ValleyBeat has obtained an internal EPA document after the agency’s first site inspection in 1989 by Gregg Dempsey, a Las Vegas-based EPA radiation expert. He called Rocketdyne’s soil and water sampling totally inaccurate, noting the filtering and decanting and other technical mistakes. He faulted SSFL washing of plants in vegetation tests, removing any possible air residue, and the technique where Rocketdyne “ashes,” or burns plants before radiation testing, which aerates the vegetation, driving off unknown amounts of radionuclides. “It is also clear to me that Rocketdyne does not have a good ‘handle’ on where the radiation has been inadvertently or intentionally dumped onsite,” Dempsey wrote. “Most of the evidence on site is incompletely documented or anecdotal.”
It’s the Water
Residents, activists, and government officials are more concerned about what pollutants are leaching offsite and possibly making people sick – and perhaps even killing them. “Senator Feinstein’s position has always been to make sure that contamination from Rocketdyne is cleaned up to a standard that is not hazardous to the community,” says Feinstein aide, Scott Gerber. “She’s monitored cleanup efforts, asked for a community health study, and has requested funding to make sure that the cleanup is done in a way that is satisfactory to the residents.”
Officials at Ahmanson Ranch, which has been dogged by environmental issues for years, deny that there are any problems. “At this point, available evidence does not support the conclusion that Rocketdyne has contaminated the site of the Ahmanson Ranch project,” says Tim McGarry, spokesman for Washington Mutual, which owns the Ranch property. “No federal, state, or local agency responsible for the Rocketdyne cleanup has concluded or suggested that Rocketdyne contaminants have migrated to the Ahmanson Ranch property – or, indeed, have migrated off the Rocketdyne property.”
Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, who openly opposes the proposed Ahmanson Ranch development in her district, is worried about the Rocketdyne cleanup. “Leaving contamination on site can pose a health risk, depending on future uses of the site, and the associated contaminated rain runoff will continue to be an issue,” says Parks. “I would like to see a concerted effort to place the contaminated soil at a proper waste site.”
Parks has concerns that the toxic rocket-fuel oxidizer, perchlorate, is flowing into her district and then into the headwaters of the Los Angeles River. A March 9, 2000, check by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program revealed a reading of 17ppb draining from Rocketdyne into Happy Valley, a drainage outlet that leads down into the San Fernando Valley through Dayton Creek and Bell Canyon and ends up flowing into the headwaters of the Los Angeles River.
California’s “public health safety goal” of acceptable levels of perchlorate in water was lowered in December from 4ppb to 2ppb in response to growing alarm. “Perchlorate disrupts how the thyroid functions,” according to the 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.”
Rocketdyne has consistently denied that there is any offsite migration of toxins from SSFL. (Rocketdyne officials did not return calls for this story.) In a previous interview, Steve Lafflam, Rocketdyne’s Division Director for Safety, Health, and Environmental Affairs, had harsh words for environmentalists critical of Rocketdyne. “There are special-interest groups that have put out a rash of lies,” Lafflam said. “They’ve gone forward with litigation that’s going to cost a lot of people a lot of money. And there’s no merit to it at all.”
However, sampling of Ahmanson Ranch’s groundwater last summer revealed that one well, Well M-1, had a reading of 28ppb of perchlorate. Remember, that’s less than two miles from the SSFL. When the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 in favor of the Ahmanson development in December, it was aware of the problems up on “The Hill.” The Supes addressed that niggling issue by ordering that the well with perchlorate be eventually destroyed and never used to irrigate Ahmanson Ranch’s proposed golf courses, playgrounds, and common areas.
In December, it was revealed that perchlorate had been found in 18 wells in Simi Valley. The highest reading was 19.2ppb – nearly 10 times the new health limit concerning the powdery white substance in California drinking water.
Rocketdyne has said that there is no evidence that perchlorate has migrated offsite toward Simi or Ahmanson Ranch, and has actually suggested that children playing with fireworks may be the cause of the pollution. This, despite the fact that the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) states that perchlorate “occurrence [is] closely associated with aerospace and defense sites.”
The RWQCB plans to re-test Well M-1 for perchlorate on June 13. In a May 15 interview, ValleyBeat asked the RWQCB if it also planned to test for radionuclides. Executive Officer Dennis Dickerson said that Rocketdyne had “the option to test for radionuclides if perchlorate is found again.” In a memo received May 30, a team of RWQCB executives wrote: “Sampling and analysis of groundwater samples for radionuclides will be performed at the Ahmanson Well No. 1.”
