Home » Rockwell’s Flawed Environmental Record Questions Raised Over History of Infractions at Company Sites

Rockwell’s Flawed Environmental Record Questions Raised Over History of Infractions at Company Sites

July 23, 1995

BY RUSS BRITT, TONY KNIGHT AND CHIP JACOBS
Daily NewsStaff Writers

In the past decade, Rockwell International Corp. has seen the same cycle re-enacted around the country: federal raids for suspected environmental crimes or citations for radioactive and chemical leakage, followed by denials and finally promises to obey the law and clean up.

Given that history, the July 13 raid by FBI agents on the company’s Rocketdyne Division plant in Canoga Park and its rocket test facility in the Simi Hills has raised troubling new questions.

It was the second time in six years that federal agents have raided a Rockwell facility.

This time, the allegations involve accusations that two physicists were killed last summer while conducting sham tests to dispose of hazardous wastes in an effort to avoid packaging and transporting them.

Company officials have declined to talk about the July 26, 1994, death of the physicists in relation to the recent raid.

But John Stocker, Rockwell’s vice president for legal affairs, said the aerospace and industrial conglomerate prides itself on corporate consciousness when it comes to environmental issues.

He points out that Rockwell has received U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awards upon exceeding federal standards for pollutant reduction, received accolades from regulators for other efforts and was taken off one watchdog group’s hit list after it showed signs of progress.

“We believe that as a corporation, we are both committed to be good environmental citizens and that we are, in fact, functioning as good environmental citizens,” Stocker said. “You will find companies out there that are better than we. You will find a lot of companies out there that are worse than we. We don’t pretend to be the best. We aspire to be the best.”

But critics say the company’s records show a clear disregard for the environment, pointing to a long history of infractions, many of them revolving around operation of two of the country’s most contaminated nuclear sites – Rocky Flats in Colorado, and Hanford in Washington state.

“There are few companies in this country that have had as pronounced a record of criminal charges and plea bargains as Rockwell Corporation,” said Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law Center and author of environmental legislation now before Congress. “There is clearly a corporate culture at Rockwell that treats environmental responsibilities cavalierly, even environmental matters that are potentially criminal in nature.”

The Rocketdyne raid, for example, is the fifth instance of a major investigation into environmental practices at a Rockwell facility in the past decade, according to local and federal records in four states where the company has operated.

Included in Rockwell’s history:

Low-level radioactive and chemical contamination problems found at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory, located in the hills between Chatsworth and Simi Valley. The cleanup work there is continuing.

A federal investigation into the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant outside Denver that ended with Rockwell admitting to 10 felony and misdemeanor environmental violations and paying a $18.5 million fine.

The firm’s operation of the Hanford nuclear weapons plant at Hanford, Wash., the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site. Rockwell was one of several contractors cited for contaminating the area around the site with plutonium. In one instance, a company official was fired in 1985 for taking down signs warning of contamination as then-Gov. Booth Gardner’s motorcade drove through.

Extensive soil and ground water contamination with an industrial chemical suspected of causing cancer at the company’s aluminum die casting plant in Russellville, Ky. The plant came under scrutiny after state regulators determined in the late 1980s that a toxic lagoon it created to contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) had leaked into nearby rivers.

“If one were to round up the usual suspects for environmental crime among the Fortune 500, Rockwell would certainly be in the room,” said Turley, who is representing grand jurors who are under federal investigation for breaking their silence to criticize prosecutors for settling with Rockwell in the Rocky Flats case.

Rockwell’s Stocker responded, “That’s a National Enquirer kind of statement.”

“What happened at Rocky Flats was most unfortunate,” Stocker added. “We’ve accepted responsibility for that. What happened up here at Santa Susana was most unfortunate, and it remains to be seen what’s going to come out of that.”

Indeed, Rockwell has shown signs of improvement on environmental issues in the eyes of two corporate watchdog groups – the Washington, D.C.-based Investor’s Responsibility Research Center and the New York-based Council on Economic Priorities, Stocker said.

In 1992 and 1993, the Council on Economic Priorities featured Rockwell on a list of “America’s Least Wanted” companies because of its poor environmental record. The council called Rocky Flats the nation’s most polluted site and called upon Rockwell to meet with it and disclose company data.

Last year, the council took Rockwell off the list because of the strides it made, citing the company’s voluntary environmental report.

“Rockwell is committed to adopting American environmental laws and regulations at foreign operations where local standards are less stringent,” the council said in a 1994 report.

Investor’s Responsibility said Rockwell has shown signs of improvement, but added that many of those indicators come from data provided by the company itself.

Peter Chines, manager of environmental research for Investor’s, said there is some data showing Rockwell with fewer penalties assessed by regulators, but said the company needs to sustain its performance for a longer period of time in order for it to be meaningful,

“In any given year, one company will do better and one company will do worse,” Chines said.

