Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – July 3, 2003
Last week’s news that the toxic chemical perchlorate was found gurgling from a groundwater well, nearly a mile outside the northern border of the Rocketdyne facility, shocked many Simi and San Fernando valley residents. But former Rocketdyne worker Lynwood Sibley was hardly surprised. Sibley worked for the aerospace company decades ago, when perchlorate was used in massive amounts at the site. Sibley’s stint at Rocketdyne was brief and, today, he still shows no ill effects from his possible exposure to poisons at the site.
“I worked at CTL-3 and CTL-4, and another big test stand [above the] canyon, the closest one to Ahmanson,” says Sibley. “We had all the ‘exotics’ [chemicals] there – all the devil’s brew. A lot of people have died from cancer from the exotics up there in recent years. I got caught in a monomethylhydrazine cloud up there, and they sent me down for a physical right away because it’s that bad a stuff.”
The Rocketdyne facility sits upon 2,668 acres of land in the Santa Susana hills between the San Fernando and Simi valleys and, for decades, used vast amounts of the fuel oxidizer perchlorate in rocket tests. According to government records, nearly a ton of the poisonous substance was burned at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), nicknamed “the Hill.” Now the site is polluted with all manner of chemical and radiological contaminants. One spot at SSFL registered 1,600 parts per billion (ppb) for perchlorate. California considers any water registering over 4ppb to be unsafe for human consumption.
Sibley worked at SSFL for only one year in 1962. “My wife said that when I quit Rocketdyne, it was the best thing I’d ever done,” he says. “I didn’t die of cancer like everyone else I worked with.”
But other workers and residents who have survived cancer and other illnesses are suing. The litigation has been slow, and resistance fierce. Two class-action lawsuits were filed in 1997 against Boeing, which owns Rocketdyne, contending that claimants were made sick or put in harm’s way by Rocketdyne’s pollution problems. One lawsuit was filed by Erin Brockovich’s boss, Edward L. Masry, whose firm helped garner a $333 million settlement against Pacific Gas & Electric over cancers in Hinkley, California, regarding toxic chromium-6 pollution. (Brockovich and that case were the subject of the like-named Oscar-winning motion picture.)
However, the Rocketdyne class actions were quashed in October 2000 by Van Nuys-based U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins. She ruled that news reports in the Los Angeles Daily News about Rocketdyne’s discharge of hazardous and radioactive toxins, published between 1989 and 1991, should have prompted the plaintiffs to file proceedings at that time, despite repeated statements from Rocketdyne that it wasn’t responsible for offsite contamination. Under past California law, plaintiffs had only one year to file a lawsuit if they believed they’d been harmed. Since January 1, this period has been doubled to two years.
On November 27, 2002, the Ninth District Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s decision to throw out 18 individual toxic tort cases against Boeing. The Court ruled that the plaintiffs met the statute of limitations requirements since they filed their cases after UCLA released a 1997 toxic contamination study. That survey showed that 4,563 of Rocketdyne’s past and present nuke workers had elevated rates of cancer, and that exposure to radiation causes health risks at levels lower than previously known. But Boeing appealed. Just last month, on June 6, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Boeing’s final attempt to stop sick people from suing the company.
“It’s taken several years to get to where we are,” says Santa Barbara-based attorney Barry Cappello, who represents 317 people and parties suing Boeing. “But we now have the opportunity to bring at least a hundred additional cases, people who have cancer or have passed away – children, husbands, wives, and moms – that now have an opportunity to have their cases heard in court that would have been thrown out.”
Boeing may now be deluged by lawsuits. Chatsworth resident Betty Reo is one person encouraged by the decision. Reo is now looking for an attorney to handle her case, in which she would allege that her husband, a former Rocketdyne worker, died from toxic exposure at SSFL. “This is great,” she says. “We are going to fry them.”
