Cal-EPA comes down on Simi Valley’s Rocketdyne facility

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles ValleyBeat – October 23, 2003

Perchlorate Patrol

The toxic leaks continue at the Rocketdyne lab in Simi Valley. After high levels of the toxic rocket fuel oxidizer perchlorate were found this summer near the facility, California’s Environmental Protection Agency (Cal-EPA) ordered the company to put together a remediation plan. Now Rocketdyne’s parent company, Boeing, has been given 30 days to make a revised plan to determine the extent of off-site perchlorate contamination.

On October 14, Cal-EPA directed Boeing to drill 12 new wells on or around Rocketdyne’s Santa Susanna Field Laboratory (SSFL) within 14 days to quantify perchlorate pollution and migration. These new wells would test the groundwater at various depths to track the mysterious ways perchlorate moves through soil layers.

The alarms went off when Cal-EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which oversees chemical pollution cleanup at Rocketdyne, detected high levels of perchlorate in an artesian well at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, a Jewish education camp less than mile north of Rocketdyne. Shocking readings of 140 and 150 parts per billion (ppb) were found at the well. California’s acceptable level for the contaminant is currently 4ppb and will probably be lowered later this year due to increasing concern over the chemical’s toxicity. The agency then ordered Boeing to come up with a plan to characterize and mitigate perchlorate pollution possibly emanating from the site.

“Perchlorate disrupts how the thyroid functions,” say resources provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Impairment of thyroid function in expectant mothers may impact the fetus and newborn and results in effects including changes in behavior, delayed development and decreased learning capability.”

“The approach that Rocketdyne has proposed for remediating the perchlorate contamination has serious questions about it,” says Daniel Hirsch, president of the Los Angeles-based Committee to Bridge the Gap and a member of the SSFL Workgroup that oversees the multimillion-dollar cleanup of Rocketdyne.

At first, Boeing proposed dumping manure on the site, to release bacteria that would degrade the perchlorate. “Because of the bad press about them wanting to dump manure on their chemical contamination,” adds Hirsch, “Boeing has now switched from manure to other materials with exactly the same plan – simply dump the stuff on the soil and hope that it creates a sufficient ‘reducing environment’ that the bacteria go after oxygen in the perchlorate rather than oxygen in the air.”

Boeing has insisted that it is more economical to treat contaminated SSFL soil with manure rather than digging up 1,600 cubic yards of dirt and hauling it to a hazardous-waste facility. The company claims that the same technique was effective against perchlorate contamination at military contractor Aerojet’s Rancho Cordoba facility near Sacramento. But DTSC is concerned about resultant nitrate runoff from using manure and is now pressing Boeing to use methyl-soyate, a bio-diesel mixture of soy oil and ethanol, and citric acid to solve the problem. The bio-remediation would cover about 11/2 acres and reach down two to three feet deep in the contaminated soil. “The bacteria seemed quite happy, under certain conditions, to metabolize the perchlorate,” says Ray Leclerc, a DTSC senior engineer.

Concentrations of perchlorate at SSFL are alarmingly high. Next to Building 359, where Rocketdyne manufactured and tested the chemical, readings as high as 71,290ppb were detected in the soil. Groundwater contamination has clocked in as high as 1,600ppb at the laboratory. But measuring for perchlorate, which has also been found in numerous Simi Valley wells not used for drinking, can be dicey. One DTSC test of the Brandeis-Bardin bathtub well came in at 40ppb and then registered negative on the same day.

Perchlorate has become a problem all over the U.S. The chemical is the target of an EPA Superfund cleanup at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and at Aerojet’s Azusa facility in the San Gabriel Valley. Ten other states across the country are dealing with the toxin as well. Leakage of the contaminate from an old Kerr-McGee plant in Henderson, Nevada, has so polluted the Colorado River, used for agricultural irrigation and drinking water for millions of Southern Californians, that the standard reading is now 9ppb.

25 Years of Award-Winning SSFL/Rocketdyne Reporting