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House Approves Funds to Clean Rocketdyne Site

Environment: Senate and the president still must vote to fully restore money for the $17-million project.

July 01, 2001|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Activists pushing for a timely cleanup of Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory near Chatsworth have moved one step closer to victory after the U.S. House voted to restore full funding for the project this past week.

Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) led the push to return $3.7 million to the cleanup budget, bringing the total back to the $17 million that cleanup advocates expected. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Woodland Hills) also supported the effort.

"It was not an easy task," Gallegly said. "The best tool you can have is to have the justification and the right arguments. And certainly in this case we did."

Cleanup of the Department of Energy's portion of the lab site, now owned by Boeing Co., is meant to rid soil, buildings and water of contamination from decades of rocket-engine testing and Cold War-era nuclear research. The budget cuts threatened to slow cleanup by at least two years.

Full funding for the project must still be approved by the Senate and President Bush. Gallegly says he is not worried about those approvals.

Dan Hirsch, a nuclear policy activist and longtime Rocketdyne critic, praised the congressmen for their work, but said his camp is hardly celebrating.

"None of us were very happy with the cleanup that was occurring before," he said. "This action, if confirmed by the Senate, will merely return the situation to the status quo."

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham earlier this year proposed cleanup cuts at dozens of nuclear testing and production sites around the country, including Rocketdyne. The list included two other sites in California--the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the General Electric Vallecitos Nuclear Center, both near Oakland.

If Congress were to restore across-the-board funding at those sites, it would cost an additional $467 million.

Also last week, the House approved funding for several other Ventura County projects Gallegly has lobbied for. These include $4.1 million in repairs to Ventura Harbor; $1.7 million for a fish ladder on Santa Paula Creek; and $523,000 for a feasibility study to remove Matilija Dam.

It was the Rocketdyne cleanup budget, however, that has drawn the most attention from county officials and residents. The $17 million for the coming fiscal year is only part of a $250-million effort that is currently scheduled for completion in 2007.

Even if the cleanup proceeds as scheduled, another Rocketdyne issue remains unresolved: Will the Environmental Protection Agency take the lead on a long-awaited radiation survey of the site?

The Energy Department has the responsibility to pay for the survey. But critics said they don't trust the agency. So the EPA promised to provide one of its scientists--who exposed questionable cleanup practices at the site years ago--to lead the effort.

The EPA then backed away from its promise earlier this year, saying it couldn't free up the manpower to lead the effort. Local critics lashed out.

Gallegly made an appeal to EPA administrator Christie Whitman. Whitman promised the EPA would honor its original agreement, contingent on the Energy Department providing sufficient funds.

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