“A neighbor of ours died of cancer from working up there,” adds Sibley. “There was some bad stuff up there. I had a friend over in Simi who had a daughter who was born with extreme birth defects. We think it was from the chemicals over at Rocketdyne. It might have been from the perchlorate in the groundwater.”
‘Goo’ is not three-quarters of the word ‘good’
The recently discovered high perchlorate readings were found in a Simi Valley artesian well called the “Bathtub Well 1”– water that literally drips into an old iron bathtub – that was sampled by the Ventura County Public Works Agency on February 21. The test results, a reading of 82ppb, prompted Ventura to contact the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). That agency tested the well May 30 and came up with two samples registering 140ppb and 150ppb. The DTSC later retested the well, which sits on undeveloped land within the Jewish day camp Brandeis-Bardin, on June 11. Two perchlorate readings dipped to 36ppb and 39ppb at the “bathtub.” Oddly, the toxin was not detected in a March 20, 2002, sampling of the well. The wildly fluctuating readings may be a prime example of the still-not-well-known ways in which perchlorate moves through groundwater.
Because of these most recent findings, the DTSC has now ordered Rocketdyne to come up with a plan by August 18 to determine if the contamination emanated from SSFL. The company will be required to do aerial photography, geologic mapping, aquifer monitoring, and well testing, said the DTSC’s Gerard Abrams.
Abrams, a geologist and SSFL project manager for the DTSC, noted that the source of the toxin could be Rocketdyne. Both the company and its parent, Boeing, have consistently denied that any pollution has migrated off the heavily contaminated site, which is undergoing a multi-million-dollar cleanup. “For us, it’s very important to understand how the material got there,” Abrams says.
“This is the smoking gun. It overwhelmingly suggests that Rocketdyne’s activities may have resulted in contamination of nearby communities,” says Jonathan Parfrey, director of the Los Angeles-based public-health advocacy group, Physicians for Social Responsibility. Parfrey is also a member of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Workgroup, charged with overseeing the Rocketdyne cleanup. “Perchlorate is an indicator chemical – being a salt, it moves quickly through the water table,” he says. “Finding perchlorate down the Hill powerfully suggests that Rocketdyne’s more troubling chemicals and radionuclides may soon follow.”
“Perchlorate is a serious threat to public health and to our children,” says Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California). “I strongly support the efforts of the state to get to the bottom of this issue and to insure that our people are protected from perchlorate contamination. I will continue my efforts, at the federal level, to insist on a tough perchlorate standard.” Perchlorate, a growing problem in California and 10 other states, has been found in non-drinking-water wells across Simi Valley. Rocketdyne maintains that the source of that pollution could be from fireworks and road flares.
Denial: a deadly disease
Betty Reo, 75, lost her husband, Cosmo, to a lurid litany of illnesses that she blames on Rocketdyne. Cosmo was working on the Bravo rocket test stand in 1959, when a nearby experimental nuclear reactor suffered a partial meltdown, releasing radioactivity into the environment. He became ill three years later. At age 53, the SSFL employee-turned-stockbroker began breaking out in red sores all over his body, his neck artery started to close up, his kidneys failed, and he seemed “out of it all the time,” according to Reo. “It ruined his whole body getting that into his system.”
Reo says her husband was eventually straitjacketed in the hospital because, in fits of insanity, he would tear intravenous needles out of his arms. Cosmo died in 1980, after suffering four heart attacks.
“His whole family lived until their late 80s, so it just didn’t make sense,” says Reo. “When he died, the doctors wanted to do an autopsy but I said, ‘Leave my husband’s body alone. I want him buried with dignity.’ They didn’t know what was wrong with him.” Not having an autopsy performed was a decision she would regret. When she later applied for funds under the Employee Occupational Illness Compensation Program, she was denied any benefits because Cosmo’s death certificate did not specify cancer as his cause of death. “The federal government has been exposing workers and members of the public to radiation since the Manhattan Project,” says Daniel Hirsch, president of the Los Angeles-based environmental group Committee to Bridge the Gap and a member of the SSFL Workgroup. “Fairly quickly, it became apparent that those radiation doses were potentially harmful, especially to the workers,” says Hirsch.
The Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Department of Energy (DOE), continued for decades to deny that radiation was causing any harm to their employees, according to Hirsch. Eventually, because of disclosures showing that substantial numbers of cancers were being generated in workers who were exposed to radiation, including the Santa Susana workers, members of Congress put forth legislation to compensate the nuclear workers. President Clinton signed the legislation into law. Hirsch says that one problem with that legislation, however, is that it has to be implemented by many of the same people who actively denied that there had been any harm.
“It’s still up to the federal government to grant that compensation,” says Hirsch. “Nonetheless, it was a very important admission by the U.S. government that radiation exposures at its DOE nuclear facilities killed employees and, likely as well, numerous members of the surrounding population.”
What a long, strange trip it’s been
Betty Reo’s Chatsworth-based family continues to suffer under the shadow of the Hill in the western edge of the San Fernando Valley. Her daughter had a double mastectomy due to cancer. Two of the family’s German shepherds were afflicted with tumors on their necks, and its cat died from cancer. Reo relates tales her late husband told her of other odd instances concerning animals up on Rocketdyne’s SSFL property. Cosmo conveyed seeing two-headed snakes and animals that “just didn’t look right,” according to his widowed wife.
Cosmo Reo wasn’t alone in experiencing bizarre wildlife sightings at Rocketdyne. Jim Economopoulos worked at SSFL as a test stand technician from 1975 to 1978. “We used to have 50-gallon containers of stuff [at SSFL] that had ‘skull and crossbones’ [symbols] on it,” says Economopoulos. “This stuff used to break down and leach into the environment. My lead man and I used to catch two-headed snakes all the time, and he’d skin them and put them on his cowboy hat. We used to have a reclaimed water system, and we could follow it, and there would be some pretty heavy areas of water. There were polliwogs that never matured into frogs. They were half and half – half polliwog and half frog – but never completely made the change. I saw some deer from about 50 feet away, and they looked like they were out of a Stephen King movie. They looked like they were deformed and had open sores all over their bodies. They didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen. It was like something you’d see out of a horror film.”
Economopoulos’s own life could be fairly described as being out of a horror film, though one would never know it by talking with him. He has a wicked wit and an infectious laugh even though, at the age of 54, his body is wracked with ¸ illness. “What I have is multiple myeloma, or bone cancer,” Economopoulos says. “I was working there from 1975 to 1978. I was working there for two months when we had a pump let go in this pump house, and a valve broke.”
Economopoulos was sprayed with trichloroethylene (TCE), soaking his pants up to his knees. Shortly afterward, he lost 40 pounds from sickness. Economopoulos applied for workers’ compensation, was found to have 35 percent permanent disability, and was awarded future medical costs for the diabetes he contracted soon after the accident. TCE is a nonflammable, colorless liquid with a somewhat sweet odor and a sweet, burning taste. Inhaling it can cause impaired heart function and even death. Drinking small amounts of TCE for long periods may cause impaired immune system function, liver and kidney damage, and impaired fetal development during pregnancy. Drinking larger doses may cause liver damage, impaired heart function, and death.
“Two months later, I was a diabetic,” says Economopoulos. “It blew my pancreas up, and I’ve been a Type 1 diabetic since 1975, which [Rocketdyne] took responsibility for. But now they aren’t taking responsibility for anything else.
“The toxins and everything we’d dump down the Hill and the stuff they used to vent everyday was unbelievable,” Economopoulos continues. “There wasn’t a day gone by when we weren’t venting something into the air. We used to test the directional rockets for the Space Shuttle. There were two types of fuels: hydrazine and hydrogen tetroxide [an oxidizer]. We’d fire the rockets, and they’d just vent thousands of gallons of this stuff up into the air. We didn’t have hazardous- materials outfits – just hard hats and overalls. We used to walk through clouds of this crap all the time.
