Federal agents swept through Rockwell International Corp. facilities in Canoga Park and Ventura County on Thursday, seizing environmental files in an investigation into how the firm disposed of hazardous and possibly toxic waste--and how the company billed the government for the cost.
About 20 agents from the FBI, NASA, the EPA and the U.S. Departments of Defense, Energy, Air Force and Navy confiscated files from the Rocketdyne Division's Canoga Park headquarters and its Santa Susana Field Laboratory near Simi Valley.
Court records pertaining to the raid and the search warrant the agents executed have been sealed, and none of the agencies involved would comment on the purpose of the raid.
However, a senior federal official said that a multi-agency criminal and civil investigation is looking into Rockwell's disposal of hazardous materials and its billings for the disposal.
The sophisticated rocket engines and nuclear reactors developed at Rocketdyne's 2,700-acre Santa Susana field lab since 1947 have produced a legacy of toxic chemical and radioactive byproducts, which the firm has paid to clean up.
One official said the current investigation does not focus on the disposal of radioactive waste.
Rocketdyne officials Thursday refused to say much about the raid beyond confirming that agents dug through files at the Canoga Park headquarters for about six hours, then left with Rockwell records.
"The agents stated that they were investigating environmental issues, and Rockwell is cooperating fully with them," said Rocketdyne spokeswoman Janet McClintock, reading from a prepared statement. She added: "I just don't know anything further."
Gary Auer, special agent in charge of the FBI's Ventura County office, confirmed that his agents executed a search warrant at Rockwell facilities.
FBI agents were joined by operatives from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Defense Inspector General's Office, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Navy and Air Force, he said.
But Auer would not comment on the purpose for the search warrant.
Under federal contracts, Rockwell would be reimbursed for the cost of disposing hazardous or toxic materials by whatever agency issued the contract that generated the waste.
Rocketdyne's Santa Susana facility was established 48 years ago as a rocket-testing site.
Many rockets used in U.S. space missions were developed there--including the massive space shuttle engines--and the basso thunder of testing still shakes surrounding neighborhoods in Simi Valley and the northwestern San Fernando Valley from time to time.
During the 1950s and 1960s, major nuclear research was done among the site's rocky hills on behalf of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and, later, the U.S. Department of Energy.
Beginning in 1956, 16 nuclear reactors were built and operated there. But the last of them was shut down and dismantled in the 1980s.
In 1989, Rockwell began a cleanup program of what it called mostly low-level chemical and radioactive contamination at the field lab--the residue of more than 30 years of research.
Rockwell officials have maintained for years that there has never been a significant release of contaminants from the facility.
But tests in 1991 revealed that low levels of tritium--a form of radioactive hydrogen--had seeped into ground water 100 feet northwest of the lab's property line.
Environmental officials said that the levels of radioactivity were far below the state's drinking water limits and posed no health risk to the public. Ground water in the area is not used for drinking.
A 1991 health study of Rocketdyne neighbors found higher-than-normal rates of bladder cancer for residents of three housing tracts in Canoga Park and Chatsworth than for Los Angeles County as a whole.
But in 1992, a two-year study by the California Department of Health Services found that neighbors within five miles of the lab faced no increased cancer risk.
Now, UCLA researchers are nearly two years into an exhaustive health study of 5,069 past and current Rocketdyne workers, trying to learn whether 235 cancer deaths among them can be linked to radiation or chemical exposure.
While Rocketdyne kept records of how much radiation workers were absorbing, company officials say they have lost their monitoring records on workplace levels of carcinogenic chemicals such as hydrazine and trichloroethylene.