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Time to study Boeing lab is sought

State is considering whether to back bid for Superfund status.

January 16, 2008|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

The state's top environmental officer Tuesday asked federal officials for more time to decide if California should back an effort to make Boeing's Santa Susana Field Laboratory a Superfund cleanup site.

Linda S. Adams, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, said the state might be better positioned to make Boeing more quickly remove the rocket fuel and nuclear test contamination that was left at the site near Chatsworth.

"We want a little more time to determine if [a Superfund] listing will be advantageous or not," Adams said during a conference call that included leaders from the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We think it's very important to partner with federal EPA but . . . we are concerned that [a Superfund] listing at this time might actually slow down the process."

Cleanup efforts at several Superfund sites across the nation have been plagued by years of delay.

Soil and water poisoned with the industrial solvent trichloroethylene forced the closure of on-site drinking wells at the former Rocketdyne field lab in 1980. And 32 years of nuclear testing at the lab produced radioactive pollutants that have tainted water at the site.

Unless removed, officials fear that the contamination could affect municipal drinking water supplies in the future.

State officials had asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take the lead in evaluating radioactive contamination at the lab, a process that until recently had been overseen by the Department of Energy.

However, Lisa Fasano, a spokeswoman for the federal EPA's regional office, said it was unclear whether that evaluation could be made without a Superfund designation.

"We are uncertain about the authority and resources to do the work, but we will work with the state on finding the best way to meet its request," Fasano said.

Daniel Hirsch, president of the nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap, said Tuesday that his group had pushed to get federal EPA officials to consider the site for Superfund status, which if approved could mean tens of millions of dollars in future funding.

The federal agency then asked state officials for their opinion.

Hirsch acknowledged that a Superfund designation also would require a multitude of legal steps that could delay getting the hilltop property sufficiently clean to protect public health.

Six months gives state officials "enough time for the resolution of any issues with Boeing, and also a chance to see if there is any downside to a Superfund listing," Hirsch said.

In September, Boeing pledged that it would clean up its portion of the land -- 2,400 acres -- to acceptable community standards and turn it over to the state. NASA owns the remaining 450 acres.

Boeing spokeswoman Blythe Jameson said that the company, which is primarily responsible for cleaning the laboratory it purchased from Rockwell International in the summer of 1996, has not altered its pledge to decontaminate the property.

"Even though it's going to be parkland, we're still going to clean up to residential standards. That has not changed," Jameson said. "We'll continue to work with the governor's office, the various regulatory agencies as well as [state] Sen. [Sheila] Kuehl to make sure this remains on track."

After failing to get enough support to put pressure on Boeing for more than a decade, Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) got the Legislature to pass a law last year to force the company to return the land to the cleanest possible levels.

"I'm delighted," Kuehl said Tuesday from Sacramento. "I give Secretary Adams a lot of credit for including residents and advocates in the conversation with the administration for the first time."

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greg.griggs@latimes.com

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