Rocketdyne Gets Health Study Before Panelists
August 3, 1996
By CHIP JACOBS
Daily News Staff Writer
A draft of an unprecedented health study of workers at Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne Division has been given to the company for review before being released to the public members of a group overseeing the report, state health officials confirmed Friday.
The draft study was released earlier this week to Rocketdyne, four independent scientists appointed to review the study and four other panel members representing workers, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the state Department of Health Services and the U.S. Department of Energy.
But copies were withheld from the four public members of the panel, who were appointed by state legislators to represent those living near the plants.
Public members of the panel said Friday they were outraged by the action, and charged that the state had reneged on an earlier promise not to give the company a draft. They said the action had sullied the scientific process – and given the company a chance to water down any critical conclusions behind the scenes.
“Such manipulative and heavy-handed tactics send a clear message that DHS has no primary interest in focusing on the health of California residents,” said advisory board member and engineer Sheldon Plotkin. “Instead, the message is loud and clear that DHS seems primarily interested in the well-being of Rockwell.”
State officials said the four members were not given the report because they stipulated on confidentiality agreements – which all panel members signed in order to get a draft – that they would keep the draft secret only if Rocketdyne did not get a copy.
Dr. Robert Harrison, the Department of Health Services official guiding the technical report, said panel members were required to sign the confidentially statement because releasing the study publicly could “alarm” the community and Rocketdyne workers before significant findings were studied.
But Assemblyman Richard Katz, D-Panorama City, who has long called for the health study and with two other lawmakers appointed the public members, said he was livid that the health department would ship the epidemiological study to Rocketdyne.
Like other critics, he wondered aloud how the timing coincided with the $3.2 billion acquisition of the company and other aerospace-defense subsidiaries of Rockwell International Corp. by Boeing Inc. in a deal announced Thursday.
“I find the timing interesting,” said Katz. “This kind of back-door special treatment where the defense contractor finds out before the public is what makes people suspicious about government and big corporations.”
The landmark study looks at the health histories of more than 6,000 workers at the Canoga Park-based aerospace plant who were exposed to varying levels of radioactive or toxic materials during company operations.
The epidemiological study has been anxiously awaited by the public panel members who are concerned about the effects of toxic and radioactive environmental contamination at the company’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Hills and its plants in Canoga Park and Chatsworth.
The final version of the $840,000 report, assembled by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, and funded by the Energy Department, won’t be released to the public until its completion this fall, state health officials said.
Rocketdyne spokeswoman Lori Circle said panel members have known since 1992 that the draft would be circulated to the company.
“It was agreed Rocketdyne would be a part of the process, so I’m surprised to learn about the opposition of the community groups,” Circle said. “Nothing is of greater concern to us than our workers’ health.”
State health officials defended their actions, contending that it’s standard procedure in similar health studies and that any changes Rocketdyne requested would be highlighted in the final version.
“Our process is to share information equally,” said Harrison. “Our interest is ensuring we get the best scientific result possible and establish a process to do that with input from all parties. There hasn’t been any pressure from Rocketdyne to release the study to them.”
Santa Susana has been used since the 1950s to develop and test nuclear reactors, rocket engines and other military-related programs, including lasers for the “Star Wars” program. All nuclear activity ended in 1988, though research continues in other areas.
Testing into high energy chemical propellants was halted there immediately after two scientists were killed in an illegal 1994 rocket-fuel explosion. The field lab continues to test-fire Atlas and Delta rockets, and experiment with liquid metal cooling systems.
Concerns about health problems at the company’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory intensified in May 1989 when the Daily News reported that the Energy Department had discovered radioactive and chemical contamination at the mountain test range three miles west of Chatsworth.
After that revelation, Katz, D-Panorama City, then-Assemblywoman Cathie Wright, R-Simi Valley, and then-Assemblyman Terry Friedman, D-Encino, pressured the health agency to conduct the study.
Geared up three years ago, the study’s primary aim is to examine the health histories of more than 6,000 Rocketdyne nuclear workers involved in research efforts at Santa Susana and the company’s Canoga Park plant.
Harrison said public panel members had known Rocketdyne would be on the distribution list and permitted to add its input to the final report since last year.
Public panel member Daniel Hirsch denied that and said Harrison last month tried to win permission from the advisory board to let Rocketdyne officials see the preliminary results, but five panel members voted no during a conference call.
“Now that they have broken the agreement and made a sham of the oversight panel, we don’t know whether to resign or take it to the Legislature,” said Hirsch, an anti-nuclear activist.
“It’s unprecedented: The fundamental principle in scientific peer reviews is that no (party) with an economic interest in the outcome is allowed,” he said.
In March 1995, UCLA scientists reported they had made significant strides in their research, identifying 5,100 workers exposed to various levels of radiation. They also compiled death records on roughly 3,500 workers, concluding that 10 died of cancer caused by asbestos exposure and 37 others of brain tumors.
No direct connection, however, was made between their deaths and Rocketdyne operations.
Dr. Hal Morgenstern, the UCLA epidemiological expert leading the research effort, said he couldn’t understand what the brouhaha was about.
“I’m not worried about it,” Morgenstern said. “I’m responsible for what goes into that report, and I’m not about to change what’s in it just because Rockwell disagrees. If they give valid feedback, we can respond to that.”
Copyright Daily News of Los Angeles