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State Agency Weighs Major Health Study

December 21, 1989|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Responding to requests from area lawmakers and citizens, state health officials last week promised to look into whether a major health study of workers and neighbors of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory is justified, following reports of chemical and radioactive contamination there.

But researchers with the state Department of Health Services would not commit themselves to a full-blown health study involving the lab west of Chatsworth, where for more than 30 years Rockwell International has done nuclear work for the federal government.

"We've been asked to look at the possibility that either workers who've worked at the facility or people who have resided in the area . . . may have had health impacts," said Dr. Lynn Goldman, chief of environmental epidemiology and toxicology for the state Department of Health Services.

Before the inquiry becomes a major research project, Goldman said, investigators first must determine if there are enough logical suspicions to warrant the study and sufficient data to reach definitive conclusions.

An investigator was scheduled to begin gathering data this week.

Goldman said the epidemiological studies branch gets about two dozen requests a year to conduct health studies of areas where unusual disease patterns or serious industrial hazards are suspected. She said all the requests are followed up, but that typically only one or two per year result in "an extensive study" because of staffing constraints, or lack of good leads or persuasive evidence. But she said the department in many cases produces written reports or holds public meetings.

Don Wallace, president of the anti-nuclear Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition, expressed hope that Rockwell "would open the records of their employees for that part of the study. That would go a long way to assuring members of our coalition that they're really interested in finding the scope of the problem."

If such a request were made, Rockwell's legal staff would have to rule on it, company spokesman Pat Coulter said.

Most of Santa Susana's 2,668 acres are devoted to rocket testing for NASA and the Air Force.

But in the 1950s, part of the site became a major hub of nuclear research for the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Department of Energy. Work included fabrication and recycling of nuclear fuel, and operation of 16 small nuclear reactors, the last one decommissioned in the early 1980s. Much of the activity in recent years has been cleanup of contaminated soil and buildings.

Despite spills and accidents, Rockwell officials say no significant contamination ever left the site.

And in recent months state and federal agencies have said radioactive and chemical pollution awaiting cleanup at the site poses no immediate health threat.

Plans for the health inquiry were revealed at a recent meeting of the task force of agencies involved with cleanup of the site. About 50 citizens and officials attended the four-hour meeting at Simi Valley City Hall.

Rockwell official Steve Lafflam told the gathering that new data on ground water pollution under the DOE part of Santa Susana contained "no surprises." The most polluted water sample from 19 new monitoring wells contained the chemical solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, at a level of 1,200 parts per billion--well above the drinking water standard of 5 p.p.b., although there are no drinking water wells in the area. The presence of TCE in ground water there had been previously established.

But with ground water flowing toward the edge of the property, some tainted water probably has seeped off the site, said Jim Ross, an engineer with the Los Angeles regional office of the state Water Quality Control Board. Ross said Rockwell will drill off-site wells to investigate.

The discovery of off-site pollutions could trigger new attacks on Rockwell and increase cleanup costs.

TCE, used to rinse rocket engines and for other metal cleaning work, is much more concentrated in ground water in the NASA and Air Force portions of Santa Susana. Cleanup is already under way there, with aeration towers and other treatment systems treating about 500,000 gallons of ground water per day, Lafflam said.

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