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Work Group To Dig Into Perchlorate

Dec 9, 2002 | Ventura County Star

The recent discovery of perchlorate in 15 Simi Valley wells, and the ongoing debate about cleanup of the Boeing Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Lab, continue to leave local residents with nagging questions about potential risks to public health and frustration about the lengthy process of resolving complex issues.

"All those chemicals up there, it just makes you wonder," said Moorpark resident Ralph Lopez. He said the recent discovery of perchlorate in Simi Valley ground water and the chemical's association with rocket fuel have him wondering about his own health problems.

While the source of perchlorate contamination in Simi Valley wells has not been linked to Rocketdyne, Lopez said he is concerned about the chemical and its link to thyroid disorders. While he has had a few other jobs since then, Lopez worked at the Santa Susana lab for 17 years and was exposed to various chemicals. He was recently diagnosed with a thyroid disorder that will require lifetime medication.

Perchlorate, and its causes and effects, is one of several topics to be addressed at the public Santa Susana Work Group meeting, scheduled for Wednesday evening. The work group, made up of representatives from federal and state agencies and a citizens oversight committee, is charged with working out a plan, agreeable to all, to clean up chemical and radioactive contamination at the Rocketdyne site. Agreement among participants, however, has been hard to come by.

The meetings came to a halt earlier this year when the forums turned into bitter arguments between members of the panel and angry outbursts from the audience. The meetings have now been revamped in a way that officials hope will be more productive.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is serving as the referee of sorts for the work group meetings and has issued a plea for participants to try to "agree to disagree." An open house has been added to the program format so citizens can meet with government officials individually.

While the Rocketdyne facility is the primary source of debate, Rocketdyne officials are conspicuously absent from the cleanup panel. Rocketdyne officials said they were asked to step down a few years ago, when events surrounding contamination at the site became so controversial it was determined the proceedings would move along better if they sat quietly in the audience and observed.

"It's too bad," said Rocketdyne spokeswoman Blyth Jameson, "I think we would have a lot to offer."

Jameson said Rocketdyne has cleaned up 99 percent of the contamination at the site and has been waiting for the past two years for the U.S. Department of Energy to decide what to do with the remaining 3 acres that need to be cleaned up.

Most of the disagreement continues to center around the level of cleanup for the former nuclear test site that suffered a nuclear accident in the 1950s. Mike Lopez, DOE project manager responsible for Rocketdyne and issues regarding the remaining radioactive and chemical contamination at Rocketdyne, said the department has still not made a final decision about cleaning up the site. The DOE still favors a lesser environmental study and level of cleanup than what the EPA recommends but claims it will adequately protect the public.

The EPA has proposed a more stringent cleanup program but does not have authority over the DOE, which is responsible for the Rocketdyne issues.

"We feel there is additional work that needs to be done, but we are not the regulating authority," said John Beach, spokesman for the EPA. "We are going to try to come to some resolution."

Critics say the DOE's proposal is woefully inadequate, leaving 99 percent of the contamination behind. Without a proper environmental assessment, they fear homes will one day be built on the site. Dan Hirsch, president of an oversight committee concerned with cleanup of the site, said citizens have reason for concern.

"That is one of the only places in the world that suffered a partial reactor meltdown, and they are refusing to do an environmental impact study," Hirsch said.

Hirsch said he is also increasingly concerned that perchlorate, found in high concentrations at the Santa Susana Lab, is migrating from the site into Simi Valley and Ahmanson Ranch ground water. Rocketdyne officials maintain studies conducted by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control do not show a link between the findings in Simi Valley and the field lab.

Acceptable levels of perchlorate in drinking water is currently a topic of debate. Early monitoring by the state Department of Health Services has identified 284 contaminated wells in 10 counties served by the Colorado River, which affects primarily areas of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, as well as Nevada, Arizona and northern Baja. State health officials identify the source of pollution in the Colorado River as a perchlorate manufacturing plant in Henderson, Nev.

Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said the proposed acceptable levels of perchlorate under debate range from 2 ppb to 6 parts per billion. The current "action level" is 4 ppb. Samples from Simi Valley ground water indicate levels five times higher than the action level and 600 times higher at the Rocketdyne site.

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