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2 Legislators Act to Detour Shipments of Rocket Fuel

October 09, 1987|ALAN C. MILLER | Times Staff Writer

Two Los Angeles congressmen have urged the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Defense to halt transportation of highly toxic rocket fuel through populous areas of Los Angeles and plan to introduce legislation prohibiting shipment of the fuel through the metropolitan region.

The initiatives by Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) are the latest in a series of actions by city, state and federal officials that followed disclosures last month that the lethal chemical was routinely trucked through the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys over the congested Ventura Freeway.

Berman said Thursday that a proposed legislative ban would be a stopgap measure to keep the rocket fuel out of densely populated areas until comprehensive national safety standards on the shipment of hazardous materials are established.

In the meantime, Berman and Waxman charged that the Transportation Department had failed to enforce a federal regulation that prohibits the transport of hazardous material through or near heavily populated areas unless there are no practical alternatives.

Safer Alternative

They suggested that another of the five approved routes to Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc--running northwest of Los Angeles through a sparsely populated desert area--offers a safer alternative for the extremely poisonous fuel.

The fuel contains the chemical nitrogen tetroxide, which can be fatal if inhaled. A spill would release a toxic gas cloud that would require massive evacuations, according to studies by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

"Given the frightening and fatal consequences that a potential accident could cause in a major city like Los Angeles, and the fact that there are safer alternative routes available, we think it is unconscionable that the DOT has permitted these shipments," Berman and Waxman wrote in their Oct. 1 letter to the Transportation Department.

Berman said he and Waxman will introduce legislation next week banning the shipment through the Los Angeles metropolitan area, which will be specifically defined in the bill. The representatives are working with City Atty. James Hahn's office.

Safety Record Cited

The Transportation and Defense Departments both insist that the established rocket-fuel route through Los Angeles is safe. The military says the Air Force has been shipping nitrogen tetroxide for more than 20 years without an accident or incident.

Truckers under contract to the Air Force have followed the San Bernardino Freeway, the Foothill Freeway through Pasadena, and the Ventura Freeway across Glendale and on through the San Fernando Valley to Ventura, Santa Barbara and Vandenberg.

As an alternative, Berman and Waxman propose that the Air Force use Interstate 40 to Barstow and then follow California 58, the Antelope Valley Freeway and California 138 to Interstate 5 and California 166 and 135 to Vandenberg. This route would traverse the lightly populated areas of the Mojave Desert, Antelope Valley, southern San Joaquin Valley and San Luis Obispo County, Berman said.

Threat of Legislation

"This may very well work out that we don't need to pass a bill because we've gotten a firm commitment for this or another alternative route," he said. But he added that the threat of legislation sometimes promotes conciliation.

A Transportation Department spokesman had no comment on Berman's and Waxman's letter. A Pentagon spokeswoman said the department had not received the lawmakers' Oct. 6 correspondence. Neither spokesman offered a response to Berman's and Waxman's planned legislation.

The congressmen's actions came shortly before scheduled House hearings on the the transport of hazardous materials, including rocket fuel. The House governmental operations subcommittee plans to hold hearings in Washington Wednesday and Los Angeles Oct. 19. Berman said he expects to testify and urge consideration of his legislation.

A 60-day moratorium on shipments of rocket fuel through several suburban cities and parts of Los Angeles is now in effect. Mayor Tom Bradley, who negotiated the Sept. 23 moratorium with the Defense Department, has said he prefers to resolve the transportation issue through conciliatory discussions rather than seeking a legislative solution.

Alternate Routes Studied

The freeze was called to ensure that no fuel will be shipped while alternate routes are studied. A Bradley aide who helped negotiate the moratorium said he was told by a top Pentagon official that the Defense Department will make every effort to reroute the rocket fuel outside of Los Angeles.

The Defense Department estimates that, in the next eight years, there will be 130 shipments of nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine, a related fuel, to Vandenberg. Nitrogen tetroxide, an odorless, yellow-brown liquid, is used by Titan missiles and the space shuttle program and is designated for use in the "Star Wars" program. It oxidizes rocket propellants to ignite missiles.

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