A recent California-EPA Department of Toxic Substances Control map of perchlorate hits on SSFL, compiled with the same water district, shows that another hot hit of perchlorate was found on the Ahmanson Ranch property on March 6. There is a reading of less than 40 ug/l on the Ahmanson property close to Rocketdyne’s property. (Ug/l is the same as ppb but is used for water measurements instead of the “parts per billion” measure for soil.) Dickerson said this measurement is, basically, dicey. “It’s 1 to 39.9ppb – we can’t be sure,” he said in an interview. This seems to contradict Rocketdyne claims that no poisonous perchlorate is leaching offsite – and is not good tidings for Ahmanson Ranch.
Rocketdyne seems confused when releasing information about offsite pollution migration. In a “fact sheet,” issued in May, the company states “hundreds of samples collected outside the SSFL boundary do not contain perchlorate and do not show a pattern of contamination.” Yet, accompanying that sheet was a Rocketdyne map that shows perchlorate hits in three offsite locations – and doesn’t even note the proximity of the site to Ahmanson Ranch. The RWQCB reports that approximately 20 percent of 880 groundwater samples at or near SSFL detect perchlorate. One SSFL Happy Valley groundwater sample clocked in at 280ppb, 140 times over what the state considers safe for drinking water.
Here, There, and Everywhere
Perchlorate contamination isn’t unique to Rocketdyne. Military-industrial giant Aerojet, in the San Gabriel Valley city of Azusa, has so polluted the area that neighboring Baldwin Park has hits as high as 2,180ppb. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena registered 1,500ppb.
Pasadena has the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of the rocket-fuel oxidizer. And now it’s paying the price – JPL is a Superfund site. JPL co-founder Jack Parsons, with a partner, came up with the perchlorate formula back in 1928 and it is still used in fireworks and road flares.
U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer recently introduced Senate bill 820, the Perchlorate Community Right-to-Know Act of 2003, to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to establish a perchlorate pollution prevention fund and to enact safety standards. Senator Feinstein has weighed in on the matter, as well. “In the Defense Authorization Bill, that passed the Senate, Senator Feinstein included a provision on perchlorate,” said staffer Gerber. “Apparently, the Department of Defense did a study on perchlorate on many of its facilities but it hasn’t released that to the public. In the Senate bill is an amendment, sponsored by Feinstein, which would require them to release the findings of their study within 30 days of enactment.”
Nor is perchlorate the only toxin plaguing Rocketdyne. The toxic rocket-engine solvent, trichloroethylene (TCE), dioxins, and other nasty pollutants have plagued the site.
SSFL’s radiological releases are of particular concern. ValleyBeat has obtained a copy of the “Ahmanson Ranch Hydrogeological Monitoring Program. September 2002 – November 2002 Quarterly Report” prepared by Washington Mutual subcontractor, California- and Utah-based Psomas. The company specializes in land development, water, transportation, and information technology. In one survey of Ahmanson wells, under a column called “Radiologicals Alpha/Beta,” wells came in at high hits of radiation, including one well that registered 72.34 Pico curies per liter (pCi/L). Radiation at this level should be reported, according to Parfrey. “Plus the radionuclides must be determined. And [Psomas] didn’t even bother to test for radionuclides at a number of other wells, like, ‘Why bother?'”
McGarry notes that only one of some “30-odd” samples in these tests was above the dangerous mark, and that it was reported, saying, “The data generated by our monitoring activities have been promptly and fully shared with the appropriate public agencies.”
Parfrey puts it more bluntly, saying, “Ahmanson Ranch seems to be in hot water, literally. It has all the fingerprints of Rocketdyne offsite pollution.
“The Department of Health Services rules [Parfrey] referred to concern drinking water standards and apply only to the monitoring of potable ‘community water systems,'” countered McGarry. “They simply aren’t applicable to the monitoring program at Ahmanson Ranch. Ahmanson Ranch groundwater will not be extracted or put to any use at all.
Mark Blocksage doesn’t really care about all the science involved in the Rocketdyne controversy. All he knows is that he’s sick. “There are huge pits up there where they used to burn chemicals that are, like, where I live, where it would run straight down,” he says. “I know people that have told me that they used to just burn crap up there for years.”
Blocksage changes the music on his stereo to his favorite genre, classic rock. The group Kansas’s anthem, “Carry on Wayward Son,” fills his disheveled bedroom. “I just think the citizens of Simi Valley should be aware of what’s up there.”