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Executive Sentenced in '94 Blast

A former Rocketdyne official gets probation for violations linked to two scientists' deaths.

January 28, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

A former Rocketdyne executive was fined $5,000 and sentenced to one year of probation Monday for environmental violations that prosecutors blame for a deadly 1994 blast at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory near Chatsworth.

Joseph E. Flanagan, 62, of Stanwood, Wash., pleaded guilty in June to two misdemeanor charges of illegally storing explosive materials. He faced a maximum of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine on each count.

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin rejected a plea by the prosecutor to send the former director of Rocketdyne's Chemical Technology Group to prison for 10 months. Assistant U.S. Atty. William Carter argued again Monday that Flanagan deserved to go to prison because the environmental violations led to the deaths of two scientists.

Flanagan was sentenced on two counts that his attorney, John D. Vandevelde, described as "very technical, regulatory misdemeanors."

"This has been an 8 1/2-year nightmare for Dr. Flanagan," Vandevelde said. "He feels terrible about this accident that took the lives of two of his colleagues, and he has always maintained that he was not responsible for anything that led to their deaths. He is glad this is finally over."

A federal grand jury indicted Flanagan and two of his subordinates on the more serious violations of the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in April 1999. No one was charged directly with the deaths.

Carter had argued that scientists were illegally burning waste at the test site July 26, 1994, when the chemicals ignited and caused an explosion. Otto K. Heiney, 53, of Canoga Park, and Larry A. Pugh, 51, of Thousand Oaks, were killed instantly, and a third worker was burned.

Although Flanagan was not at the lab when the blast occurred, Carter has alleged that he supervised the workers and knew about the illegal burnings.

Defense attorneys argued that the materials were not waste but excess, and were being used in legitimate scientific research.

Rocketdyne paid a $202,500 fine to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health for violating state worker-safety rules and for failing to notify the agency where and when the explosives were being used.

Cal/OSHA's 1996 report called the alleged tests "a disguise for destroying waste explosive materials" and concluded the scientists were illegally disposing of 160 pounds of waste, a little at a time.

Flanagan was originally charged with two felony counts of illegally burning chemical waste at the field lab on July 21 and 26, 1994, and one felony count of illegal waste storage. Those charges each carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Flanagan, the group's hazardous waste manager, entered a guilty plea to the misdemeanor charges after a Riverside jury deadlocked 10 to 2 in March in favor of guilt on the felony counts. The trial was held in Riverside because the federal case was randomly assigned to a judge there.

James F. Weber, 53, of Moorpark pleaded guilty in August 2001 to one count of illegally storing explosive materials and also was sentenced to one year of probation. Technician Edgar R. Wilson, 66, of Chatsworth is awaiting retrial later this year.

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