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Military Urged to Expand Rocketdyne Cleanup Duty

October 15, 1999|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California lawmakers are calling on the Pentagon to take a greater share of the environmental cleanup at Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory west of Chatsworth.

In a letter this week, U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) urged U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen to "take a more active role" in the ongoing cleanup efforts at the lab site, "especially on the issue of rocket engine tests."

The lawmakers want Cohen to prepare by Jan. 1 a report on the history of Defense Department-sponsored rocket-engine testing at the field lab, and to send representatives to an Environmental Protection Agency working group scheduled for early next year.

The letter follows a recent NASA report that suggests the Defense Department bears responsibility for a greater share of pollution at the site than believed earlier.

The U.S. Department of Energy is in the midst of a $148-million cleanup at Rocketdyne's hilltop facility. NASA also has been involved but until now the Defense Department's role has been minimal.

"It wouldn't be accurate to say they haven't done anything to date, but the Department of Defense hasn't been a major player," said Matthew Kagan, Boxer's Southern California director. "There are now strong indications that the Department of Defense is responsible for a large share of the pollution at the Rocketdyne site and Sen. Boxer believes it's appropriate for them to take a larger role in the cleanup effort."

The letter doesn't ask the Defense Department for money. But that would very likely be the next step, if NASA's assertions are correct, officials said.

Beginning in the 1940s Rocketdyne's lab was a test site for the federal government, and during the Cold War it was used to test rocket engines and develop nuclear reactors. The company, now a division of Boeing, stopped handling nuclear fuel at the site in 1989, but years' worth of radioactive waste remained in the soil.

Rocketdyne spokesman Dan Beck said the letter to Cohen has no bearing on the company's cleanup schedule.

"We're proceeding with the cleanup as aggressively as we can," he said. "If the Defense Department needs any data, we will cooperate with them fully. But it really is something that will have to be worked out between Defense and Energy."

Most of the site cleanup is expected to be complete by 2006, with the exception of ongoing monitoring and treatment of area water.

Barbara Johnson, a Susana Knolls resident who serves on the EPA's cleanup oversight committee, applauded the Cohen letter.

"I think the people that polluted should be the ones who do the cleanup, and the more money we get for the cleanup, the better the cleanup that will be done," she said.

"I'm very pleased our lawmakers are being responsible to their constituents by searching for all avenues to get the cleanup done in the proper manner, but I think Rocketdyne should be responsible too. They caused the pollution, even though it was a government contract, and they should be responsible for paying for some of the cleanup."

The federal government, meanwhile, is in the process of deciding whether to launch a broad-based public health assessment. Activists hope such a study could bolster lawsuits that contend activities at the site contributed to cancer in nearby residents and environmental damage.

A decision on whether to conduct such a study is expected next month.

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