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FIELD LAB SECRET REVEALED NAPALM, DIOXIN BURNED IN OPEN PIT AT FORMER ROCKETDYNE FACILITY.

Byline: KERRY CAVANAUGH Staff Writer

After decades of secrecy, Boeing officials have revealed that the former owners of the Santa Susana Field Lab destroyed napalm, dioxin and other highly toxic materials in open-air burn pits, documents obtained Monday show.

The 184 pages of documents that Boeing delivered last week to the Department of Toxic Substances Control include logs detailing how Rocketdyne detonated and destroyed hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic liquids and gases at the so-called Area 1 burn pit.

The list includes 50 gallons of napalm burned in 1969, three gallons of dioxin burned in 1971, and the destruction of flammable waste in 1990 that resulted in a 10-foot-high fireball.

Concern about the potential health hazard to workers prompted state officials to postpone a planned cleanup of the pit.

``With this new information we think we may need to fully characterize this burn pit to figure out what went in there and what was burned there,'' DTSC spokesman Ron Baker said. ``We can't move forward with a big question mark.''

State officials have ordered Boeing to cap the pit with clay or grass to prevent runoff from carrying contaminated soil off the hilltop lab. That will give Boeing and state officials more time to investigate the contamination in the pit.

The documents were prepared by the Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell International, which was later purchased by the Boeing Co. They show that Rocketdyne's Canoga Park facility also sent material up to the lab for disposal - information that surprised state regulators.

Boeing spokeswoman Blythe Jameson said DTSC officials had requested records of the burn pit and that the company is compiling even more historic documents on the pit usage.

``This site was primarily used to destroy rocket fuels, chemicals to support rocket engine tests and other rocket engine waste,'' she said.

The Santa Susana Field Lab is a 2,800-acre facility at the top of the Simi Hills in Ventura County, near the Los Angeles city limits. Beginning in the 1940s, the Department of Energy experimented with 10 nuclear reactors, one of which experienced a partial meltdown. The lab also tested rocket engines under contracts with the Department of Defense and NASA.

The Daily News first disclosed serious concerns about contamination at the field lab in 1989, including questionable practices involving disposal of toxic materials in the burn pit.

Since then, neighbors have pushed for a community health study. Their calls grew louder after the University of California, Los Angeles, released studies in 1997 and 1999 showing that workers who handled radiation and a rocket-fuel chemical had higher rates of cancer than those who had not.

Longtime Santa Susana watchdogs said the community has always been told the open burning was highly regulated and monitored, yet the logs indicate workers frequently destroyed containers of unknown materials.

``Everybody has been made to believe the contamination stayed on site, but when you look at the gallons and gallons of materials that were burned and the clouds moved off site, I think the public has been misled,'' said Mary Weisbrock of Save Open Space.

The documents include workers' notes on how they burned the materials - pouring chemicals on sawdust, igniting the mixture, then observing the smoke.

In one test conducted at 8:40 a.m. April 29, 1989, workers burned a blue cylinder containing unknown material. A handwritten note on the log notes: ``Still off-gassing at 12:30! Probably F2,'' a reference to fluorine, a poisonous, pale yellow gas.

According to a letter written by Rockwell officials in 1981, the Area 1 burn pit was established in 1958 so workers could get rid of chemical waste in order to ``minimize potential public exposure which could result from transport across public highways to dispose in a conventional landfill.''

That letter says workers burned 13,810 pounds of reactive metals, such as sodium and magnesium; 450,000 gallons of fuel, including hydrazine; and toxic gases such as chlorine.

The pit was supposed to close in 1971 because there were concerns about air pollution, but records show that employees burned waste through 1990.

Soil testing in 2003 and 2005 found high levels of rocket-fuel ingredient perchlorate, chromium and highly toxic dioxins. The cleanup became even more urgent as regulators began finding dioxins and other contaminants in surface water running off the lab into creeks.

The DTSC had planned to remove 6,500 cubic yards of tainted soil from the pit but that effort is now on hold pending the review of the historic burn records.

kerry.cavanaugh(at)dailynews.com

(213) 978-0390

IF YOU GO:

The state Department of Toxic Substances Control will hold an informational meeting on the Santa Susana Field Lab, 3-5 p.m. Aug. 31 at Simi Valley City Hall, 2929 Tapo Canyon Road. A public meeting is set for 6:30 p.m.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 22, 2006
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