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Rocketdyne Neighbors Again Seek Class-Action

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hoping to sway a federal judge, a group of Rocketdyne neighbors is taking a second stab at turning litigation against the aerospace giant into a class-action lawsuit.

In October, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins shot down the neighbors’ first attempt, saying the scope of their lawsuit for property damage was too broad to meet the exacting demands of class-action law.

This time around, they have tried to answer her concerns, partly by identifying a smaller area they claim to have been contaminated by Rocketdyne. “We feel very comfortable that we’ll convince her,” said attorney Barry Cappello. “She spent 49 pages telling us what we did right and what we did wrong. I believe we have jumped through the hoops.”

The neighbors contend that Rocketdyne’s nuclear and chemical research has affected so many people in such a similar way that it would be more practical to hear their cases together.

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The neighbors allege that Rocketdyne’s decades of research have caused an “environmental nightmare” of spills and releases of radioactive and cancer-causing agents.

They are demanding compensation for property devaluation they blame on Rocketdyne.

As proof, Cappello noted in the neighbors’ April 15 filing that the San Fernando Valley Assn. of Realtors issues contamination disclaimers to prospective home buyers in neighborhoods near Rocketdyne facilities.

Neighbors are also asking the court to set up a program that would track cancers and other illnesses among neighbors of the company’s 2,668-acre Santa Susana Field Lab.

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Rocketdyne’s “story is a textbook example of environmental catastrophe,” the neighbors’ lawyers say in their filing. “It is a history replete with reactor meltdowns and other nuclear ‘accidents,’ explosions, repeated toxic fires and spills, ongoing improper waste disposal practices, and the generation of tons of hazardous waste.”

Rocketdyne spokesman Dan Beck said company policy forbids him from discussing the specifics of the lawsuit.

“But we’ve yet to find anything that’s come from our Santa Susana or Canoga [Avenue] facilities that has caused a public health threat,” he said. “Keep in mind, this is despite the fact that we’ve done extensive soil sampling, testing of ground water and surface water and air monitoring as well. It’s just not there.”

Beck added: “One has to wonder how many more ‘stabs’ they’re going to get” at winning class certification.

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Rocketdyne’s attorneys have until May 19 to respond. Then the neighbors’ lawyers get to rebut them. Collins is to decide whether to grant class-action status July 13.

The plaintiffs have narrowed the area they say was tainted by the research into nuclear power and rocket engines at the field lab outside Simi Valley and three nearby facilities in the San Fernando Valley.

The previous attempt at class certification argued that contamination occurred roughly within the boundaries of the San Diego, Ronald Reagan, Moorpark and Ventura freeways, possibly affecting about 500,000 people.

In October, lawyers for Boeing North American, Rocketdyne’s parent company, contended that the boundaries were based on “unfounded generalization, speculation and self-serving conclusions by the plaintiff’s trial counsel.”

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In their recent try at class certification, Cappello and his colleagues relied on air and water experts to determine the possible extent of carcinogenic contamination.

Based on that information, the lawyers created a map of brightly colored, Rorschach-like blobs showing the ground water plume from Rocketdyne’s field lab and the air plumes from the Santa Susana and Canoga Avenue facilities.

The outer boundaries of the contamination area are approximately the same as before, but, due to the irregular shapes of the plumes, only about two-thirds as much area is covered.

Still covered are portions of Simi Valley, Chatsworth, West Hills, the Santa Susana Knolls and Bell and Box canyons.

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“They’ve gone out and hired people to come up with this information,” said Rocketdyne spokesman Beck. “All this information is based on this hypothetical, theoretical modeling that does not apply to the geography and geology of our site,” a mile-high hill composed largely of sandstone.


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