You would think that rocket scientists, of all people, would have realized it was a bad idea to dump 230,000 gallons of the carcinogenic solvent trichloroethylene into unlined ponds to soak into the ground and water tables below.
But that's just what was done at Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Lab between the Simi and San Fernando valleys, according to court documents filed by the company.
Granted, most of that dumping took place in the 1950s, when winning the Cold War was the mission and today's levels of environmental awareness and litigiousness existed only in the nightmares of corporate attorneys.
But now we know that the Rocketdyne lab left a mess. Cleanup that began in 1989 is expected to continue until 2006 and cost $55 million. It is similarly important to clean up the company's record of secrecy and deceit.
The facts are emerging largely through lawsuits. Recent reports that UCLA researchers have found an increased risk of cancer deaths among some Rocketdyne workers predictably has touched off a new round of suits from neighbors of the lab.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins sent back for reworking a proposed class-action suit that could turn into the biggest yet--with up to half a million potential plaintiffs, some as far as 10 miles from the lab.
That suit claims that Rocketdyne's field lab and three San Fernando Valley facilities contaminated nearby homes and businesses. Rocketdyne responded that none of the plaintiffs has shown proof that he or she suffered any damages and that attempts to expand the suit to include all the other neighbors "are based upon unfounded generalizations, speculation and self-serving conclusions."
Collins ruled that the suit was too broadly focused and inadequately supported for the narrow constraints of class-action law. But she gave lawyers two more months to revise it.
We applaud the judge for recognizing that there may be a valid claim here that needs to be more firmly established before the case goes further. Those who truly have suffered medically or financially because of the lab are owed fair compensation, but Rocketdyne is not a pinata holding rewards for anyone who happens to live within 10 miles.
We encourage efforts to fairly and completely establish the truth, to clean up the legacy of deceit with the same care being used to clean up the toxic remains.