A half-century after his death, Jack Parsons’ twisted legacy lives on in the toxic soup his experiments created – and still hasn’t been cleaned up

Part 2 of 2
By Michael Collins

Pasadena Weekly – January 10, 2002

Early JPL rockets

“And all who accept me the ANTICHRIST and the law of the BEAST 666, shall be accursed and their joy shall be a thousandfold greater than the false joys of the false saints.” — Jack Parsons

Accursed indeed. When famed rocket scientist Jack Parsons was blown to smithereens in his Pasadena home in 1952, his legendary and lethal legacy didn’t die with him. As we reported last week, Parsons was the co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the military-industrial giant company, Aerojet. The occult-obsessed, drug-addicted man, with a serious and apparently acted-out Oedipus complex, was also key in implementing the idea to start using potassium perchlorate as a rocket fuel oxidizer. This led to the evolution of ammonium perchlorate, which is still used today in American nuke-tipped rockets and the Space Shuttle.

While this seems a laudable legacy in America’s quest to conquer the skies, it also has left us with an apparently poisonous posterity that Parsons may have never imagined when he came to his untimely demise at the age of 37. Today, NASA-owned JPL, whose prime contractor is Caltech, is gravely polluted requiring an intense Superfund cleanup, an Environmental Protection Agency program that targets the most serious hazardous waste sites across the nation. Two of Aerojet’s facilities, in the San Gabriel city of Azusa and the Sacramento County community of Rancho Cordova, are also Superfund sites. Indeed, Parsons’ innovations in the use of perchlorate have led to pollution problems across the state.

Quite a fitting legacy for the man who envisioned himself the Antichrist.

“Caltech and JPL have done some pretty terrific things,” asserts Jonathan Parfrey, local director of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning group Physicians for Social Responsibility, “but there is a rarely reported dark legacy as well. Advances in technical science do not equate advances in ethical behavior.” Jonathan Parfrey is the brother of Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey, whose book “Sex and Rockets,” based on Jack Parsons’ eerie epoch, was profiled in last week’s cover story.

“Robert Millikan made Caltech a technical school to provide engineers for Los Angeles’ burgeoning aircraft industry — so over the past eighty years, its students and professors, as a matter of course, have bent the laws of nature to make the most destruction weapons on the planet,” Parfrey said, referring, in part, to the missiles that propel America’s nuclear-tipped warheads.

“Borne of Caltech, JPL’s first mission was to move jet-propulsion from the theoretical, from the chalkboard, into a weapon of war. When the Army ran JPL, between 1945 and 1957, in the midst of the Cold War, they operated in this rarified culture. Because there was this state of national emergency, the lab didn’t really consider the long term environmental effects of its work. For forty years the good people living downstream of JPL drank their tainted water. So badly polluted, the local aquifers are now a Superfund site. And some of Pasadena’s wells have been shut down and local water will need to be treated for a very long time.”

The Weekly first reported on JPL’s pollution woes in July 1998. At that time, the paper revealed that the 176-acre JPL site was plagued by numerous volatile compounds (VOCs) including the carcinogenic solvents trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene, and carbon tetrachloride which has resulted in a $114 million dollar cleanup.

Since then, the Weekly has discovered that the sources of contamination at JPL include “approximately 35 seepage pits where liquid and solid wastes were reportedly disposed of, a settling chamber in the JPL storm drain system, contaminated soil excavated from part of that system, and an area where waste solvents were dumped into three separate holes,” according to an EPA document obtained by the paper. “Hazardous substances located at JPL include waste solvents, solid fuel rocket fuel propellants, cooling tower chemicals, sulfuric acid, freon, mercury, and chemical laboratory wastes.”

VOC contamination in the groundwater forced the shutting of four Pasadena municipal wells, which were reopened again for “service” after NASA installed a treatment system. Additionally, the Lincoln Avenue Water Company installed treatment systems to rid the water of toxic goo at two of its wells. The systems “reduced,” but did not apparently eliminate, “potential risks to human health” for the “approximately 120,840 people (who) live within 4 miles of (JPL); an estimated 68,000 people obtain drinking water from municipal within 4 miles of the site,” according to the EPA. Dozens of sick folks, some afflicted with Hodgkin’s disease, ended up filing a class action against JPL, Caltech and the U.S. government over this poisonous part of Jack Parsons’ posterity.

The total mass of the VOCs at JPL in the vadose zone, which is the soil between the ground surface and the water table about 200 feet below, is estimated to be no more than 5,040 pounds. A soil vapor extraction (SVE) system pilot test was installed at JPL in 1998 and at least 200 pounds of the VOC goo was removed during the test extraction. The EPA was pleased with the results and has stated that “SVE is a feasible option for remediation of VOCs in soils.”

Unfortunately, another one of Parsons’ legacies, perchlorate, “moves quickly through the vadose zone quickly until it reaches groundwater, making it unlikely to be found in vadose zone soils,” according to the EPA referring to the JPL site. So far, except in the laboratory, ways to remove perchlorate from groundwater seem nonexistent. Perchlorate can lead to aplastic anemia and immune thyroid disease. “Parson’s 1936 invention of a practical perchlorate rocket fuel set the groundwork for a massive uncontrolled ecological experiment in Southern California,” Larry Ladd told the Weekly.

Ladd is a Sacramento-area water quality activist who helped initiate public scrutiny of the environmental perchlorate problem. He is currently serving as chair of the US EPA-sponsored Community Advisory Group for Aerojet Superfund Site Issues in Rancho Cordova. The mission of a Community Advisory Group is to exchange information between communities affected by contamination from Superfund sites and the environmental regulators responsible for those sites.

