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Rounding out major new development around Rocketdyne are the proposed Colton Lee Communities. That plan envisions building 189 apartments 1.5 miles from SSFL. The eastern Simi Valley site is on 23 acres of a former horse ranch in Santa Susana Knolls, the Simi neighborhood closest to Rocketdyne.

Positively False

The findings of perchlorate in groundwater slated for Ahmanson Ranch caused concern for government agencies and Boeing alike, and the LARWQCB ordered retests of the well. The news that the well retested without any detection of perchlorate delighted Rocketdyne officials, according to an August 2003 article in the Los Angeles Times. “Based on this conflicting data, our conclusion is there is no perchlorate [in the wells],” a Rocketdyne official told the paper. “We have committed to do a lot more to demonstrate and prove that.”

But the testing protocols, partly developed by Boeing, ignored some of the basic recommendations of the scientists hired by adjacent Calabasas in that city’s lawsuit against the development. “A more precise determination of perchlorate in the aquifer could only be made using an adequately designed and constructed monitoring well using appropriate sampling techniques,” said former Calabasas analyst Matt Hagemman. “Well MW-1 is in no way an adequate monitoring well according to state guidelines.”

Boeing’s new, suddenly sunny analysis didn’t sit well with DTSC’s Ron Baker, the agency’s communications director. “We have high confidence that perchlorate was present in the well,” he said in the same article, referring to the positive reading a year earlier.

To further attack the original finding of perchlorate, Boeing hired a firm, AMEC, to analyze the methods used by Advanced Technology Laboratories (ATL), the lab that had detected the toxin in Ahmanson Ranch groundwater. ATL was subcontracted to do the analysis by American Scientific Laboratory, which was hired by Ventura County in 2002. The AMEC report concluded that the analysis by Advanced Technology Labs was faulty. What surprised some observers is that Boeing approached the LARWQCB and asked the agency to send the report to the lab and ask it to reconsider its conclusions, which the water board did. ATL subsequently changed its report, without giving any explanation, writing that it “acknowledges the possibility of misidentifying the perchlorate peak thus reporting a false positive for the result.”

Supervisor Parks questioned the propriety of the LARWQCB’s actions and asked how it serves the public interest to seemingly take the side of the company. “It is of concern that the Boeing Company would take the step of hiring a laboratory (AMEC) to dispute the finding of perchlorate on a piece of property Boeing doesn’t even own,” wrote Parks in a March 8 letter to the Board. “While Boeing’s move to discredit American Scientific Laboratory’s findings may be in the best interest of Boeing, I question the Regional Board taking Boeing’s AMEC study to the American Scientific Laboratory for review and asking them to reconsider their previous detect, suggesting ‘if … you determine the perchlorate was a false positive, then please issue a revised laboratory report.’”

“Boeing did this independently,” said Dave Bacharowski, LARWQCB assistant executive officer. “It wasn’t something we requested. They are concerned with the problems with having data out there, which may not be of the highest quality or be questionable.”

The state DTSC also got involved and blasted AMEC’s report and the lab’s sudden change of opinion: “We … strongly and vehemently disagree with the conclusion that the Ahmanson Ranch detection is a false positive,” wrote Fred Seto of the DTSC’s Hazardous Materials Laboratory in a November 17, 2003 e-mail.

“According to the method used [EPA Method 314.0], the sample peak can be reported as perchlorate because the retention time of the sample peak is within the perchlorate retention time window,” Seto noted in a July 1 internal agency memo that DTSC provided CityBeat. “AMEC did not use appropriate data that revealed the possible presence of perchlorate.”

“Pretty amazing,” said Rocketdyne critic Hirsch. “The water regulator acts as an agent for the polluter, Boeing, to make a pollution finding ‘disappear’ while stiffing its sister toxics agency that says in writing that Boeing’s claim is bogus.” According to internal LARWQCB e-mails obtained by CityBeat, the water board’s tendency to run interference for Boeing also included an attempt to muzzle Hirsch.

One memo indicates that Boeing had been pressuring the agencies to declare Boeing not responsible for the perchlorate pollution found “in groundwater from wells in a largely residential area … in Simi Valley,” below its perchlorate-laced rocket testing site, and that the agencies wanted to secretly give Boeing what it asked for. But there was a problem: Perchlorate would be discussed at an upcoming meeting of the EPA-sponsored SSFL Workgroup, on which Hirsch serves as a community representative. The memo read, “Heads-Up: US/EPA Workgroup meetings are often hijacked by Hirsch, used to put agency integrity and competence into question, and generate a large number of agency action-items (e.g. information reports, additional sampling).” This was written by Stephen Cain, LARWQCB public relations officer, in a late 2002 message to the water board’s then-executive director, Dennis Dickerson.

Bacharowski then sent his own e-mail two days later in which he discussed keeping secret the agency’s stance that Boeing had nothing to do with off-site perchlorate contamination. He noted that they would meet later that day with Boeing to plan their strategy.

“My God!” said Hirsch. “They secretly conspire with the polluter to declare it not responsible for the pollution and then, worrying that I may accuse them of being too cozy with the company and having secret meetings, they meet secretly with the company to figure out how to deal with me! Have they no shame?”

Boeing’s tactics don’t surprise former Rocketdyne secretary Bonnie Klea. She fought and lost a worker’s compensation claim against the company and turned down a confidential settlement that would have silenced her. “I didn’t want to do that, because I wanted to stay involved to expose them,” said Klea. “I wanted to keep working on it. I mean, I was so mad. It was so insulting for them to offer me $5,000 for what I had gone through. And they knew the job gave me cancer.”

Rocketdyne may or may not have been the cause of Klea’s rare bladder cancer and the scores of deaths and grave injuries laid at their door. But the company is clearly concerned that its toxic legacy could cost them millions through lawsuits and the cleanup of the site. Protecting the community from the real possibility of chemical and radiological poisoning has apparently taken a back seat to the company’s insistence that it has the right to develop the property for housing.

People like Bonnie Klea point a way out of the quagmire. Community members laud the transformation of Washington Mutual, a company that went from faceless corporation to a good community friend in one simple move: they sold Ahmanson Ranch to the state. So, too, the Rocketdyne lab could partially redeem its lousy reputation by remediating according to environmental, not nuclear industry, cleanup standards. Then, the Boeing company could make a gift of this amazing jumble of sandstone rocks and meadows to the State as parkland.

It’s not a new idea. How to compensate for the human misery caused by the toxic pollution is another matter entirely. Boeing’s “Code of Conduct” includes this: “Employees will not engage in conduct or activity that may raise questions as to the company’s honesty, impartiality, reputation or otherwise cause embarrassment to the company.” Perhaps Boeing ought to make its Rocketdyne employees and policies adhere to this admonition. And if they can’t, it may be time to find the people who will implement guiding principles that will attempt to turn the lab’s lethal lemons into lemonade.

“Let’s face it – Boeing is an incredibly powerful player in California,” said Parfrey. “To save a few bucks, they plan to saddle future generations with their deadly poisons. We should all care about Rocketdyne, because if they can get away with it at the site of nuclear meltdowns, then polluters can get away with it anywhere.”

Read companion piece “Blinded by the Light” that details astronomical readings of chemicals.

20 years of ongoing SSFL/Rocketdyne investigative reporting
June 1998June 2018

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