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State to Finally Deliver Research Funds

Scientist has been waiting for a year for $150,000 to study possible effects of operations at Rocketdyne lab on nearby residents' health.


SIMI VALLEY — We have all heard it before: "The check is in the mail."

Scientist and nuclear energy critic Dan Hirsch has been hearing it from state officials for more than a year.

The Legislature voted to give $150,000 to an independent panel of scientists, co-chaired by Hirsch, to examine potential links between nearby residents' health problems and years of nuclear and rocket engine testing at Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

"The money was supposed to be made available on July 1, 1999," Hirsch said. "Bureaucracy has moved very slowly."

Now, it appears the money really is on its way--although Hirsch said he won't believe it until he sees it.

Following recent inquiries by Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who had pushed for the funding since 1998, and by The Times, the state finalized a contract needed to release the money this week, said Edward Fong, a spokesman for the California Environmental Protection Agency. The panel could receive its money within two weeks.

"Yes, it's taken longer than they would have liked and probably [longer] than we would have liked," Fong said. "It all had to do with sorting through the legal bureaucratic aspects of state contracting."

Hirsch's panel is an ad hoc group created a decade ago through money from the Department of Energy, but the state does not consider it a legal entity for contracting purposes. Officials needed to locate a nonprofit group that could collect the funds on behalf of the panel--the stated reason for the delay. A San Francisco nonprofit group, the Tides Center, has been selected to administer the funds.

Meanwhile, Kuehl--who learned about the delay only last week--said she is angry the process has dragged on for so long. "I think it's outrageous," she said. "This health study is critical."

Gov. Gray Davis put the $150,000 in last year's state budget to continue the early work of Hirsch's panel. By the end of the 1990s, under the panel's oversight, a team of UCLA researchers determined there was a link between low-level radiation and chemical exposure at the facility and elevated cancer rates among workers at Rocketdyne, which is now a Boeing Co. division.

Hirsch's team wanted to expand its work to look at health problems in the general population within close proximity to the facility, but had run out of money, he said. Davis, who was elected governor in 1998, agreed that continuing the panel's funding should be a priority.

Meanwhile, following the discovery of damaging documents in the spring of 1999, Kuehl accused state health officials of colluding with Rocketdyne to suppress a 1997 study showing elevated cancer rates around the Simi Valley site.

Davis removed the Department of Health Services from overseeing contamination studies at the Rocketdyne facility and transferred his $150,000 appropriation from that department to Cal EPA officials.

State investigators later criticized the Department of Health Services for working too closely with Rocketdyne, in a way that undermined the oversight panel's authority.

In the meantime, the federal government has contracted with a private company and a group of UCLA researchers to conduct a separate $600,000 study of Rocketdyne and any potential links to off-site health problems.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, based in Atlanta, issued a preliminary report last year, finding no evidence of a link between neighbors' illnesses and nuclear and rocket work at the facility, but promised the community a follow-up study.

Hirsch and some area residents have asserted that the study is doomed before it gets off the ground because the researchers are being asked to rely on Rocketdyne-generated data and federal data that they consider incomplete. Rocketdyne disagrees, and company spokesman Dan Beck said he believes the agency-commissioned study will be objective.

Regarding Hirsch, Beck said the scientist, former director of UC Santa Cruz's Program on Nuclear Policy, "certainly does have a bias against Rocketdyne."

"But if the state is determined to invest taxpayer money into his effort, presumably that means he has the right to move forward."

Hirsch wants the independent panel to consider broader data than the UCLA researchers have been asked to analyze.

For example, if Rocketdyne and the federal government lack sufficient data for scientists to understand precisely what resulted from a partial meltdown that occurred at the site in 1959, Hirsch wants to build a computer model to estimate what the impact might have been, based on existing studies of health in off-site populations around nuclear sites elsewhere in the country.

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