“Perchlorate is (also) in the Southern California drinking water supply via Las Vegas runoff into the Colorado River and direct dumping into Los Angeles area streams and aquifers,” said Ladd. “Unbeknownst to almost everyone is that, for nearly 50 years, perchlorate has been as characteristic of Southern California’s water as smog has been to air.”

The Parsons co-founded company, Aerojet, has had more than a hand in the unfortunate perchlorate pollution problems plaguing California. Aerojet put their rocket testing facilities in a gravel pit in Azusa in December 1942. A decade later, at about the time of Parson’s death, an Aerojet Azusa team completed the development of unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine in rocket fuel. This liquid rocket fuel breaks down into nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), the most potent carcinogen in cigarette smoke. The synergistic combination of NDMA and the solvent TCE are the most clear cut toxic hazards in the groundwater of the San Gabriel Valley, according to Ladd. Today, there are four San Gabriel Valley Superfund sites that include multiple areas of contamination stretching over an area four miles long and one mile wide in the 170 square-mile valley.

Cited as a major pollution problem in 1984, the EPA noted that the groundwater under 11 cities, including Alhambra, Baldwin Park, El Monte and West Covina are polluted with goo. Pollutants, including VOCs, were first detected in 1979 when Aerojet sampled Azusa wells. California’s Department of Health Services found that 59 wells were “found to be contaminated with high levels of VOCs.” Over one million people live in the valley, with around 90% of those folks relying on groundwater for their needs.

But then is there is that pesky problem of perchlorate.

“The current drinking water standards for perchlorate are based on concerns over stressing thyroids of fetuses and newborns with subsequent negative impacts on their early mental development,” Ladd said. Environmentalist leader, Jonathan Parfrey, agrees.

“Perchlorate is a toxic endocrine disrupter. It shrinks the thyroid, screwing-up the body’s hormonal balance, potentially resulting in problems ranging from memory loss to hair loss to more serious diseases.”

Parfrey is also the environmentalist who first informed this reporter of grim pollution problems at another former Aerojet facility in the San Bernadino County city of Chino Hills in late 1999. There, the Parson-founded company detonated mustard and tear-gas weapons, exploded depleted uranium-tipped projectiles, and produced a galaxy of bombs and munitions. They are the products of a clandestine 800-acre complex that operated for nearly 40 years before it was closed in 1995.

The site, surrounded by barbed wire and virtually inaccessible cliffs, is near the juncture of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. The depleted uranium on the projectiles, which were deployed as tank-busters in the Gulf War and Kosovo, is linked to bone cancer and kidney disease and has a half-life of 4.468 billion years. The Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute noted in 1998 “possible relationships between depleted uranium and neurological, immunological, carcinogenic, genotoxic and mutagenic effects.”

The cities of Chino Hills, and adjacent Chino, both rely on well water drawn in Chino for residential use. All nine wells supplying water to the city of Chino were found to contain perchlorate in a September 1997 sampling by E.S. Babcock & Sons, an environmental laboratory. One well had 21 parts per billion of perchlorate; state provisional standards consider 18 ppb a threat to public safety. In a March 29, 2000, survey, the level of perchlorate in the contaminated wells ranged from 5 ppb to 17.5 ppb, according to Dr. Kalyanpur Baliga, senior sanitary engineer at the San Bernardino district office of the California Department of Health Services Drinking Water Division. Aerojet disputed this reporter’s findings. Rosemary Younts, senior vice president of communications for Aerojet, said the company is committed to cleaning up the plant. “I will tell you that we do not intend to leave that [site] until it is clean,” she said. “We’ve reported on and evaluated all the data collected, and are ready to proceed with cleanup.”

The Aerojet official also disputed this reporter’s assertion that “a galaxy of bombs and munitions” were tested and exploded at the site. Younts told this reporter that the company, which ceased active operations at the Chino Hills facility in November 1995, had found only two unexploded bombs at the facility. Aerojet actually discovered 2,700 explosive items in just one test area at the facility from August 1, 1995, to October 26,1995, at the beginning of the cleanup according to Freedom of Information Act documents that the Weekly has obtained.

“Because of your articles, we’re going to have to hold a community meeting,” Younts further said.

The progeny of Jack Parsons’ spawn is even more complicated. “Explosive chemicals have also been found in ground water at two locations,” said Christine Brown, the DTSC’s project manager for the facility, at a Chino Hills public hearing in May 1999. “That water, eventually ends up in a creek that goes . . . into the Santa Ana River,” the primary source of northern Orange County aquifers, which provide drinking water to millions.

The gooey posterity of Jack Parsons has endured today due to the pollution problems at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and numerous Aerojet facilities. The legacy of perchlorate will be something we Americans will have to face for years to come. Despite these contamination conundrums, Parsons remains an illusive figure that may live to see the silver screen.

Feral House publisher, Adam Parfrey, says that he his book on Parsons has been optioned by Don Murphy of Angry Films/Sony.

“I’m sure that people will find it hard to believe that it is a true story,” Parfrey said. Beyond going Hollywood, Jack Parsons has left an indelible mark on America’s space program and the pollution he has left in its wake.

Whether Parsons ever makes the silver screen, he certainly made space history – a crater at 37 north latitude, 171 west longitude is named “Parsons Crater” by the International Astronomical Union. Appropriately, it is on the dark side of the moon.

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