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No Disposing of Tragedy : More answers needed on Rockwell's hazardous-waste violations

April 21, 1996

Nearly 21 months have passed since two physicists from Rockwell International's Rocketdyne division died in a suspicious blast in the hills bordering Ventura and Los Angeles counties. And as much as we would like to see this tragedy finally laid to rest, it is still good that investigations are continuing.

It has taken far too long to finally get to the truth of what happened on that day in July 1994, when a suspicious explosion shook the grounds around Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory with such force that it was initially mistaken for an earthquake.

Physicists Otto K. Heiney and Larry A. Pugh were killed, and a third person was injured. Almost immediately, a Rockwell spokesman hinted at a legitimate experiment gone sadly awry. The physicists supposedly were conducting a controlled burn of a catalyst for solid-fuel rocket motors and were about to measure blast waves.

The truth is that Rockwell has finally pleaded guilty in federal court to three felony counts involving the illegal disposal of hazardous wastes. The physicists were burning the wastes to get rid of them. Rockwell agreed to pay the U.S. Treasury $6.5 million in fines, a heavy hit on anyone but a company as big as Rockwell. And it has settled wrongful-death lawsuits by the families of the dead.

Rockwell's chief executive and Rocketdyne's president have denied knowledge of the illegal disposal of a volatile explosive.

That's odd, since state and federal officials in 1989 ordered Rocketdyne to stop burning or blowing up toxic waste. Odd, since Rockwell paid a $650,000 settlement for waste-disposal violations in 1992 at Santa Susana and other locations.

Guess a paltry $650,000 just doesn't reach the radar screens of the corporate upper echelons these days. Too bad it took a couple of deaths to get there.

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