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Blaze Spurs Fear of Chemical Release

Times Staff Writer

A flank of the Topanga fire stormed onto the Rocketdyne facility in Ventura County on Thursday, stoking fears that hazardous and flammable materials would burn and waft into populated areas.

The wildfire damaged or destroyed abandoned outbuildings, tool shops and office space at the sprawling, 2,800-acre former nuclear research site. The facility has also been used to test rocket engines.

As of late Thursday, most of the operational buildings were safe and the fire had not reached containers holding hazardous chemicals, including radioactive and other material being cleaned up, said Dan Beck, a spokesman for Boeing Co., which owns the Santa Susana Field Laboratory property.

Boeing owned Rocketdyne for years but this past summer sold the company to United Technologies. Although the land belongs to Boeing, Rocketdyne still does work there.

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The fire prompted the evacuation of 200 employees and canceled what would have been the plant’s last rocket engine test. As a precaution, the South Coast Air Quality Management District began testing for chemical compounds in response to safety concerns.

Jonathan Parfrey of Physicians for Social Responsibility said that despite an ongoing environmental cleanup at the plant, it was inevitable that contaminated soil, chaparral and other plants would burn and “liberate” toxins into the air. He called for air monitoring.

“Without a doubt, there’s plants and soil and buildings that are still contaminated,” Parfrey said. “We’re talking 40, 50 years of using some of the most exotic materials in the planet.”

Dan Hirsch of the anti-nuclear group Committee to Bridge the Gap said he and others have warned for years about the danger that fires posed to such facilities. “This is one of the most toxic places in California,” he said.

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But Beck said that the plant’s hazardous material containers were safe and that there was no indication that toxic material had been dispersed into the air because of the fire.

Beck said the steel storage containers are kept on concrete and asphalt surfaces to create a buffer against wildfires.

“It’s an industrial facility ... so there are hazardous materials on the site,” he said. “But we have a very detailed and thorough contingency plan to deal with that kind of emergency.”

The AQMD dispatched people Thursday evening to collect air samples downwind of the facility, agency spokesman Sam Atwood said.

The test, which checks for volatile organic compounds such as chemical solvents, could yield results by today. A more sophisticated test to sample for more exotic compounds such as PCBs and dioxin also will be administered, Atwood said.

“With a facility such as this one, which is known to have extensive toxic contamination, it does raise concern about the fire potentially releasing contaminants into the air,” he said.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory has been in a sharp decline since its peak in the 1950s and mid-1960s.

Now, Boeing employees work on research and development projects for Defense Department customers, Beck said.

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