Perchlorate is especially threatening to fetuses, infants, and children because it can affect the thyroid’s ability to make hormones. This can result in lowered IQ, mental retardation, diminution of motor skills, and loss of hearing and speech. Perchlorate in SSFL soil registers as high as 71,290 ppb or over nine times the chemical’s PRG for dirt.
In 2003, perchlorate was detected in 17 groundwater wells in Simi Valley with the highest reading being 19.2 ppb. Hits of 140 ppb and 150 ppb were also found in an artesian well on the Brandeis-Bardin property hard on Rocketdyne’s northern border. A reading of 28 ppb was detected in a well adjacent Ahmanson Ranch about two miles south of SSFL in 2002.
Dioxins are among the most toxic chemicals known to science and are dangerous at any level. Before the latest DTSC report, Rocketdyne dioxin measurements had been comparatively small. The agency reported that one type of dioxin registered 0.1 parts per trillion (ppt) from May to August 2001. But more recent measurements are simply staggering, with readings as high as 22,000 ppt at the so-called “fuel farm and pond dredge.”
The most poisonous dioxin, called TCDD, is found at SSFL in the Old Conservation Yard next to the melted SRE reactor site. It ticks in at 7.80 ppt. The “field action level” for this chemical, which means that some kind of remediation is mandatory, is 1.05 ppt.
Working Woman’s Blues
The DTSC numbers are also news to Bonnie Klea, who hadn’t a clue how polluted SSFL was when she worked there. “Here I am, just a little girl right out of Minnesota, moved here when I was 19 with a one-way ticket,” she said. Klea went to work for Rocketdyne because the pay was good and the opportunities ample. She ended up in Building 59, where Rocketdyne operated a Space Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP) reactor. One of these reactors, though not the one she worked in, also had a near-complete meltdown in 1964 – SSFL’s second. With two other women, Klea ran the copy machines, answered telephones, delivered paychecks across SSFL, and made coffee. Nuclear workers used to access the reactor room through a small door in her basement office, yet Klea wasn’t trained in radiation safety and didn’t wear a badge to gauge how much radiation she was exposed to.
“I didn’t know anything at the time,” said Klea. “That building is where they worked on the SNAP reactor. It’s still there. Some of the reports I’ve read said the ground and the groundwater all around Building 59 are contaminated with radiation. The groundwater comes up and soaks that building and that building is totally contaminated.”
Klea was diagnosed with cancer in 1995. Her doctor immediately became suspicious when he saw what type of tumor she had. “As soon as he saw bladder cancer, he said, ‘Where do you work?’ and I said I had worked up at Santa Susana Rocketdyne. And he said ‘That’s it; I’ve treated many people who worked there from the scientists to the janitors to the secretaries.’ All my doctors made the same relationship of my cancer to my work. Bladder cancer is either considered smoking-related or occupational. Considering I was not a smoker, and I worked at Rocketdyne, well, that pretty much answered my question why I got that.”
Concerns over the myriad chemical and radiological poisons at SSFL led State Senator Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) to recently attempt to enact legislation that would prohibit developing the 290-acre radiological area of lab property for housing unless it is cleaned up to federal EPA standards. Kuehl’s bill was partially in response to the EPA’s determination last December that SSFL is barely tolerable for public day hiking, and that restricted picnicking to not last longer than two hours per visit.
On July 19, the Natural Resources Defence Council threatened to file a lawsuit, saying the planned cleanup is woefully inadequate.
SB 1456 made it easily through the state senate and then the state assembly’s committee on environmental affairs. But it died on the assembly floor, 39-30, with 11 abstentions, on June 24, after Boeing lobbied intensely against it. In an odd twist of logic, Lafflam had told the Los Angeles Daily News prior to the vote “It’s a disincentive to clean up to residential standards.” Kuehl decried the company’s behavior before the vote as “deplorable.” It was her third attempt to pass protective legislation concerning the site.
CityBeat has obtained records that show that Boeing contributed a total of $83,538 to 28 current members of the California Assembly between 1999 and 2003. This represents 35 percent of the assembly. The company also contributed money indirectly to both the Republican and Democratic Assembly PACs, and to the California Manufacturers and Technology Association PAC, which also lobbied against the Kuehl bill.
Of the 28 Assembly members who received money from Boeing, 21 subsequently voted against the legislation and an additional four abstained, which has the same effect as a “no” vote since, under Assembly rules, a bill needs 41 affirmative votes to pass. Thus 25 of the 28 recipients of Boeing’s contributions helped kill the legislation.
“The events of the last few days demonstrate once again that big polluters are not merely toxic to the communities that reside nearby, but also to the democratic system,” said Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap environmental group. In 1989, Hirsch first brought to media attention the SRE partial meltdown, and was largely responsible for shutting down Rocketdyne’s nuke work in 1990 because of the company’s safety and pollution record. “All but two or three of the recipients of these legalized bribes voted the way Boeing wanted on the Kuehl bill.”
