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ROCKETDYNE TO OPEN CLEAUNP SITE TO PUBLIC : SANTA SUSANA LAB HAS POLLUTED SOIL.

Byline: Christopher Noxon Daily News Staff Writer

More than a dozen members of the public will get their first look at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory on Tuesday in tour that company officials hope will allay fears about the mountaintop test site.

Officials from Rocketdyne have invited the public to oversee an operation designed to identify chemical pollution at the sprawling 2,600-acre laboratory.

Environmental workers have taken more than 2,000 soil vapor samples since November in a government-mandated program that began when chemical and radioactive contamination was first discovered eight years ago.

While soil vapor readings have been low overall, company officials said they have so far identified several areas contaminated by TCE, a chemical solvent once commonly found in industrial and over-the-counter cleaners.

The eruption of jet engines in the Simi Hills is a startling sound now, roaring off the towering boulders about once a week. But thirty years ago, tests were held nearly every hour all night long, said Jerry Gladden, a 34-year veteran of the laboratory.

After every engine test, Gladden said, a worker opened a valve in a propellant line and flushed the injector with TCE. The solvent spilled freely around engines and seeped into the ground.

With all the sensitive nuclear and chemical tests performed at the test laboratory, it is ironic that the routine practice of cleaning engines has created such long-lasting problems, Gladden said.

``At the time we thought it would just vaporize,'' Gladden said. ``But it didn't. It found its way into the groundwater.''

Groundwater tests have detected the solvent at several thousand parts per billion, while federal standards set a safe level at about five parts per billion, said Art Lenox, a Rocketdyne scientist and member of the environmental remediation group.

Workers stopped drinking water at the field laboratory in the 1960s, said Gladden. Water taken from the aquifer beneath the field laboratory is now treated for industrial use only.

``At the rate we're going now we'll be pumping several lifetimes to get it all out,'' said Gladden. ``You've got to pump tens of thousands of gallons of water to extract a single ounce.''

While a team of groundwater experts has been deployed to stop the spread of contamination, contractors from the San Diego-based Ogden Engery and Environmental Services have been deployed to clean up the soil. The current phase of this operation, which involves the collection of air extracted from depths reaching 30 feet, is what visitors will see this week.

``Our goal is to get the soil cleaned up so it doesn't contaminate the groundwater anymore,'' said Lenox.

Identifying sources of the pollution takes more than technical training, Lenox said.

``There's a lot of sleuth work involved,'' he said. ``A big part of it is talking to the old timers to figure out what operations were occurring where and how material was handled. Then we begin to piece together where the problems were.''

Critics of the cleanup operation accuse Rocketdyne of understating the pollution and downplaying their findings. Dan Hirsch, an anti-nuclear activist and member of the citizen's panel charged with reviewing the cleanup, said last week the public tour has been timed to coincide with the least threatening phase of the cleanup.

``Of course they're allowing people up there to watch the cleanup of solvents,'' he said. ``Solvents seem a lot less scary to the public than plutonium and all the radioactive materials that came out of the nuclear reactors.''

Inspectors have identified 25 sites where radioactive material was used or stored in a section of the laboratory called Area Four. So far engineers have cleaned up all but five of those sites, said Rocketdyne spokeswoman Lori Circle.

Company officials flatly deny that engineers would understate their findings. Readings are taken by environmental workers who would not endanger their scientific credibility by misreporting their findings, said Lenox.

CAPTION(S):

4 Photos

Photo: (1--color) On a hill near Simi Valley, a black tarp covers a slope called the burn area, which was polluted with radioactvity and other contaminants.

(2--color) Strata probe operator Robbie Bray inserts a small tube into the soil to test for chemical solvent at the Rocketdyne cleanup site.

(3) Workers create a small hole to test soil for contaminants at Rocketdyne's Santa Susana laboratory near Simi Valley.

(4) Robbie Bray, right, knocks soil from an auger while health and safety coordinator Gina Kackman holds a device that tests volatile compounds.

Michael Owen Baker/Daily News
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 13, 1997
Words:741
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