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Senator Seeks Tougher Cleanup Standards at Rocketdyne Lab

Environment: Dianne Feinstein favors using stringent EPA rules over current guidelines.

May 08, 1999|GARY POLAKOVIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is urging the Clinton administration to adopt more stringent standards in cleaning up Rocketdyne's field lab near Simi Valley, a move that could dramatically increase the cost of restoring land contaminated by radioactive and chemical wastes.

Feinstein joins a growing list of state and local elected officials who in recent weeks have demanded broader research and a firmer response to pollution threats at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Ventura County.

In a series of letters dated May 5, Feinstein urged Clinton administration officials to require cleanup standards for radioactive and chemical wastes up to 100 times more stringent than those required by the Department of Energy, which currently oversees the cleanup of radioactive wastes on 90 acres at the site.

Feinstein proposes that tough standards applied by the Environmental Protection Agency be used instead.

"This laboratory and the chemical and radioactive waste produced there are close to residential neighborhoods," Feinstein said in a prepared statement. "Given the proximity to people and their homes, the federal government should take extra caution to make sure the Santa Susana site is cleaned up adequately."

Feinstein's involvement elevates what has been a local and regional issue to a national concern. The lab, which is still in operation, played a key role in the Cold War testing of rocket and missile engines and nuclear reactors.

Rocketdyne's 2,700-acre facility in the hills between Simi Valley and Chatsworth is undergoing a $148-million cleanup, which is expected to be completed by 2006, funded by the Department of Energy.

Government and company officials said they did not know how much more time or money it would take to make the cleanup meet more stringent EPA standards, although they say the expense will likely be greater.

Phil Rutherford, manager of radiation safety for Rocketdyne, said most of the radioactive cleanup work at the lab is already accomplished. He said attaining the EPA limits would be "practically impossible and not cost-effective."

"You're not buying any more health protection," Rutherford said.

In addition to urging tougher standards, Feinstein asked Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala to provide funds for a study to assess whether people living near the lab were adversely affected by contaminants.

Residents, environmental activists and lawmakers have advocated such a study, following the recent release of epidemiological studies by UCLA researchers showing workers at the lab exposed to toxic chemicals and radiation experienced more cancers than their colleagues.

Among lawmakers who have recently urged health agencies and Rocketdyne to undertake such a study are state Sen. Cathie Wright (D-Simi Valley), Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), and Ventura County Supervisor Judy Mikels.

So far, the state Department of Health Services has not decided whether to pursue a full-blown community health study. The undertaking would be costly--merely assessing the feasibility of such a study would cost $300,000 --and UCLA scientists said it would be difficult to accomplish because it may be impossible to determine who, if anyone, living near the lab was exposed to hazardous substances.

However, critics of the state health agency charge that officials there have not shared all they know about health risks associated with Rocketdyne pollution. They point to two surveys in the 1990s that showed elevated rates of some cancers in communities around the lab. The findings of those studies, obtained and released by activists and lawmakers, have been challenged by Rocketdyne and state health officials.

Nevertheless, Gov. Gray Davis on Monday removed state health officials from overseeing health studies involving Rocketdyne, in response to the allegations that the agency suppressed studies showing increased cancer rates in surrounding communities.

Davis asked that the director of the California Environmental Protection Agency investigate whether health officials colluded with Rocketdyne to keep the studies secret. State and company officials have denied that allegation.

But Rocketdyne officials have said they will spend the next few months working with state officials to assess whether anyone in the community was exposed to hazardous wastes.

Rocketdyne operated as many as 10 nuclear reactors at the lab before 1989. Solvents used to clean rocket engines, tools and other equipment were spilled and leaked into soil, polluting ground water in the area.

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