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Wright to Seek State Health Study of Lab Workers, Neighbors : Environment: Bill would fund full-scale inquiry into effects of working with toxic and radioactive materials at Rockwell's Santa Susana laboratory.

January 11, 1990|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) saysshe will introduce legislation to require a state health study of workers and neighbors of Rockwell International's Santa Susana Field Laboratory in eastern Ventura County.

State health epidemiologists, responding to requests from area lawmakers and concerned residents, recently began a feasibility study to determine if such an investigation is warranted. But they said limited funds and competing research requests might prevent a full-scale study of the field lab west of Chatsworth, where Rockwell employees have worked for years with toxic and radioactive materials.

The bill is "the vehicle whereby the study would have to be done and it would also be funded by a special appropriation," said Michael Murphy, an aide to Wright.

Murphy said the bill will be introduced within two weeks as an "urgency measure" that would take effect when it is signed by the governor, instead of Jan. 1.

In a related development, regional water quality officials, responding to an inquiry from state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), said they have "acted with dispatch" to clean up chemically tainted ground water at the 2,668-acre test site in the Simi Hills.

However, the Jan. 5 letter from Robert P. Ghirelli, executive officer for the Los Angeles office of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, did not say why cleanup in the nuclear area at the field lab is years behind cleanup elsewhere on the site--which is apparently what triggered Torres' inquiry.

A Torres aide said Tuesday that the lawmaker would have no comment until "we . . . further study the response."

The letter to Torres, who chairs the Senate toxics committee, responded to questions he posed last month about the board's performance in solving the ground water problems. His inquiry followed release of new data showing that solvent-contaminated ground water in the area of the lab, which has been devoted to nuclear research for the U.S. Department of Energy, is flowing toward the property line and may have seeped off-site.

There are no drinking-water wells in the immediate area, and officials say the situation poses no direct threat to health. The main contaminant is trichloroethylene, or TCE, a cleaning compound that may raise the risk of cancer to those chronically exposed.

Rockwell is treating about 500,000 gallons per day of TCE-laced ground water in areas of Santa Susana devoted to rocket testing for NASA and the Air Force.

However, no similar cleanup is under way in the Energy Department area of the site, where Rockwell only recently installed a new series of monitoring wells to better determine the extent of pollution.

Under the board's supervision, Rockwell began investigating ground water contamination in the rocket testing areas in 1984 and later installed cleanup equipment.

But in the 290 acres controlled by the Energy Department, detailed ground water testing for TCE was not undertaken until last summer, after disclosures of contamination there.

Ghirelli noted that the state Department of Health Services, in May, 1988, took over from the water board as the "lead agency" supervising cleanup activities. But he did not say why less work had been done in the Energy Department areas.

Critics of the department have long complained of a double standard in which its operations often are years behind other industrial sites in complying with environmental standards.

In May, 1986, Rockwell told the water board that it had found solvent pollution in the Energy Department area, but could not conduct further tests for fear of drawing radioactively contaminated water from the basement of a former reactor building into the surrounding ground water. Rockwell said it was awaiting funds from the Energy Department to decontaminate the building, and the water board did not pursue the matter.

The department has proposed spending $34.6 million over several years to clean up chemical and radioactive pollution, which appears to exist mainly at low levels. Rockwell also will investigate whether TCE-laced ground water has seeped beyond the area's boundary.

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