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Study Renews Call for Lab Cleanup

October 07, 2006|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Concerned about the findings in a new environmental study, lawmakers and activists renewed their call Friday for stricter cleanup standards at a former nuclear and rocket engine testing site near Simi Valley.

An independent panel of scientists and environmental experts reported this week that emissions from a 1959 nuclear accident at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory may have caused hundreds of cancers in surrounding communities "over a period of many decades."

"I'm very happy to see these respected scientists validating what residents themselves have been saying and trying to say for years: that the nuclear meltdown has had a deleterious effect on residents in the area," said state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica).

Kuehl, whose district covers a small portion of the western San Fernando Valley below the lab, helped secure state funding for the five-year study that focused on potential off-site pollution and health effects stemming from nearly 60 years of operations at the hilltop facility, now owned by Boeing Co.

Among other findings, researchers concluded that chemical contamination from about 30,000 rocket engine tests at the site remain a threat to soil and groundwater surrounding the facility.

But a Boeing spokeswoman reiterated Friday that, based on a preliminary review, company scientists found the studies "significantly flawed, baseless and without scientific merit."

"They have reached conclusions that are totally refuted in two comprehensive reports," said spokeswoman Blythe Jameson, referring to two massive studies commissioned by Boeing in response to a lawsuit filed by former residents and employees.

In its report, the panel said it was limited in its ability to provide more specific information on what communities may have been exposed to carcinogens released from the nuclear meltdown because Boeing and the Department of Energy did not provide key information. Boeing officials dispute this claim.

Researchers said, for example, that without weather data to gauge wind directions and speed, they used statistical models, rather than hard data, to determine how far radioactive gases may have traveled from the site. "Scant and disconnected data prevented a quantitative assessment of what got out when," the report said.

Concerned about the spread of pollutants, Kuehl said, she has proposed three bills designed to regulate development in and around the lab, but all have failed. She said Boeing hired aggressive lobbyists to fight the proposed legislation.

"I hope we're able to bring a bill to the Legislature again," Kuehl said. "What we've tried to set is a higher cleanup level and ensure that houses and schools will not be built on that site."

Also Friday, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she hoped the panel's findings would help cleanup efforts. "This study further underscores just how critical the health threats are at the Rocketdyne site," Boxer said in a statement.

The Department of Energy announced in 2003 that the site would pose no significant threat to humans or the environment after it was cleaned up to at least minimum standards for radioactive contamination. Boxer vowed to appeal directly to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a full-scale environmental impact review.

But the EPA has resisted and has since scaled back its monitoring of cleanup at the site. The cleanup is being conducted by the Department of Energy, which ran the nuclear research program at the lab until it was shut down in the late 1980s.

Mike Lopez, an Oakland-based spokesman for the Department of Energy, said that he had not read the panel's new report but that his agency would ensure proper cleanup.

North American Aviation originally opened the Santa Susana lab in 1948 as a rocket engine testing site. The 2,850-acre lab, built on a rock-studded hilltop on Ventura County's eastern border, was later selected for nuclear research.

From the beginning, there were concerns about whether the Santa Susana location was the ideal choice because of growing populations in the nearby Simi and San Fernando valleys, according to the new study.

The panel that oversaw the study was created in the early 1990s by local legislators.

Consultants hired to conduct research for the study were chosen by panel members, including anti-nuclear activist Dan Hirsch, a longtime critic of the site's cleanup plans.

He was teaching at UCLA in 1979 when his students discovered film of the 1959 accident that showed how more than a dozen uranium fuel rods in the reactor ruptured and partly melted. The discovery led to widespread publicity about the accident.

Hirsch defended his role in the new study, saying he may have had a voice in selecting consultants but that he had no say in their conclusions.

Among the key researchers were Jan Beyea, a physicist and expert in atmospheric modeling. He is chief scientist for Consulting in the Public Interest based in New Jersey, which provides scientific expertise to environmental groups and others.

Another researcher was Steven Wing, co-chairman of the advisory panel and an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The study can be read at www.ssflpanel.org.

amanda.covarrubias

@latimes.com

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