“I thought I was doing something for the country, but I didn’t know I was killing myself. If I had known that…,” Economopoulos says, and then breaks off in a painful silence. Economopoulos is suing Boeing but knows that won’t be easy. He’s employed Moorpark-based workers’ compensation attorney Kirby Thomas of the law offices of Thomas and Cognata to represent his case. “We’re trying to connect all this stuff, but they are fighting us tooth and nail,” Economopoulos says. “They’re not going to take any liability for anything.”
The TCE problem seems to be more localized to the Boeing facility than possibly-migrating perchlorate, according to the company and government. But, unlike perchlorate, TCE is a volatile organic compound, which means it can vaporize and concentrate in structures above potentially tainted groundwater. According to one recent estimate, TCE soil vapors at one SSFL site registered over 195 million times California’s preliminary remediation goal for public safety if inhaled. More than 1.73 million gallons of TCE slopped onto Rocketdyne’s ground, and some 500,000 gallons have made it into the substrata and groundwater.
Shouts amid the silence
Environmentalists claim that perchlorate is a “fingerprint” of Rocketdyne toxins yet to spread. TCE, however, as scientists and environmentalists agree, migrates much more slowly. In 1998, Rocketdyne spokesman Steve Lafflam admitted in a Los Angeles magazine article that TCE had migrated off its SSFL site 800 feet away from the northern perimeter boundary. Lafflam would not comment for this article.
Dan Beck, a senior Boeing press officer, also made it very clear that Boeing did not want to respond to questions regarding this investigation. In a June 21 email, Beck wrote, “Don’t bother calling us for comment.”
Others, however, aren’t reticent to talk. “I have been involved in the toxic and radiological cleanup of the DOE’s facility at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory since the beginning,” says Congressman Elton Gallegly (R-Ventura and Santa Barbara counties). “I am very concerned about how the byproducts of years of DOE tests will affect area residents and former, current, and future workers. In addition, I am committed to the timely and effective cleanup of contaminants at the SSFL, which will ensure they do not spread off-site. I started the Working Group to give area residents a voice in the cleanup efforts. “Simi Valley has been my home for 35 years. I have been, am, and will continue to work with the EPA and DOE, the community and Boeing to ensure that sound science is applied to the SSFL cleanup,” Gallegly continues. “The community deserves no less than a complete, prompt, and timely cleanup.”
As reported earlier in CityBeat, fallout from Rocketdyne’s radiological and chemical pollution woes may have spread to the adjacent Ahmanson Ranch project. Property owner Washington Mutual Bank wants to build 3,050 homes on 2,800 acres less than two miles from Rocketdyne’s former nuclear facility, site of two partial meltdowns, the second occurring in 1964. Last week, it was revealed that “WaMu” has been talking with the state about the possible sale of the site so that it may be preserved as open space.
“Several weeks ago, the Secretary of Resources asked us to consider whether we would be willing to adjust our plans for the remaining 2,800 acres of the Ahmanson Ranch,” says Adrian Rodriguez, a Washington Mutual spokesperson. “We have always said that we would be willing to listen to any reasonable request or input regarding the project, and we felt an obligation as a responsible corporate citizen to be responsive to the request. It is important to note that, at this point, there is no deal and there are no guarantees that anything will result from these discussions.
“We still believe that the best use of the Ahmanson Ranch is for much-needed housing in Southern California,” Rodriguez continues. “Therefore, we will continue to be focused on completing the entitlement process to clear the way for developing the project.”
“The Boeing Company and the Department of Energy could turn lemons into lemonade, just like Washington Mutual is contemplating doing,” contends Parfrey. “If they were wise, they’d clean up the lab and donate the site as parkland to the state – my God, they’d be the toast of the town.”