Stocker said to be fair, a review of Rockwell’s environmental record should include comparisons with other companies made by Chines’ group. But Chines refused to release comparative data, saying that the information was proprietary.

Federal environmental officials said Rockwell has reduced toxic emissions from its plants in recent years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the company awards in 1993 and 1994 for emissions reductions.

Rocketdyne Division also made major reductions in toxic air emissions under the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Toxic Hot Spots program, reducing the risks to surrounding neighborhoods to zero between 1989 and 1991.

And, the company won a clean air award from the Air Quality Management District for pioneering a new, water-based method of cleaning Space Shuttle engines. Previously, they had to use solvents that harmed the ozone layer.

Richard Reisenweber, the company’s vice president of environment and health, said Rockwell is proud of its accomplishment in the EPA’s voluntary program to reduce air emissions 33 percent by 1992 and 50 percent by 1995.

In fact, the company cut emissions by more than 50 percent by 1992 and by 85 percent by the end of last year, Reisenweber said.

EPA spokesman Arnold Robbins verified that Rockwell was one of the first volunteers and did exceed the 50 percent level by 1992. He added that the EPA cannot verify last year’s levels.

But Rockwell critics said despite the company’s records of environmental improvements, the FBI raid and state allegations that Rocketdyne was illegally burning off toxic explosives renews the debate – at least until the company can provide evidence that the incident was an aberration, not a continuation of a corporate culture that engaged in environmental crimes.

“What’s of concern to me is, given the volatile nature and hazardous nature of a lot of the chemicals and hazardous material at Rockwell, is whether this is an isolated case or a pattern,” said Assemblyman Richard Katz, D-Panorama City. “Was this the result of some really stupid decisions by some people who were out of control, or is this a pattern of behavior that is part of the company’s way of doing business?”

For instance, even before federal agents raided Rocketdyne’s offices in the criminal probe, the division had been cited by the state for numerous violations – most of them for the treatment, handling and disposal of hazardous waste, records show.

Between late 1986 and mid-1994, Rocketdyne racked up 31 violations, including minor paperwork problems, but also more serious allegations of environmental breaches.

In one of the largest settlements of its kind with the California Attorney General’s Office, the company agreed in December 1993 to pay $650,000 in connection with an array of citations for problems at its facilities in Santa Susana, Palmdale and El Segundo.

At the Santa Susana laboratory, state Department of Toxic Substances Control identified ground water polluted by an industrial solvent in both its National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Air Force areas.

Rocketdyne paid $280,000 in civil fines after state inspectors discovered that company workers, among other things, had disposed of liquid hazardous waste improperly, did not close down waste “impoundment” ponds and did not have proper plans and inspection records on hand at the Canoga Park manufacturing plant and Santa Susana.

At the company’s four locations where previous problems were cited, Rockwell’s actions repeatedly have come under fire. SANTA SUSANA Santa Susana, located in the Simi Hills three miles west of Chatsworth, caught the eye of regulators when a 1989 U.S. Department of Energy environmental survey found problems with radioactive and chemical contamination at the 2,600-acre mountain site.

The federal EPA stepped in and assumed oversight of the cleanup program at the field laboratory, where the company conducted four decades of nuclear research under DOE contracts. A $55 million cleanup is under way.

The DOE survey, subsequent testing and expanded environmental monitoring has revealed no evidence of a health threat to workers or the public.

Monitoring and testing is continuing, and a health study of past and present Rocketdyne nuclear workers is being conducted. Preliminary results are expected this fall.

Rockwell also is involved in a multimillion-dollar cleanup of toxic solvents from the ground water under Santa Susana in a program ordered by the state Regional Water Quality Control Board.

More than 1 million gallons of ground water are pumped out of the ground and cleaned daily of the solvents that were allowed to seep into the ground during decades of rocket testing at the site.

But the attention of the public and regulators had focused mainly on the area at Santa Susana where research was conducted for the DOE and where nuclear contamination was a problem.

It wasn’t until the fatal explosion last year that killed Otto Heiney and Larry Pugh that state Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators began looking into the handling of rocket fuel and other explosives in the areas devoted to work for the U.S. Air Force and NASA.

Federal officials said in the wake of the FBI raid that evidence probably will be presented to a grand jury and that it will be weeks or months before it is known whether indictments will be returned.

The Clinton administration has asked for $1 million during fiscal year 1996 for ongoing cleanup in the DOE area of the field laboratory. ROCKY FLATS Rockwell ran the Rocky Flats plant for the Department of Energy from 1975 to 1989. Rocky Flats bears strong similarities to the most recent Rocketdyne difficulties in that it also was raided by federal authorities. After Rocky Flats was raided in June 1989, a grand jury convened to investigate the company’s practices there.

“The government didn’t provide oversight and the company took advantage of it,” said Bob Quillen, director of the Colorado Health Department’s radiation control division.

