But the coalition wasn’t through, and pushed for a study on contamination of neighborhoods adjacent to the site. In 1991, the state DHS, responded with the first independent study of health effects related to Rocketdyne. The findings were mixed: While the study found that “very radiosensitive cancers were not more common among residents near” the lab, researchers did find elevated levels of bladder cancer in census tracts nearest to the facility. No definitive link was established between the cancers and operations at Rocketdyne.
Continuing concern among local residents led then-Assemblyman Richard Katz and other local legislators to pressure the Department of Energy to fund a $1.6 million UCLA study to determine the health effects on 4,563 Rocketdyne workers. “The workers would sort of be like the canary in the mineshaft,” said Katz, given that Rocketdyne had data on worker exposure and since workers were likely to be the best barometer of adverse health effects.
The study results were grim. “All available evidence from this study indicates that occupational exposure to ionizing radiation among nuclear workers at Rocketdyne/AI has increased the risk of dying from cancers,” wrote Dr. Hal Morganstern, director of the UCLA study. “We found the effect of radiation exposure was six to eight times greater in our study than extrapolated from the results of the A-bomb survivors study.”
Rocketdyne ripped the study, pointing out that it showed its employees were healthier than the general population. But as Morganstern noted in the study, the UCLA findings took into account the “healthy-worker effect,” which says, in essence, that workers are healthier than the general population because the sick or disabled can’t get to work. “Results of this study strongly suggest that exposure to internal radiation has increased the risk of dying from cancers . . .,” the study reported. “We observed a strong dose-response relationship that is not likely to be a chance finding.”
The UCLA team followed up last year with a second study on the toxic effects of two of the hazardous chemicals used at the site — that study has not yet been released, but an early draft has been produced and is now being reviewed.
Before the radiation report was released in early 1997, officials with the state DHS forwarded the draft study to Rocketdyne, allowing company officials to pressure UCLA with a rebuttal that dwarfed the final study. “We got lots and lots of pages of their comments,” said Morganstern, “which makes you want to suspect something. It kind of reminds you of the play within a play in Hamlet. Somebody says, ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.'”
Such controversies in the handling of the two-part UCLA study led anti-nuclear activists following the Rocketdyne case to charge that the Wilson administration was colluding with the company to deflect its critics. Aside from the early release of the UCLA drafts, which critics contend violated the rules of the work group, the state delayed releasing the final radiation study at a time when Rocketdyne was up for sale.
Rumors of the impending merger in early 1996 of Rocketdyne with Boeing led some members of the oversight panel to believe there was a connection between the two events. “This action creates the unfortunate appearance of giving Rockwell an opportunity to attempt to prevent potentially damaging findings from interfering with, or reducing the sale price for, Rocketdyne’s proposed acquisition by Boeing,” claimed an August 2, 1996, press release by the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition. “DHS’s unilateral action has given Rocketdyne an opportunity to lobby secretly for changes in the study before it is made public some months from now.”
Boeing eventually bought the Rocketdyne division from Rockwell for $3.2 billion in December 1996. “We found out later that the report had been delayed for six to nine months,” claimed former Assemblyman Katz. “The Wilson administration was concerned that releasing it early would adversely affect the sale price of Rockwell to Boeing,” he said.
Katz’s charge brought a sharp response from the DHS’s Larry Bilick, who denied that the sale of the company had anything to do with the delay of the radiation study. “It was sort of a red herring back then,” Bilick said. “It was Katz saying anything that occurred through his warped brain at the time.”
Bilick strongly contends that his department was obliged to share the UCLA draft. “The Department of Health Services believes that we share things with labor and management. Since labor is on the panel and got a copy, we feel that therefore Rocketdyne should have access to it,” Bilick said. “Also, because the data comes from Rocketdyne, we thought that it’s important that Rocketdyne see the report early on, to clarify any errors in the use of the data, rather than at the time of the release, so that UCLA had the opportunity to make the technical changes if they chose to.”
And the DHS has repeated the practice, sharing the as-yet-unreleased chemical phase of the study. “Rocketdyne has a copy and they’ve had it reviewed,” said DHS official Robert Harrison. “They’ve given us comments which we’ve shared with the advisory panel and with UCLA.”
Here the two sides battling over Rocketdyne step up to outright warfare. Critics say Rocketdyne sought the draft in order to water down the findings, as well as slow the process until after the working group is dissolved.
Harrison denies feeling any pressure. “The original release date was going to be in the fall, but UCLA has gone back and done some re-analysis as we looked at some exposures up at the Santa Susana Field Lab,” he said. “That’s delayed getting a final revision from them. Just to be honest with you — the original target date has slipped for all the usual academic reasons. It was in response to the advisory panel’s suggestions to look at all the exposures that could have potentially occurred at the Santa Susana Field Lab. It wasn’t to Rocketdyne’s suggestions, it was to the advisory panel’s.”
That assertion is dead wrong, said CBG’s Hirsch, co-chair of the oversight panel. “Robert Harrison should be ashamed of himself. The panel wanted the study released months ago, and it was Harrison who blocked it. He is stalling the report as the government and the company try to figure a way to kill off the oversight panel.”
“The truth is somewhere in between,” added Morganstern. He blamed the delay on “administrative issues” that he said he could not elaborate on because of the confidentiality agreement.
The DHS’s decision to distribute the chemical-study draft incensed state Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Sheila Kuehl and state Senator Cathie Wright. “On Friday, June 19 [of 1998], your department once again leaked the advance text of the study to Rocketdyne,” they wrote in a letter to the DHS director, Kimberly Belshe. “Both of us were in touch with the DHS officials involved, requesting that they hold off until we could sort out the issue. Rather than even having the courtesy to wait, given the request to do so, DHS outrageously broke the agreement hammered out years ago, violated the confidentiality pledge, abrogated the direction of the Oversight Panel, and ignored our intercession . . . It violates every principle of science to permit a party with a major economic interest in the outcome to attempt to alter a scientific study in advance of its release.”
More broadly, critics say the skirmishes at Santa Susana may obscure a long-term health threat posed by early experiments with the nuclear genie and its near-infinite half-life. “What’s getting lost in the mix here is that if Rocketdyne isn’t forced to clean up its act, untold generations of Angelenos may suffer from this toxic legacy,” said Jonathan Parfrey, director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a public-health advocacy group. “But under Governor Wilson, it appears the regulatory agencies charged with protecting the people have been more concerned about the company’s corporate well-being.”
24 Years of Award-Winning SSFL/Rocketdyne Reporting
June 1998 – June 2022