Study of Contamination at Rocket Lab Site Reveals Evidence of Cancer Link

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 16 Oct 2006
Time: 13:47:41
Remote Name:


Study of contamination at rocket lab site reveals evidence of cancer link.
By Avi Rutschman 

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory Panel, an independent team of researchers and health experts, released a report last week concluding that toxins and radiation released from the Rocketdyne research facility near Simi Valley could be responsible for hundreds of cancers in the surrounding areas.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory was built in 1948 by North American Aviation and consists of 2,850 acres in eastern Ventura County. Over the years, it has been used as a test site for experiments involving nuclear reactors, high-powered lasers and rockets.

The report was completed by experts in the fields of reactor accident analysis, atmospheric transport of contaminants, hydrology and geology. The study took five years to complete and was funded by the California Environmental Protection Agency. 

"We want to thank the many legislatures that have attended meetings, provided funds and pressured public agencies into action," said Marie Mason, a community activist and longtime resident of the Santa Susana Knolls area in Simi Valley, who helped to form the advisory panel.

The panel originally formed 15 years ago after a 1959 nuclear meltdown that occurred at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory was made public. Concerned about the possibility of facing adverse health affects due to the meltdown, area residents pressured legislators into funding a panel to study the impact of the incident.

"We were fearful of what our families and communities may have been exposed to," said Holly Huff, another community member who pushed for the formation of the panel.

The first study conducted by the panel was performed by UCLA researchers and focused on the adverse health effects the meltdown had on Rocketdyne employees. Completed in 1997, that report indicated workers did indeed suffer a higher rate of lymph system and lung cancers.

 Boeing, the current owner of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, has challenged the validity of the studies, calling into question the scientific methods used by researchers.

 "We received a summary of the report Thursday, and we were not given an advance copy to look through and prepare with," said Blythe Jameson, a Boeing spokesperson.

 "Based on our preliminary assessment," Jameson said, "we found that the report has significant flaws and that the claims are baseless without scientific merit and a grave disservice to our employees and the community."

 After the UCLA study concluding that laboratory workers had faced adverse health effects because of the meltdown, the panel was given federal and state funds to conduct another study of potential impacts on neighboring communities and their residents.

According to the panel, Boeing was unwilling to disclose a large amount of data concerning the accident and certain operations. This forced the researchers to base some of their studies on models of similar accidents.

 "One simply does not know with confidence what accidents and releases have not been disclosed, nor what information about the ones we do know of also has not been revealed," the panel stated in its report.

 After five years of research, the panel concluded that between 260 and 1,800 cancer cases were caused by the field laboratory's contamination of surrounding communities. The incident released levels of cesium-137 and iodine-131, radio nucleotides that act as carcinogens that surpass the amount of contaminants released during the Three Mile Island incident. The report also stated that other contaminants have escaped, and still could, from the Boeing-owned laboratory through groundwater and surface runoff.

Jameson said other scientific studies have contradicted those findings.

 "There have been several reports done by federal and state agencies, most notably a preliminary site evaluation from Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry in 1999, in which they did not identify a public health hazard to surrounding communities," Jameson said.

 David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, estimated in the field laboratory panel's report that as much as 13,000 curies of iodine131 and 2,600 curies of cesium-137 escaped from the reactor during the 1959 meltdown. In comparison, only 17 curies of iodine131 and none of cesium137 escaped during the Three Mile Island incident.

 The test reactor was contained in a partial pool of liquid sodium and buffered from the surrounding environment by a layer of helium.

 The reactor did not have a concrete containment shield, which would explain the high levels of radioactive material that were able to escape during the meltdown, according to Lochbaum.

 Dr. Jan Bayea, a physicist who specializes in modeling the movement of radiation through the air, came to the conclusion that between zero and 1,800 cancers, but most likely 260 cancers, were caused by the release of radioactive materials.

 "We faced three major difficulties in this study because it was a complex site, not much information was released and we couldn't obtain any meteorological data from Boeing," Bayea said.

 According to the panel, Boeing wouldn't release meteorological data from the time period of the 1959 incident, claiming that information is a trade secret.

 Jameson insists that Boeing has not tried to hide anything.

 "We've shared the meteorological data with the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, that was then, in turn, turned over to various groups," Jameson said. "It's been shared with various other agencies, most recently at a Department of Energy meeting in May of 2005 where it was shared with the public."

 Dr. William Bianchi, a soil physicist, discovered that Boeing's decision to not use a synthetic cap on the burn pit areas has led to additional contamination of groundwater at the site, according to the panel's report.

 Boeing attempted to stop the recharge of groundwater with clay soil and with native vegetation, but neither method proved to make the area around the burn pits impermeable.

 "The supposed impermeable clay material is not impermeable at all," the report states.

 Dr. Ali Tabidian, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at Cal State Northridge, discovered that perchlorate, a toxic substance found in rocket fuel, did end up in groundwater wells in Simi Valley as a result of surface water runoff.

 According to the report, Tabidian said that perchlorate migrated off the laboratory site through surface water runoff, traveled into the Arroyo Simi, then entered the groundwater and wells near the Arroyo.

 The study says perchlorate has been discovered in a number of wells surrounding the area.

 Boeing has challenged this claim, stating that the perchlorate could have come from Chilean fertilizer, fireworks or road flares.

 According to the report, Tabidian feels these are unjustifiable claims because if they were true, perchlorate would be detectable in wells throughout Simi Valley rather than only in the areas surrounding the Arroyo.

 "Perchlorate is very soluble and travels almost as fast as water. It's a warning, the leading edge of contaminate plume," said Dan Hirsch, co-chair of the panel and a lecturer on nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz.

 Despite their findings, the panel did not recommend an epidemiological study of surrounding communities because of a lack of data provided by Boeing and the high migration of residents in the area throughout the years.

 "Doing a health study at this point would be a big gamble; it would be wiser to search for a fingerprint of the contamination release," Bayea said.

 "This has been 17 years of unwanted frustration, and in those years our innocence has been lost," Mason said.

 The report commissioned by the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Panel can be read online at

 "There is no evidence of contamination as a result of our current or past operations that has adversely impacted the surrounding communities. We will continue to move forward with the cleanup of the site in a safe and effective manner," Jameson said.

Last changed: October 16, 2006