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Rocketdyne Halts Soil Vapor Tests at Field Lab

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rocketdyne said Tuesday that it has halted soil vapor testing at the controversial Santa Susana Field Laboratory by an environmental contractor after The Times reported that the firm was accused by Los Angeles water officials of falsifying test records.

Transglobal Environmental Geochemistry (TEG) has been scanning part of Rocketdyne’s 2,668-acre hillside research site near Simi Valley for traces of spilled toxic substances since November.

But Rocketdyne halted the work this week because the aerospace firm wants to look into allegations about TEG that were published Sunday in a Times story detailing internal strife at the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Lori Circle, a Rocketdyne spokeswoman.

A 1995 water board memo obtained by The Times said that one of TEG’s owners admitted fabricating instrument checks needed to verify the accuracy of test results at a Los Angeles site.

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TEG co-owner Blayne Hartman steadfastly denied the allegations and pointed out that his firm remains on the list of laboratories approved for use by the water board.

“Rocketdyne has to make the decision they have to make,” Hartman said Tuesday in an interview. “If they tell us not to come to work, that’s what we’ll have to do.

“We’ve been very careful with the analyses we’ve done out there, and they will fulfill or satisfy the requirements we’re supposed to fulfill,” he added. “The data we’ve been collecting are good data.”

Rocketdyne’s Circle said, “We were very concerned to learn that the integrity of one of our subcontractors has been questioned.

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“We always try to get the best people and expertise we can to do the job,” she said. “We’ve put on hold further sampling. . . . We’re investigating to ensure they’ve met all their requirements and followed all the proper procedures.”

TEG is taking 320 soil vapor samples and testing them for traces of toxic solvents that were spilled through decades of research on rocket engines and nuclear energy at Rocketdyne.

By Monday, the tests were almost finished, Circle said. The results were to be used to pinpoint areas where more stringent soil and water tests might be needed.

But in light of the allegations, Rocketdyne plans to hire a second chemical analyst to resample areas of the 120-acre testing zone where TEG’s soil vapor tests found no trace of toxic solvents, Circle said.

The San Diego County testing firm’s procedures have been questioned in two forums:

A 1995 memo by employees of the Regional Water Quality Control Board recommended that the board drop TEG from the agency’s list of approved laboratories.

According to the memo, Hartman had admitted that two years earlier, he had “fabricated” two out of three instrument checks that were needed to ensure the reliability of the tests at a Los Angeles cleanup site.

And former TEG employee Stacie Wissler alleged in a 1995 wrongful-termination lawsuit filed in San Diego County Superior Court that “on several occasions, Mr. Hartman asked [her] to tamper with data so it would pass the regional water quality control board requirements.”

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Hartman denied those charges but eventually settled Wissler’s suit.

And in interviews, he vehemently denied allegations that he falsified data.

“The memo sent out by the committee was inaccurate,” Hartman said Tuesday.

In his defense, Hartman cites a September 1996 letter from senior geologist Eric Nupen, in which Nupen wrote that TEG “has produced excellent work for many years on sites in our program.”

Water board officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday on the letter.

One procedure questioned in the water board’s memo is TEG’s calibration of soil vapor detectors: Technicians feed chemical samples of a known strength into those instruments to set a sensitivity benchmark that is then used to test for toxic substances in the field.

While the 1995 water board memo says Hartman admitted his firm made up data showing it had faked two of the three instrument checks, Hartman denied that charge Tuesday.

He said TEG ran the three required checks--but on different days, as much as “a week or a month” apart.

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“My position is that this was all put to rest a couple of years ago,” Hartman said.

However, the allegations raised questions among Rocketdyne neighbors and activists who remain wary about the firm’s ongoing cleanup.

“I’m absolutely stunned,” said Joseph Lyou, a member of Committee to Bridge the Gap, an environmental coalition that regularly dogs Rocketdyne’s steps.

“I think the entire soil vapor sampling has been brought into question,” said Lyou, who recently toured the field lab to watch some of the TEG sample-taking.

“These are the kinds of problems that come out of a process that allows the polluter to tell the public whether or not the site is polluted,” Lyou said. “This does not bode well for the regulators, who should not have allowed this company to do the testing.”


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