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AGENCY HID ROCKETDYNE CANCER DATA; REPORT SAYS HEALTH OFFICE LIED TO PUBLIC.

Byline: Terri Hardy Sacramento Bureau

The state's health department lied to the public and improperly withheld cancer data about the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, according to a government report released Friday.

State officials felt resentful toward a citizens' committee overseeing health studies of the lab, secretly plotted to replace independent members of the panel and stalled work on a community health study even as Department of Health Services officials claimed they were making preparations for it, the report said.

``The public promises were false,'' said Dan Hirsch, a member of the citizens committee overseeing the public health studies.

Hirsch said the report verified what his group had claimed all along - that the state health department was working against their efforts.

The report also concluded that the Department of Health Services improperly withheld a survey showing higher-than-normal incidences of lung cancer in people living near Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

The 28-page report by the Department of Toxic Substances Control was the outcome of its investigation into the health department following a request in May by Gov. Gray Davis. The governor acted at the urging of Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl, D-Encino, who had accused the health agency of withholding information and trying to undermine the citizens panel.

During 18 months from 1997 to 1999, the authors of the report found ``no evidence that anyone at the (DHS's) Environmental Health Investigations Branch was developing a work plan.''

The report added, ``It is clear that by design or negligence, that the DHS Environmental Health Investigations Branch has no intention of completing a work plan.''

Health investigations into the lab started in 1989 after the Daily News revealed that a study for the U.S. Department of Energy found radioactive chemical contamination in the soil at the lab in the hills between Chatsworth and Simi Valley.

`Delay and inaction'

Although the community for more than a decade has clamored for a local health probe, DHS reacted to the requests with a pattern of ``delay and inaction,'' according to the report, which interpreted that as evidence of ``poor internal DHS management practices.''

The reason, according to the report, was health officials wanted to take control and conduct less-rigorous testing than the citizens committee wanted.

``DHS made repeated promises, publicly, to the community that DHS was pursuing a study to determine the health risks to the people living near the Rocketdyne site,'' Kuehl said. ``To me, this shows contempt for the members of the public that DHS has a duty to protect.''

The governor had no comment, said spokeswoman Hilary McLean. ``The report speaks for itself.''

McLean said Davis has ``complete confidence'' that his new health appointees - Grantland Johnson, the state's Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Diana Bonta, the new director of the Department of Health Services - will ``take any action they deem appropriate.''

Johnson's spokeswoman Anita Gore said he was in the process of analyzing the report and it was too soon to say what actions might be taken.

Call for a new study

Kuehl and Hirsch agreed that given the report's critical findings the next step was clear.

``Clean house,'' said Kuehl, who in the past has called for dismissal of DHS officials because of their handling of the oversight panel.

Kuehl said that a feasibility study on whether or not to do a community health study should be conducted soon, a study that should be overseen by the citizens group.

A Rocketdyne official did not return a phone call seeking comment late Friday. In the past, Rocketdyne has vigorously denied any wrongdoing and said it is not responsible for the actions of state officials who were supposed to be regulating the company.

The new report found that while there ``appears to be no intent'' by the DHS to suppress the cancer survey, and questions remained whether the numbers showed a true increase in cancer levels, nevertheless there was an ``organizational failure'' within the DHS because the document was not shared with the public or other scientists performing health studies of Rocketdyne workers.

Obligated to share data

Two independent reviews by scientists included in the report conclude that the DHS violated state guidelines when it failed to pass on the cancer survey information to other health experts and the public, and that it needs to take a closer look at the findings. They concluded that it was hard to say how significant the health findings were, but the DHS was obligated to give the data to the public and UCLA researchers doing a cancer study.

A 1997 report conducted by UCLA researchers linked on-the-job radiation exposure to excessive cancer deaths among workers at the lab. A second UCLA study released this year found higher-than-normal lung cancer numbers among workers at the lab.

The report was unable to conclude if Rocketdyne's ``heavy lobbying'' efforts to change the citizens committee influenced the DHS. It notes that it is ``troubling'' that DHS and Rocketdyne officials had conference calls discussing the citizens group.

``The record clearly shows that DHS colluded with Rocketdyne to undermine the advisory panel,'' Kuehl said. ``The investigation disclosed monthly conference calls between DHS and Rocketdyne, and personal phone calls to management staff relating to the composition of a `new' study panel.''

The reason behind the plan, lawmakers and others say, is the pivotal step the citizens oversight committee will play next. Rocketdyne has pushed for the next study to be limited to an ``environmental assessment,'' whereas the citizens committee is considering an in-depth study of residents' health.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 16, 1999
Words:914
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