Boeing settles massive lawsuit over the Valley’s heavily polluted Rocketdyne site
By Michael Collins
For years, the residents of Simi Valley and western San Fernando Valley towns adjacent to Boeing’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) have claimed that the troubled site, polluted with myriad high-level toxins – including the remains of two partial nuclear meltdowns – was responsible for a cluster of cancers and other deadly diseases in scores of people. Two weeks ago, Boeing agreed not to fight them anymore, and settled a sprawling lawsuit that had been churning away in the courts since 1997.
The confidential agreement includes no admission of responsibility on the part of Boeing or SSFL’s former parent company, Rockwell International, but did keep the lawsuit from going to a jury trial. Jury selection was slated to begin on the day of the settlement, September 21.
As last week’s enormous Chatsworth wildfire blazed through parts of the 2,668-acre facility, formerly known as Rocketdyne, sending skyward enormous plumes of possibly radioactive smoke, the conclusion of eight years of contentious litigation was just sinking in.
“Plaintiffs and defendants are both satisfied with the settlement, and settled these claims to avoid the high costs and delays of litigation,” both sides said in a statement announced by Boeing spokesman Dan Beck, who pointed out that the company admitted no wrongdoing. But that’s exactly what upsets some environmentalists, who complain that the confidentiality of the settlement means that some evidence will never come to light.
Over 100 plaintiffs with 174 claims, represented by Cappello & Noël of Santa Barbara and Gancedo & Nieves of Pasadena, agreed to a confidential settlement that will avoid the necessity of over 90 separate trials that could take up to four years to complete. According to lead attorney Barry Cappello, who was quite pleased with the settlement, many of the dozens of clients were gravely ill and dying, so it was time to act. “You know the song ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’?” he told CityBeat. “We got satisfaction.”
The lawsuit took shape in March 1997 with seven original plaintiffs. A fourth amended complaint was filed in March 1998 based on 21 causes of action that alleged injury related to Rockwell and Boeing’s activities. The lawsuit contained two distinguishable elements consisting of a class action brought forth in part for property damages, and another for personal injury and wrongful death on behalf of 59 individuals. The plaintiffs suffered a setback in 2000 when the class action part of the lawsuit was decertified, leaving their attorneys to prove the connection between SSFL and the three other Rocketdyne facilities to the suffering of their clients.
The mountain of evidence produced by the attorneys, buttressed by expert testimony submitted into evidence, was culled from 200,000 documents and 2 million pages of information. The lawsuit alleged that the 1959 meltdown of a nuclear liquid sodium cooled reactor released enough radiological poisons to exceed 15 to 260 times the amount of radiation released in the U.S.’s most infamous meltdown, at Three Mile Island, as CityBeat reported last year in a cover story entitled “Two Mile Island.”
The plaintiffs alleged that for over 50 years the Rocketdyne facilities, which were involved in the testing and manufacture of large rocket engines and experimental nuclear reactors, polluted the environment with huge amounts of radiation, including strontium, cesium, and plutonium. The lawsuit contended that gross contamination also occurred from poisonous chemicals including hexavalent chromium, trichloroethylene (TCE), arsenic, hydrazine, formaldehyde, and the metal beryllium.
The lawsuit detailed one of the most contaminated sites at SSFL, the sodium burn pit: a three-acre expanse where barrels of radioactive reactor waste were simply tossed into a cesspool of pollutants. Rocketdyne workers would often draw lots to see who would get to shoot at the barrels, which would explode and sometimes go flying two hundred yards, disgorging their poisons in the process. The pit operated from 1959 to 1975, but “there have been no records of any kind kept by any department on the frequency of disposal, kind and amount of the material disposed of, or ultimate fate of the material after leaching through the soil,” according to an internal Rocketdyne document from 1966 introduced as evidence. The burn pit has since been excavated down to the bedrock.
This galaxy of goo has been cited as the source of a multitude of maladies. Using individually calculated risk assessments, University of Illinois College of Medicine professor Marc Lappe, who has since passed away, analyzed the causes of the bone, kidney, lung, and other cancers endured by the plaintiffs. One such case was that of John Lallo, who was 14 in 1957 when his exposure to the carcinogens hexavalent chromium and TCE began. In 2002, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In another, 46-year-old Scott Arend became afflicted with renal cell carcinoma in 2000 afterbeing exposed to even higher doses of these two toxins used at SSFL. And Sharon Grandinetti, who was first exposed to these substances in 1955, came down with bladder cancer in 1997.
One of the crucial moments during this legal battle came June 8 of last year when U.S. District Court Judge Dickran Tevrizian, in the central California district, denied Boeing’s motion to dismiss radiation claims of the plaintiffs. Tevrizian ruled that it sufficed to show that exposure to radiation was a “substantial factor” in contributing to a plaintiff’s injury while acknowledging that each individual case would have to prove it was based on the “factual circumstances.”
The decision was a green light for Cappello. “We have filed 11 expert reports including emissions on dioxins, hex chrome, radiation, and TCE, risk-dose experts, medical-toxicity experts,” he wrote in a March 22 e-mail to CityBeat. “Our medical expert has now opined, on over 90 individual cases, that their cancers/diseases are directly linked to the three Rocketdyne facilities’ toxic air emissions (cooling towers for hex chrome, SRE [sodium reactor] meltdown for radioactive iodine, and TCE usage).”
As the hearings edged toward the sealed settlement, both sides clashed over the use of experts. Cappello had to replace Lappe, who died of brain cancer, with three experts that Boeing’s lawyers sought unsuccessfully to exclude from trial. Cappello failed in an attempt to introduce evidence that milk consumed from local Simi Valley dairy cows had caused his plaintiffs to ingest radioiodine, going so far as to produce an archival Russian spy satellite photograph that showed the cows grazing in a Giacopuzzi Dairy pasture near SSFL. Judge Tevrizian dismissed that as “too speculative” and strongly urged the parties to settle, which they did a month later.
“I only wish the rest of the community got satisfaction from this confidential settlement,” wrote longtime Rocketdyne activist Marie Mason in an e-mail. “Cappello said his experts found links between exposures from toxics from the site to illness, but the rest of us will never hear this information with a locked-and-sealed settlement. What else can we expect from Rocketdyne – pay off and walk away saying they have done nothing wrong. What a cop-out for the attorney and Rocketdyne. So much for satisfaction.”
Critics of the settlement insist that crucial information is now lost with the confidentiality of the agreement. “Our organization is very concerned about the health of people exposed to toxins released by Rocketdyne,” said Jonathan Parfrey of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “The settlement seals evidence, which may link Rocketdyne’s contaminants to local health problems. Is this the best way to protect the public? I don’t think so.”
Not everything that takes place in litigation is filed with the court is the lawsuit doesn’t proceed to trial, including deposition transcripts. But, according to Cappello, only the settlement is sealed and the evidence is available to the public. When told by a reporter that the vast majority of this evidence, evidence even used in this article, is currently online and just a walk away from his downtown Los Angeles office in the District Court, Parfrey seemed surprised. “From what I understand, that material is not available,” he said.