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Rocketdyne Study Leaves Questions

Early findings indicate contaminants from a lab near Simi Valley may have traveled by water, soil and air to neighboring areas.

August 21, 2003|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Saying there are gaps in crucial data, UCLA scientists presented an update on a study showing how chemicals from Rocketdyne may have traveled off site by air, soil and water, possibly affecting the health of Simi Valley and San Fernando Valley residents.

The four scientists at a public meeting Tuesday evening said early analysis indicated an alphabet soup of chemicals, metals and radiation -- including trichloroethylene, a solvent used to clean rocket engines, and perchlorate, a contaminant used in rocket fuel -- moved from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory to neighboring areas. But it remained unclear how much of it spread and exactly where it went.

Because of factors beyond their control, including weather conditions, geology and chunks of missing data, experts may never fully understand the "exposure pathways" of hundreds of chemicals used at the field lab to test rocket engines and nuclear energy.

"We're trying to answer the question, 'Where did the chemicals originate and where are they going?' in a rigorous and scientific way," said Yoram Cohen, a chemical engineering professor who is leading the study.

About 100 people heard the scientists' presentation. The final report should be completed in December. A related study is being conducted by a UCLA epidemiologist on the health effects of chemical exposure to Rocketdyne workers and neighbors.

The $340,000, three-year study is being funded by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Although researchers analyzed hundreds of inventory reports, monitoring studies, land-use permits and other data gathered during the last 50 years on the field lab, the final results will rely heavily on estimating and extrapolating, Cohen said. That is because many of the procedures and materials were not well documented or monitored. Instead of pinpointing exactly how many chemicals residents may have been exposed to and in what quantities, they will provide a range of exposures based on conservative estimates, Cohen said.

The areas being reviewed are Bell Canyon, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Sage Ranch, Simi Valley, Santa Susana Knolls, Chatsworth, Ahmanson Ranch, West Hills, Canoga Park and Woodland Hills.

Although many in the audience thanked the researchers for their work, antinuclear activist Dan Hirsch, a longtime critic of the testing site, was skeptical. He said that most of the data came from Rocketdyne, which has a vested interest in providing information that will lessen its responsibility for polluting the area.

Cohen vigorously denied the contention, saying data came from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District and private consultants.

"That UCLA is taking sides with one party, I think, is preposterous," Cohen said. "We have no qualms about conducting our research one way or another. We have no agreement with anyone as to which way this thing is going."

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