranch. The Los Angeles director of the public health organization Physicians for Social Responsibility pauses on a bluff overlooking an expanse of ancient oaks. “Four thousand trees may be replaced by luxury homes, golf courses and about 10,000 people if Washington Mutual has its way,” he said. “The folks planning to bulldoze this land have ignored the possibility that this project could poison thousands of people in adjacent communities. Now push has come to shove.”

For the last half a year, local activists have pressured the county to test the groundwater under Ahmanson Ranch. “They must analyze the groundwater for SSFL pollution since they plan to use 660,000 gallons of it everyday to water playgrounds, golf courses, common areas and lawns,” said Mary Wiesbrock of the Agoura Hills-based activist group Save Open Space. “Just less than two miles from SSFL, Washington Mutual’s Ahmanson Land Company (ALC) plans to extract ground water for irrigation. Yet Rocketdyne data reveals that it’s closest extraction well to the development project is over 480 times the toxic level of the government’s standard for trichloroethylene.”

Trichloroethylene, or TCE, is a carcinogenic solvent used to clean rocket engine hardware. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, approximately 1.73 million gallons of the solvent were sluiced into unlined ponds and about a third of it has made its way into the groundwater under the laboratory. Rocketdyne vigorously denies that any hazardous levels of the goo has migrated offsite. “The farthest we found is about 800 feet off our property,” said Steve Lafflam, Rocketdyne’s division director for safety, health and environmental affairs.

“Given the extent and complexity of the pollution problems at Rocketdyne, no one can say for sure what has happened with all the contaminants that have leaked into the soil and groundwater,” said Dr. Joseph Lyou, former SSFL Workgroup member and current Director of the California League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. “When it comes to Ahmanson Ranch, better safe than sorry would be the best approach. Only fools or dimwits would go forward with building this project without a better understanding of what’s going on. Lives may be at stake. Let’s not forget that.”

The Ahmanson Ranch endgame saga began June 19 when Dennis Hawkins, senior planner for Ventura County, told a planning board meeting that he would instruct sub-contractors to check for pollutants in the groundwater under Ahmanson Ranch possibly emanating from SSFL. That heavily polluted site is now undergoing a $258 million dollar cleanup due to radioactive and chemical pollution resultant of half a century of rocket tests and chemical and radiological mishaps, releases and spills.

The test results were shocking. The rocket fuel oxidizer, perchlorate, was found to be 14 times over what California currently considers safe for drinking water. One well tested positive for perchlorate at a level of 28 parts per billion (ppb).

On Dec. 6, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment lowered the public health safety goal for perchlorate from 4ppb to 2ppb in response to growing alarm over the oxidizer’s toxicity. “Perchlorate disrupts how the thyroid functions,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Impairment of thyroid function in expectant mothers may impact the fetus and newborn and result in effects including changes in behavior, delayed development and decreased learning capability. Changes in thyroid hormone levels may also result in thyroid gland tumors.” No studies have been undertaken to determine the hazards of breathing in airborne perchlorate or it’s effects due to skin exposure through contaminated water droplets.

Last week, it was revealed that perchlorate has been found in 18 wells in Simi Valley. The highest reading was 19.2 ppb, nearly ten times the new allowable limit of the powdery white substance in California drinking water. Perchlorate has been found in a former sodium burn pit at SSFL and was disposed of in the eastern part of the laboratory where munitions and propellant testing took place. Readings as high as 600ppb have been found in that eastern area of the lab. Rocketdyne has said that there is no evidence that perchlorate has migrated offsite towards Simi or Ahmanson Ranch and has suggested that children playing with fireworks may be the cause of the pollution.

Few are convinced that the source of the perchlorate in the Simi Valley wells was a result of kids chucking fireworks into the water. Parfrey, who is a member of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory Workgroup, which is overseeing efforts to clean up SSFL, is one of the folks not buying Rocketdyne’s rap. “It’s patently ridiculous to assume that the source of the perchlorate in Simi’s wells and under Ahmanson could come from fireworks. But this is typical of Rocketdyne to deny that pollution on their property somehow magically stops at the perimeter fence of the lab. This is the kind of hooey we’ve heard from the company for years.”

Indeed, an ALC subcontractor testing the Ahmanson Ranch site contended that the aquifers under Rocketdyne and the ranch land are separate. Diamond Bar-based Kleinfelder Inc.’s 2000 report discounts any chance of groundwater migration from Rocketdyne to the ranch’s water table: “The SSFL and the Ahmanson Ranch Project are characterized by different watersheds and separate aquifers.” An April 2002 report, created by an ALC subcontractor, Ontario-based CDM, goes on to claim that “(T)he primary purpose of the sampling was to determine if there was any significant contamination under the site from activities at the (SSFL) site to the north. No evidence of contamination was detected.”

Anti-Ahmanson Ranch development activists point out that SSFL is located above the so-called Chatsworth formation which is a fractured bedrock geologic configuration which could allow for toxic migration. James Slosson, chief engineering geologist for Van Nuys-based Slosson and Associates, agrees. “It is my professional opinion that a portion of the subsurface water exiting the Rocketdyne facility migrates southerly in the direction of the proposed (development’s groundwater extraction) wells. As a consequence, the extracted water may contain toxic contaminants from the Rocketdyne operation which will present a health hazard,” Slosson wrote in an April 30 missive to the county of Ventura’s Resource Management Agency. “The surface runoff from the golf courses could also be contaminated. Much of this runoff would eventually reach Las Virgenes Creek and Malibu Lagoon.”

Incoming Ventura County Supervisor and Ahmanson opponent Linda Parks concurs. “I don’t think there is a question as to where the perchlorate contamination is coming from,” Parks told the Reporter. “Rocketdyne used rocket fuel, perchlorate is an ingredient of rocket fuel and Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana site, which is upstream of both Ahmanson Ranch and Simi Valley, is contaminated with perchlorate. While Rocketdyne states there is no evidence, I believe there is an abundance of evidence and it is essential that it be properly recognized for what it is and cleaned up as soon as possible.”

Also found in the recent ground water was antimony, a silvery-white metal that exceeds the government’s “maximum contaminant level” by 766 percent. Antimony in the air attaches to very small particles that may stay in the air for days, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “Breathing high levels for a long time can irritate your eyes and lungs and cause heart and lung problems, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach problems,” an agency document states.

Regardless of these findings, Ventura’s planning board approved the Preliminary Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) Nov. 22, setting the stage for the Dec. 10 vote. (See related story on page 16.) This, despite the fact that the SEIR admitted that Kleinfelder may have not done a thorough job testing the groundwater and soil. “The sampling program conducted by Kleinfelder does not appear to be performed as a comprehensive toxics evaluation of the area,” the SEIR stated. “As it was conducted, it can be considered cursory screening of the site for contaminants.”

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