Rocky Flats has been cited as one of the nation’s most polluted plant sites, with 166 hazardous waste dumps and plutonium waste beyond the plant’s boundaries that may have contaminated workers and nearby residents, federal records show.

After convening for 2-1/2 years in secret, a federal grand jury in Colorado took the unprecedented step of going public with the findings, saying the government was not harsh enough.

Rockwell was charged with operating a plutonium incinerator in secret after it was ordered shut, spraying radioactive wastes onto a nearby field and leaking chemical wastes into nearby creeks.

Rockwell pleaded guilty in March 1992 to five felonies and five misdemeanors and paid an $18.5 million fine, which critics said was only a fraction of what Rockwell was paid for running Rocky Flats. Eight months later, 12 of the 23 grand jury members took the unprecedented step of coming forward to criticize the federal government’s prosecution, saying it wasn’t tough enough.

“We wanted the Justice Department investigated for their handling of the grand jury,” said Wesley McKinley, the panel’s foreman.

Jackie Brever, a former operator in chemical recovery at Rocky Flats, blew the whistle on Rockwell and later claimed harassment in a subsequent lawsuit.

“In my opinion, they did this because I talked to the FBI about my years at Rockwell and problems they had,” Brever said.

Stocker would not comment specifically about the Brever case, but said there were some employees concerned about losing their jobs who may have harassed co-workers.

“I’m not aware of any management-directed or management-condoned harassment at Rocky Flats,” Stocker said.

Stocker said Rockwell’s troubles at Rocky Flats arose primarily because the company operated the site for the Department of Energy. The department put restraints on Rockwell, hampering its ability to run the plants, said Stocker.

Most of the Rocky Flats problems stemmed from Rockwell’s inability to get permits to ship the material out, Stocker said. The spraying was federally approved but proved problematic when water began running off the fields, he said.

“We could not shut down the spray field without shutting down the plant. We were told by the Department of Energy that we could not shut down the plant. Did that result in violations of water laws? Yes it did,” Stocker said.

Rockwell lost the contract to operate Rocky Flats in 1989. President Clinton has requested $640 million in cleanup funds for Rocky Flats for fiscal year 1996. HANFORD Rockwell ran Hanford, the nation’s largest nuclear reservation and weapons plant, from 1977 to 1987. Rockwell relinquished its contract under heavy public criticism after the facility was ordered shut in 1986 due to radioactive waste contamination in and around the site.

At Hanford, 66 underground tanks leaked 1 million gallons of radioactive material, spreading contamination into the soil, records show. Federal records show that radioactive iodine was released from the plant in its early years of operation.

The plant was in the hands of several contractors over its 52 years of operation, including Rockwell. Westinghouse is supervising cleanup at Hanford, which is expected to take several decades.

The contamination was the fault of prior contractors, Rockwell officials said. But state records show that in trying to restart the plant in the early 1980s after it lay dormant for years, Rockwell had several mishaps including a near-chain reaction, exposing several workers to radiation, said Jerry Gilliland, spokesman for the Washington Ecology Department.

“They were operating on the basis of producing plutonium and not dealing with safety issues and environmental issues,” said Gilliland, himself a former Rockwell spokesman when the company operated Hanford.

Rockwell has acknowledged that it contaminated one-third of an acre with plutonium at Hanford due to a broken valve. That led to th incident in which Gardner, the Washington governor, faced potential irradiation in 1985.

Rockwell officials acknowledged that company workers took down signs warning of potential hazards at the contaminated field moments before Gardner’s motorcade passed during a much publicized tour of the Hanford reservation.

The signs were replaced after the governor and his entourage had passed.

Stocker conceded that removing the signs was a mistake. He said the employee who ordered it done was fired.

Stocker said that although dozens of lawsuits have been filed against former Hanford operators, evidence disclosed so far shows no culpability by Rockwell.

“We came to Hanford in 1977, and I understand that virtually no evidence has been produced . . . of meaningful releases during the time we were there or subsequent to that,” Stocker said. “In fact, I understand that there’s a very high likelihood that Rockwell and the other (later) contractors are probably going to be dismissed out of those cases for lack of evidence.”

Clinton has asked for $1.4 billion in Hanford cleanup funds for next year. RUSSELLVILLE, KY. The problems at Rockwell’s aluminum die casting plant at Russellville involved the discharge of massive quantities of PCBs, a suspected carcinogenic compound that was commonly found in lubricating and insulating oil in an impound lagoon near the plant.

In 1985, a study by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection found significant PCB contamination in local streams and high levels of the toxic compound in fish.

The state cited Rockwell, saying the company had discharged PCBs into ditches and a stream that empties into the Mud River. Pollution also has been found along 64 miles of the Mud River.

Rockwell has been involved for the past decade in a $12 million cleanup under an agreement with the state. The company has sold the Russellville plant, but remains responsible for the cleanup.