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Cleanup Workers Find 3 Artillery Rounds at Rocketdyne Site

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three 30-year-old artillery rounds were unearthed on Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory, leaving neighbors of the aerospace giant concerned despite assurances by company officials that the munitions are small and “innocuous.”

Half a dozen employees working on a $55-million project to clean up the field lab of chemical and nuclear contaminants found the cylindrical shells in a ravine beneath 20 feet of dense scrub brush and rocky dirt, Rocketdyne spokesman Dan Beck confirmed Friday.

The munitions were found Wednesday afternoon in the Happy Valley area of the 2,668-acre, open-air field lab, about two miles away from the expensive homes of Bell Canyon, he said.

“The best we can tell is they’re probably parts for some sort of ordnance that we were testing the engines, or motors, for,” Beck said. “We don’t know if they are live rounds or rounds with filler--dummy rounds. . . . They’re nothing real nasty like chemical weapons. They are not nuclear.”

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Company officials expect to find out what is in the rounds, shaped like 6- and 12-inch bullets, after weapons experts detonate them Monday in a nearby bunker, Beck said. The company must obtain permits from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Ventura County Fire Department before the detonation.

The two smaller shells were corroded almost beyond recognition. None bore serial numbers or identifying marks.

“You could be talking missiles, rockets, artillery shells,” Beck said.

While company officials described the rounds as innocuous when handled by experts, one critic said he was concerned that the shells were carelessly dumped and that others might be found.

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“It raises all sorts of questions,” said Daniel Hirsch of Committee to Bridge the Gap. “Why is there unexploded ordnance on the property? Are there more?”

Hirsch, a member of a panel overseeing health studies of Rocketdyne workers, said he had never heard of military testing on “The Hill.”

“I’ve followed this for 20 years, and I know of nuclear activity, rocket tests, I even know about laser tests,” he said. “I’ve never heard of military ordnance. Finding it in a contaminated area . . . makes it seem like they’re not particularly careful disposing of things that are hazardous.”

X-rays show that the munitions have trigger devices, but it is impossible to tell whether they are filled with gunpowder or filler, such as grain, Beck said.

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Detonation will occur in a low-slung “ordnance bay” that has 8-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls. Paired with another explosive, each device will be smothered with sandbags and blown up by remote control. The three shells will be blown up 30 minutes apart.

Beck said neighbors are in no danger and that the three blasts will not be visible in surrounding areas and will make little noise.

The shells could have come from military weapons whose engines the company used to test at the field lab decades ago, he added.

“This is the first time we’ve found this kind of debris,” Beck said. “We’ve found empty drums, trash, you just find junk. There are certain areas where junk gets dumped. It’s natural over the course of 40, 45 years to accumulate debris on various areas of the site.”

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But nearby resident Willie Lapin, who lives in the Santa Susana Knolls, was angry because the company had not notified neighbors of the find.

“It would be nice if they’d tell you these things,” he said. “It can shake you up when you hear those explosions and your house shakes. . . . But they’re not very forthcoming.”

Rocketdyne, owned by Boeing North American, has long been scrutinized for activities on “The Hill,” the site of decades of nuclear and rocket-engine testing.

Founded in 1947, the field lab on the border of Los Angeles and Ventura counties has been home to research for the military, the federal Department of Energy and NASA.

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The company’s neighbors, hundreds of whom are suing Boeing, believe the company’s toxic legacy harmed their health and fouled their property. Their conviction deepened after last year’s release of a UCLA study showing that some Rocketdyne radiation workers had higher-than-anticipated cancer death rates.

The only contamination found off-site to date has been limited to a few sites in neighboring Sage Ranch and at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, a Jewish studies center.

Not far from where the artillery was found, two physicists were killed in a chemical blast four years ago.

Company officials have said the scientists were killed doing an experiment to measure “‘overpressure waves” emitted during the blast of two highly explosive rocket fuel ingredients.

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State occupational health investigators said in a report that the men did not appear to be conducting valid tests, but were blowing up the chemicals to get rid of them.

Cal/OSHA fined the company $202,500 for violating workplace safety rules in conjunction with the blast.


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