For the first time since reports were released three weeks ago about chemical and radioactive pollution at Rockwell International's Santa Susana Field Laboratory, company officials met with a homeowner group in an attempt to quell fears about contamination threatening neighbors.
About 100 residents attended the meeting Tuesday sponsored by the Susana Knolls Homeowner Assn., a group of about 400 families who live on the edge of Simi Valley about 1 1/2 miles northeast of the 2,668-acre complex. The meeting was the first in a series to be held with concerned citizens by officials from Rockwell's Rocketdyne division, which operates the lab.
"Rocketdyne is very committed to cleaning up problems caused by Rocketdyne," said Steve Lafflam, environmental manager for the site. "We'll guarantee nothing is moving off-site," he said, offering assurances that no pollution has left the company's property.
"Four thousand Rocketdyne employees live within a 10-mile radius of the lab, including the president and 14 of the vice presidents," said Mel Davis, vice president for human resources and communication. "The people who know what is going on there would not be living there if it was unsafe."
Radioactive and chemical pollution of a portion of the complex in Ventura County three miles west of Chatsworth and two miles southeast of Simi Valley was described in a preliminary report released last month by the U.S. Department of Energy, which has contracted with Rocketdyne for nuclear work.
Between 1947 and 1986, nuclear research was conducted on a 290-acre portion of the site, part of which was leased by the DOE. About 12 nuclear reactors operated there, including the first plant in the United States to provide nuclear-powered energy to consumers.
The DOE report found that while the pollution poses no immediate threat to nearby residents, more environmental tests are necessary to determine the extent of the contamination because of inadequacies in the company's ground-water monitoring system.
Rocketdyne officials Tuesday displayed slides showing charts, graphs and documents tracing the history of the firm's activities and cleanup procedures at the site. The one-hour presentation was followed by five company officials replying to questions from the audience, passed to them in writing.
"Is it possible homeowners are in danger?" one person asked.
Davis replied that "homeowners are not in danger--period."
One question concerned a field where radioactive water had leaked in the 1970s. Rocketdyne removed the contaminated soil and covered the area with asphalt and soil eight to 10 feet deep, however the DOE survey said residual radiation remained in the underlying bedrock.
The questioner asked why the firm was soliciting additional nuclear work when it had not "even cleaned up the mess already up there?"
$17 Million Spent
Rocketdyne officials said the company has spent $17 million so far to clean up the site. "What's gone on up there has nothing to do with the recent jobs," said Hank C. Wiezeneck, a vice president.
"If you planted a field of cabbage on that area we cleaned up and ate the cabbages for a year, you'd only have three extra hours of exposure to radioactivity than you'd normally have" in a year, he said.
No nuclear work is now being done at the site, but Rocketdyne officials have said the company plans to bid on contracts with DOE to recycle spent nuclear fuel rods. The lab is now used to test rocket engines for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The DOE report said that in one area of the Rocketdyne site, known as the sodium burn pit, soil tests revealed levels of radioactive cesium as high as 700 picocuries per gram of soil--about 10 to 30 times higher than normal background radiation for the area.
Lafflam said that sitting in the burn pit for a day "would be the equivalent of spending the day in Denver," which gets more solar radiation because of its altitude.
The lab has been on the state Superfund cleanup list for several years because of high levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, a chemical solvent, in ground water beneath the complex. Rocketdyne has been treating ground water in one part of the property where TCE has been found at levels of up to 11,000 parts per billion, 2,200 times the amount that would be allowed in drinking water.
The lab has a state permit to release treated water used to cool rocket engines into Bell Creek, which runs south into the community of Bell Canyon.
"Every day our waste water is monitored for radioactivity and chemicals. We have never experienced any problems in the water released into Bell Creek," Lafflam said.
Ralph Stolnow, 71, a retired accountant, said he felt reassured by the presentation. "I never felt there was a critical need to get too excited about what's happening up there," he said.
But Dawn Kowalski, a member of the association's board of directors, said she was still skeptical about the truthfulness of the presentation. "I'd like to see an independent organization tell us about what's going on up there," she said.