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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Judge assails Rocketdyne cleanup; Site in Simi Hills is Pinch-point Between Important Western L.A. Wilderness Areas

Environmentalists hail a federal jurist's ruling that a Department of Energy effort to rid the Santa Susana field lab of pollutants is inadequate.

By Gregory W. Griggs, L.A. Times Staff Writer
May 3, 2007

Environmental activists won a major victory Wednesday when a judge declared that the U.S. Department of Energy continues to violate federal law in its cleanup of nuclear and chemical contamination at Boeing's Rocketdyne field laboratory near Simi Valley.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti also barred the DOE from transferring ownership of its Santa Susana property until it conducts a more thorough environmental review of its cleanup operations at the former nuclear and rocket engine testing facility.

"The Bush administration was trying to cut corners at the expense of public health, and the judge wasn't having any of it," said James Birkelund, a Los Angeles-based attorney for the lead plaintiff, the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Boeing Corp. spokeswoman Blythe Jameson said the company, which sold the remainder of the Rocketdyne assets in 2005 to United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt & Whitney unit for about $700 million, would withhold comment on the court ruling. Boeing still owns the 2,800-acre hilltop property that contains the lab.

"It's just been issued and we're reviewing the court's decision," Jameson said.

But Daniel Hirsch, president of the anti-nuclear group Committee to Bridge the Gap, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, said that nowhere in the 47-page ruling did the judge side with the DOE, and by extension the property owner, Boeing, which purchased the field lab 11 years ago.

"What the judge is essentially saying to the DOE is: 'You guys have really fouled up this cleanup; you've broken the law repeatedly. And I'm going to retain jurisdiction until I'm satisfied that you've met your obligations to clean up the mess you've made.' "

The two nonprofit environmental groups sued the Energy Department alleging that the cleanup plan for the property — where U.S. agencies conducted nuclear research over four decades before ceasing operations in the late 1980s — would leave dangerous levels of radioactive material and other toxic chemicals in the soil.

Energy Department officials have said that the site, where a nuclear reactor meltdown occurred in 1959, would pose no significant threat to human health or the environment after it is cleaned up. But critics and watchdog groups have demanded that a full environmental impact statement be prepared and that the site be cleaned up to tougher U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, which would require removal of tens of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil.

Conti's ruling requires DOE to prepare a more stringent review of the lab, which is on the border of Los Angeles County. Conti wrote that the department's decision to prepare a less-stringent environmental document prior to cleanup is in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and noted that the lab "is located only miles away from one of the largest population centers in the world."

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her colleague Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works who has been pushing for more stringent cleanup of the site, praised the judge's decision.

"On behalf of the people who live near Rocketdyne, I am so gratified that the court has found in their favor," Boxer said. "It is our solemn duty in government to protect the health and safety of the people we represent."

Hirsch and others said the DOE and Boeing appear to have accelerated the cleanup in recent months.

Critics suggest the rush was to get the Rocketdyne site declared officially "clean" before the Bush administration leaves office, fearing the next president may be tougher on environmental polluters.

Last month, the EPA announced that it would reconsider its decision not to add the Santa Susana Field Laboratory to its federal Superfund cleanup list.

The designation would provide more federal funding.

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) said she welcomed the consideration.

"Overall, the attention focused on this site by the EPA is very important. It rattles a few cages."

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