rockwell/mike1st/mark2nd By BEN SULLIVAN Staff Reporter When Boeing North American Inc. inherited the beleaguered Santa Susana Field Laboratory in December as part of its acqusition of Rockwell International’s aerospace and defense units, there was trepidation on both sides of the deal. Rockwell employees feared layoffs after the purchase, and Boeing was assuming liability for pending lawsuits and clean-up efforts stemming from five decades of chemical and radiation leaks at the site. Since then, the 2,668-acre complex of buildings, bunkers and testing towers situated in the northwest San Fernando Valley has downsized by roughly 20 workers. And a new federal class-action lawsuit by neighbors has further highlighted the environmental problems associated with the Santa Susana facility. Still, Boeing says the facility is a diamond in the rough generating a steady stream of revenues by using its Cold War-era technology and personnel to undertake civilian projects on a contract basis. Last year, the test facility did $3 million to $5 million in contracting work, said Mark Gabler, director of the Energy Technology Engineering Center where such work is done. The energy center represents about one-tenth of the laboratory’s total facilities. The contract work has included developing seismic equipment for the California Department of Transportation and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, auditing for the Southern California Gas Co. and working on an electric bus in conjunction with the Southern California Air Quality Management District, Gabler said. Lawsuits and bad press over chemical spills and other mishaps at the testing facility have “never come up in any course of business,” Gabler said. If anything, 1997 stands to see an even greater amount of contract work at the site, Boeing spokeswoman Lori Circle said. That a business operation battered publicly should continue to thrive commerically is not unusual, said Ken Herbert, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan. “Business decisions are going to be driven by the costs and capabilities of a facility like this, irrespective of the reputation or the environmental impact the site at large has,” Herbert said. “The customer, in all honesty, is not going to be too concerned about some allegations that may be impacting the overall reputation of the company they’re doing business with.” That’s good news for Boeing. In a federal class-action lawsuit filed last month, neighbors of the facility say 50 years of safety accidents at the site have put residents at an increased risk of cancer and other deadly ailments. The neighbors further contend that pollution from the site has caused widespread property damage in the affluent hillside community. If successful, the lawsuit would hold Boeing responsible for economic and punitive damages, medical monitoring for sick plaintiffs and costs for environmental clean-up. “It’s staggering the number of people calling (about the lawsuit),” said attorney Tina Nieves of Gancedo & Nieves, one of two law firms representing the residents. Boeing officials declined to comment on the lawsuit and attorneys for the company were unavailable for comment. But because Rockwell in 1989 stopped most of the activities alleged to have caused the pollution, life at the Santa Susana site will be little changed whichever way the suit is judged, according to Circle. “We don’t do any nuclear work there anymore, and we’re in the final stages of clean-up,” Circle said. The facility’s history is dominated by its five decades as a high-security test site for the U.S. government’s Cold War efforts. It is where the earliest missiles to carry nuclear warheads were tested, and where engines for every major U.S. space launch were built. The facility is run by Rocketdyne, a subsidiary of Rockwell, which sold its aerospace and defense operations to Boeing in December. Over the years, it has housed a variety of toxic materials, from nuclear fuel to carcinogenic solvents used to cool rocket engines after test firings. A series of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tests in the early 1990s found low levels of radioactive and chemical contamination in surrounding soil and water, but too low to warrant cleaning up, according to EPA project leader Tom Kelly. Kelly oversees current EPA monitoring of on-site clean-up work by Boeing. The lawsuit, instigated by seven current and former residents of nearby neighborhoods, contends that contamination has led to cases of leukemia, breast cancer, bladder cancer and other ailments in the surrounding community. Among the incidents cited in the lawsuit as causing contamination was the release of a cloud of fission gas in 1959 after a nuclear reactor at the site overloaded and shut down; the explosion of a radioactive fuel rod which had been removed from the reactor to be washed; and a series of sodium fires that could have exposed residents to toxic fumes. Last December, a leak in an air conditioning system at the facility released more than 30,000 gallons of coolant, with some of it reaching a nearby creek. Attorney Nieves said plaintiffs will present previously unreleased reports that document such mishaps and experts who will testify on the connection between the contamination and diseases. Nieves comes to the Boeing case after successfully representing Burbank residents in a similar case with Lockheed Martin Corp. Lockheed last year agreed to pay $60 million to more than 1,300 residents who claimed toxic substances from an aircraft parts plant had damaged their health. In the Boeing case, however, “we intend on taking this thing to trial,” she said.