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Boeing faces fines over field lab runoff

Rocket-engine testing facility near Simi Valley allowed toxins to flow into nearby canyons and the Los Angeles River, state regulators say.

July 27, 2007|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Boeing Co. faces a nearly $500,000 fine for allegedly allowing excessive levels of lead, mercury and other toxins to flow from its Santa Susana Field Lab in Ventura County into surrounding canyons and the Los Angeles River, regulators said Thursday.

The 21-page complaint issued this week by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board said that Boeing, which purchased the former nuclear and rocket-engine testing facility 11 years ago, improperly controlled wastewater and storm water runoff from its 2,800-acre property in the hills separating Simi Valley and Chatsworth.

"Boeing is a sophisticated [company], engaged at the site in high-risk military- and aerospace-related activities that involve a variety of atypical toxic and other nonconventional pollutants that pose a significant risk to human health and the environment," the complaint said. "Boeing's chronic failure to have developed an adequate infrastructure to prevent, and therefore to abate conditions that give rise to repeated violations of its effluent limitations is exceedingly serious."

Boeing Corp. spokeswoman Blythe Jameson said the company is reviewing the regulator's complaint, which seeks a $464,190 fine for 79 violations of its water discharge permit from Oct. 17, 2004, through Jan. 14, 2006, plus reimbursement of $7,000 in staff costs.

"At this point we're evaluating it to see what the next step will be," Jameson said.

During those 15 months, the water board alleges Boeing reported that it discharged more than 118 million gallons of inadequately treated water, which exceeded standards for numerous pollutants, including chloride, chromium, copper, dioxins, iron, lead, manganese and mercury. But the the board said it knew of no health effects on wildlife or humans.

State law allows the water board to levy fines of $3,000 to $10,000 per violation, which means Boeing could receive up to $790,000 in penalties. The regional water board, which is expected to vote on the matter at its Oct. 4 meeting, can decide to adjust the fine suggested by staff or negotiate with Boeing for another amount.

Boeing has faced water board fines before. From August 1998 to January 2006, the company reported 132 violations of its pollution permit. After negotiations with the water board's staff, fines were imposed on 13 of the violations from January 2000 through April 2001, and Boeing waived a hearing and made the full minimum payment of $39,000.

Deborah Smith, interim executive officer of the regional water board, said that at least 10 factors are considered in setting fines, including the circumstances, the gravity of the violation, the degree of the discharge's toxicity and the degree of culpability.

"It is our intent to ensure that our enforcement and permitting actions will assure that Boeing expeditiously comes into compliance," Smith said.

The current complaint states that Boeing "chronically exceeded permit violations since at least August 1998."

Daniel Hirsch, president of the anti-nuclear group Committee to Bridge the Gap, said the water board's fines provide little deterrent to Boeing, a multibillion-dollar corporation.

"Boeing will spend more than the $400,000 just to get the fine overturned," Hirsch said. "This is far from a done deal. Boeing is likely to fight it kicking and screaming. Continued violations of the pollution laws appears to be inevitable, because Boeing still just doesn't get it."

greg.griggs@latimes.com

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