Residential development of the polluted lab property isn’t the only land use concern troubling legislators. Alarm over offsite migration of Rocketdyne contaminants is what prompted Supervisor Linda Parks to take steps to make sure it doesn’t go unchecked. Parks’s concern with SSFL contamination dates back to the Ahmanson Ranch hearings in late 2002.
In that case, mega-bank Washington Mutual’s Ahmanson Land Company fought a 17-year battle to transform 2,783 acres of pristine oak-dotted land into a new conurbation. This year, WaMu had planned to begin building 3,050 luxury residences, two golf courses, and 400,000 square feet of commercial space on its property located on the southeast corner of Ventura County. But when Ventura County tested the groundwater in 2002 and found perchlorate, the plans began to unravel and the development tanked in part due to toxic troubles.
First Line of Defense
On May 4, Parks introduced to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors a recommendation that would establish a two-mile radius around “known rocket test sites,” which would “require major discretionary land use projects proposed within two miles of existing or former rocket testing sites to perform testing for toxic contaminants such as perchlorate and trichloroethylene (TCE).” The measure is aimed at catching potential contamination before it is disbursed into surrounding communities by grading or drainage, and ensuring that homes are not built on top of unidentified toxic
“Testing for toxic contaminants prior to development helps protect the public’s health,” said Parks. “It is as sound a requirement as those currently in place that require testing for landslides, floodways, or earthquake fault lines when siting a development project. Currently there are no requirements to test for contamination in the development process. The County of Ventura was reluctant to test for contaminants in wells on Ahmanson Ranch when the housing development was going through environmental review. It was only as a result of citizen pressure that the county acquiesced, tested, and found perchlorate ´´ in the one well they tested. Assuring the testing occurs routinely with developments in areas where contamination is predictable makes sense.”
Debating the motion, fellow Supervisor Judy Mikels, a vehement proponent of the failed Ahmanson Ranch project and in whose district Rocketdyne is located, eyed this reporter and described media coverage of the ranch’s pollution woes as “hysterical.” Mikels went on to oppose the motion. “There is ultimately an underlying agenda beneath this,” she added.
“Why wouldn’t you want to do this, that’s the question?” retorted Supervisor John Flynn, also an ardent supporter of the unsuccessful WaMu development but a backer of Parks’s initiative. “It seems to me to be a prudent thing to do, since it has been on the radar screen, to make sure that people are going to be safe,” Flynn later told CityBeat. “That’s why I supported Linda in the motion that she made.”
“It makes common sense to be cautious about an issue that has so many unknowns,” said Board of Supervisors Chair Steve Bennett, who also backed Parks. The item will be up before the Board for a final vote July 27.
Naturally, Rocketdyne was less than pleased with Parks’s proposal. “Requiring invasive testing for specific chemicals as part of the Initial Study based simply on geographic location will overlap and conflict with existing regulatory programs,” wrote Lafflam in a June 3 missive to the county. “Additionally, a testing requirement would unnecessarily stigmatize property, and create the potential for increased costs and litigation for property owners affected by the requirements.”
Parks doesn’t quite see it that way. “There are no regulations requiring developers who want to build projects near Rocketdyne to first test for contamination of water or soil,” Parks told CityBeat. “We are the first line of defense for protecting the public from being exposed to contamination in the ground below them, the air above them, or the water that may be used to irrigate the landscape around them.”
Despite the failure of the Ahmanson Ranch development and the fierce opposition to Rocketdyne ever being developed for housing without a stringent cleanup, three developments are springing up within two miles of SSFL. The drainage for the dioxin-polluted Old Conservation Yard at the lab heads down toward a newly approved housing project in Runkle Canyon. The project is slated for 461 homes within a mile of the radiological area of SSFL – much closer than Ahmanson Ranch. Samples collected January 8 during an environmental review of a 550-acre portion of the 1,595-acre site, indicated levels of perchlorate at 50 ppb and 60 ppb in two of four groundwater/silt specimens. This is approximately double the 28 ppb reading of perchlorate found in the groundwater under Ahmanson Ranch. The developer, Peter Kiesecker, said he won’t use the Runkle groundwater for irrigation but has left open the option of building a 23-acre, 18-hole golf course at the development that would require vast amounts of cheap water.
Another development in the works is Dayton Creek Estates, which is a mile downwind from SSFL in Los Angeles County. One hundred and fifty single-family homes are planned there on 64.2 acres out of the development’s 359.4 total acreage. Dayton Creek runs through the project and is fed by SSFL’s Happy Valley drainage, which has undergone massive excavation due to perchlorate contamination. The project’s 1999 Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR), fully aware of SSFL’s proximity, doesn’t note impacts on the development from SSFL in its “areas of controversy” section. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (LARWQCB) estimates that 69 million gallons of discharges, from SSFL rocket engine tests alone, go down Dayton and an adjacent creek every year. The developers do note, however, that the FEIR is not a “definitive investigation of contamination.”