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Watchdog Group Keeps Rocketdyne on Short Leash

Environment: Coalition says it must remain vigilant to ensure that aerospace firm properly removes toxic and radioactive waste from Santa Susana lab. But company calls the effort overly critical.


SIMI VALLEY — For seven years now, the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition has prodded and pestered the big aerospace lab up on the hill.

Rocketdyne, these citizen watchdogs insist, is not their enemy, not quite.

But the dogged critics believe that without constant scrutiny the firm will do a shoddy job of cleaning up the toxic legacy of decades of nuclear and chemical research at its 2,668-acre Santa Susana Field Lab.

Rocketdyne officials and some employees call the coalition hypercritical, its chief spokesman annoying, and its stance overly distrustful of Rocketdyne's strong efforts in recent years to eradicate pollution from the rugged hilltop site between Simi Valley and Canoga Park.

Yet the coalition--dozens of Rocketdyne neighbors gathered around a core group of ecologists, cancer survivors and anti-nuclear activists--keeps the pressure on.

"The real danger is that [Rocketdyne] will certify the area to be clean, they'll sell the land and the new tenants will find out years later, when it's too late, that the area's still dirty," said Daniel Hirsch, the coalition's de facto spokesman. "We're trying to prevent that."

When federal bureaucrats overseeing the cleanup moved on to other jobs, the coalition patiently brought their replacements up to speed; members filled in the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials on the decades of nuclear research and rocket tests that polluted Rocketdyne's field lab with chemicals and radiation.

And with Rocketdyne preparing to give a clean bill of health next year to the former site of the company's "hot lab" for handling nuclear fuel, the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition has turned up the heat under the EPA.

Hirsch and other coalition members are pressing the EPA to send in another independent inspector to make sure that Rocketdyne--already hit with several hefty fines for illegal waste disposal--is doing its best to ferret out and remove the toxins from the open-air lab.

Hirsch--a diehard activist with worn shoes, a battered Mazda subcompact and more than 20 years' experience in nuclear politics--says, "My job is to try to keep Rocketdyne honest."

But Rocketdyne sees the citizen activists as shrill and impossible to please.

"The last meeting we had of the Santa Susanna work group, I mean, it's like they couldn't believe anybody," including government agencies monitoring the cleanup, said Rocketdyne's Majelle Lee.

"We're making our best effort for cleanup, and they say, 'Well, tell us you've done enough sampling,' and I say, 'How do I convince you I've doing enough sampling?' " said Lee, program manager for cleanup of Rocketdyne's nuclear activities. "I don't know if they know what would satisfy them."

The Santa Susana Knolls must have seemed the perfect place to test rockets and reactors when North American Aviation opened the field lab in 1946.

The site's rocky canyons and natural amphitheaters were well-ventilated, somewhat fire-retardant and far from civilization.

But civilization crept in, setting the stage for conflict:

As the Cold War and the Space Race against the Soviets heated up top secret research at the field lab through the '50s, '60s and '70s, real estate agents began selling off dozens of hillside ranches around it.

Soon, Barbara Johnson's family had moved into a house on Black Canyon Road on the Simi Valley side of the hill, as had Dawn Kowalski's, Holly Huff's and Marie Mason's.

"I was raised around Rocketdyne," Huff said. "During the 1950s, it was a very top secret place. . . . Nobody knew what was going on up there."

At its height in the 1960s, the field lab employed 9,000 workers who used--and sometimes carelessly discarded--heavy metals, cancer-causing solvents and radioactive isotopes. And soon, the surrounding neighborhood was chockablock with homes.

"At the time, people didn't understand the environmental impact of what they were doing," Lee said.

In the spring of 1989, the U.S. Department of Energy--which oversaw nuclear research at the field lab--revealed that soil and water testing found radioactive pollution had leaked into ground water at the lab.

At first, Rocketdyne insisted that no radiation leakage had been found at the lab. The company also said no radiation had leaked off-site from the 16 nuclear reactors that ran there between the late 1940s and early 1980s or from the "hot lab" that processed nuclear fuel, the company said.

But Rocketdyne later admitted that radiation was found in water on-site and off-site.

The reports galvanized concerned San Fernando Valley residents such as Estelle Lit, Sheldon Plotkin and Jerome Raskin, who quickly gathered their neighbors into a coalition to call for an immediate investigation and cleanup.

Hirsch, who had already established himself as a Rocketdyne watchdog, joined the group soon after.

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