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Trust Isn't the Only Issue; History Counts Too

Rocketdyne wants neighbors to believe that its cleanup is being accomplished in accordance with regulations. So why not hand over the process to a truly independent agency?

August 06, 2000|BEVERLY KELLEY | Beverly Kelley teaches communication courses at Cal Lutheran University. She may be reached via e-mail at

A window-rattling roar rolled me out of bed the first night I spent in Simi Valley. The rumble seemed to be coming from an inconspicuous sandstone bluff snuggled in the bosom of the chaparral-covered Santa Susana Mountains. Rocketdyne, a division of Rockwell International, I eventually learned, was merely full-throttle testing yet another rocket engine.

Perched on giant scaffolding for testing, these engines would eventually blast the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle astronauts heavenward or would help tilt the weapons race in America's favor.

From the 1950s through the '70s, these machines thundered around the clock. Rocketdyne's neighbors, however, remained uncharacteristically silent.

Most had no idea that a semi-secret complex of concrete bunkers, test pads and experimental nuclear reactors sprawled over the bouldered expanse.

Few thought to question the sweeping clouds of rust-colored smoke billowing from mighty Atlases, Thors and Jupiters. Even fewer were aware of noxious contamination migrating off-site to a nearby Jewish studies center and Sage Ranch.

Residents of West Hills, Canoga Park and Simi Valley--this is your final wake-up call. The folks at Rocketdyne are asking you to trust that a multimillion-dollar cleanup, paid for in part by taxpayers, is being accomplished in accordance with all federal and state regulations.

Don't forget, these are the same folks who failed for two decades to disclose that a nuclear reactor, crippled by a partial meltdown, released an undetermined measure of radioactive gas into the atmosphere in 1959. They are the same folks who, in 1996, pleaded guilty to three felony counts of mishandling hazardous chemicals during a July 1994 explosion in which two of their own scientists were killed. (They were ordered to pay a $6.5-million fine.) These are the same folks who were indicted in 1999 by a federal grand jury on four counts of violating U.S. environmental laws.

Certainly there must be some government agencies at the state or federal level that have the right stuff to persuade Rocketdyne to clean it up completely. Yet as I reviewed the lab's history, I found the alphabet soup of regulatory bodies has appeared more than reluctant to square off against the laboratory on the hill.

Case in point: In the early 1990s, local members of the state Assembly called for an independent oversight panel just after the state Department of Health Services (DHS) was fingered for suppressing a bladder cancer study Rocketdyne found especially embarrassing.

Fast-forward 10 years and watch history repeat itself. According to a recent investigation ordered by Gov. Gray Davis, DHS tried it again. A second cancer study was discovered squirreled away in a file drawer, a 1997 analysis that found 17% more lung cancer than expected among the 91,000 people living within five miles of the Rocketdyne campus.

No wonder battle-weary community activists such as Barbara Johnson, who has lived in the shadow of the testing site for 30 years, place little faith in the process and even less hope in the future. Dan Hirsch, head of the Los Angeles-based Committee to Bridge the Gap, has been fighting the good fight for 21 years. He's no longer surprised when watchdog bureaus roll over for Rocketdyne.


When the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Register was brought in at the request of Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) and U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein (both D-California), Hirsch warned that, after decades of disappointment, distrust of government ran deep. He believed local activists would wait to see "whether you were coming to do a thorough, dispassionate review or to perform a cursory review to provide support to a beleaguered company and associated agencies."

The skepticism was not ill-founded. Based on data provided by Rocketdyne and its faithful federal customers, the agency breezily concluded that half a century of rocket tests and nuclear research had caused no harm to the surrounding community. However, the scientists did end up diluting the whitewash by calling for further testing into airborne chemical releases and water quality as well as additional analysis of cancer statistics.

Here's a thought: Instead of returning to the Rocketdyne-friendly agency for the recommended follow-up, why not hand over the job to an independent oversight panel and stand back?


The countdown has started. Rocketdyne's efforts to mop up radioactive and chemical contaminants will soon be concluded--target date 2006. Rocketdyne spokesman Dan Beck says, "We feel that we have our arms wrapped around the contamination and are abiding by all state and federal laws regarding the cleanup."

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