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California rejects Superfund listing for Rocketdyne site

The state holds out for its own stricter cleanup standards for the former rocket engine and nuclear testing facility near Chatsworth and Simi Valley. Activists are pleased.

January 13, 2009|Catherine Saillant

California's top environmental cop Monday rejected an offer to list the contaminated Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Lab near Simi Valley as a federal Superfund cleanup site, saying the state can do the job quicker and more thoroughly.

Linda Adams, secretary for environmental protection, said she was concerned that a federal listing would allow the three parties responsible for removing toxic substances from the 2,850-acre former rocket engine and nuclear testing facility to skirt stricter cleanup standards set forth in recently passed state legislation.

Enacted last year, Senate Bill 990 requires lab owner Boeing, the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA to clean the hilltop property to a level suitable for residential and agricultural use.

Residents near the hilltop facility had long pushed for such a standard, fearing that anything less would subject them to downstream health risks associated with soil contaminated by years of rocket and nuclear testing.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 14, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Rocketdyne site: An article in Tuesday's California section about the cleanup of the contaminated Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Lab near Simi Valley said Boeing acquired the lab in 2006. The purchase was made in 1996.

A Superfund-administered cleanup would allow Boeing and its partners to meet a lower federal standard, Adams told reporters in a conference call.

"We feel under the state's watch we can accomplish a cleanup that goes further," Adams said.

Adams' announcement was hailed by citizen watchdogs, who praised the secretary for refusing to back off of tougher requirements despite intense lobbying.

"We are grateful to Secretary Adams and the governor for taking this stance," said Marie Mason, a member of the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition and a 35-year resident of the Santa Susana Knolls, just below the defunct testing facility. "They have been lobbying heavily in Washington to get on the Superfund list. When polluters are asking to be put on the Superfund list, you have to ask, 'What's wrong with that picture?' "

Representatives for Boeing and the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA could not be reached for comment.

In an August 2007 consent decree, state regulators gave the operators 10 years to clean up contaminated soil and install a water-cleansing mechanism. The Department of Energy is in the midst of a survey to analyze levels of chemical and radioactive contamination, Adams said.

That work will continue with Monday's announcement, she said. Operators must meet a series of cleanup deadlines or face fines of up to $15,000 a day.

The field lab was the site of nuclear testing under previous owner Rockwell International. Federal agencies, including the Department of Energy, conducted nuclear research at the lab over four decades, ceasing operations in the late 1980s.

In 1959, a partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor took place but was kept secret for two decades. Boeing acquired the problem-riddled field lab property when it absorbed Rockwell's aerospace and defense businesses in 2006.

Boeing has primary responsibility for restoring the property in the Santa Susana Mountains between Simi Valley and Chatsworth. In 2007, it announced that it would donate the land for open space and parkland once it has been cleaned up.

Adams said the state's refusal to list the property as a Superfund site should not slow cleanup efforts that are underway. The cost of scrubbing soil and water -- expected to mount into the millions -- will be paid by for Boeing and the other operators, the secretary said.

Activist Dan Hirsch said the community would keep a close eye on the progress. His Committee to Bridge the Gap first raised the alarm about the partial meltdown and potential contamination at the former Rocketdyne site, he said.

"There are carcinogens in the soil, and they move off that mountain every time the wind blows or the rains come," Hirsch said. "It's a health issue."

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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