Russians, Rockets and the Santa Ana River

A closed weapons plant in the Chino Hills may be leaking hazardous chemicals into the Santa Ana River

Photo by Heather SwaimFred Sharp thought it was funny the time his son brought home 20 rounds of machine-gun ammo he had found in his Chino Hills neighborhood. But Sharp, a Vietnam vet and bomb expert, was less amused on March 14, 1999, when a neighbor pointed out an odd-looking metal egg in a vacant lot. It was a grenade—with the pin missing. Soon the Fire Department's arson unit arrived to blow it up.

Sharp lives in one of the hottest new cities in Southern California, a burgeoning bedroom community where luxurious tract homes sell for a tidy $700,000. Many residents are unaware of the Cold War legacy hidden high in the local hills —one that includes radioactive and chemical contamination, in addition to countless undetonated munitions. They are the products of a clandestine 800-acre complex that operated for nearly 40 years before it was closed in 1995 by Aerojet General, a Sacramento-based military-industrial giant.

Surrounded by barbed wire and virtually unscaleable cliffs, the Aerojet site is near the juncture of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. There, the firm detonated mustard- and tear-gas weapons, exploded depleted uranium-tipped projectiles, and produced a galaxy of bombs and munitions. The depleted uranium on the projectiles, which were deployed as tank-busters in the Gulf War and Kosovo, is linked to bone cancer and kidney disease and has a half-life of 4.468 billion years. Two years ago, the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute noted "possible relationships between depleted uranium and neurological, immunological, carcinogenic, genotoxic and mutagenic effects."

Residents of Chino and Chino Hills claim that chemical and radioactive poisons oozing from the site are damaging their health, even causing cancers. Orange County residents may consider those claims as a warning: there's a small creek that sluices runoff from the Aerojet site into the Soquel Canyon Creek in Chino Hills. Soquel Canyon feeds into Carbon Canyon Creek, moving south through Brea, Placentia and into Anaheim. It discharges into the Santa Ana River near the crossroads of the 91 freeway and Kraemer Boulevard. The Santa Ana is a major source of water for many in Orange County, flowing through Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Fountain Valley and Costa Mesa before dumping into the Pacific Ocean at the south end of environmentally troubled Huntington Beach.

Though linking specific cases of cancer to environmental causes is exceedingly difficult, 58 residents of Chino and Chino Hills have sued Aerojet, alleging fraud, negligence and seven wrongful deaths. They seek compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, lower property values and legal fees for, according to the complaint, "willful, wanton and despicable conduct."

"It's Rocketdyne East," said Jonathan Parfrey, a former Santa Ana activist, now local director of the environmental group Physicians for Social Responsibility. Rocketdyne is the better-known military-industrial complex tucked between the Simi and San Fernando valleys. Residents there blame their sicknesses on cancer-causing chemicals and radioactive pollutants. "But unlike the Rocketdyne situation, the community in Chino Hills is disorganized. Aerojet's classified experiments haven't been scrutinized, and the government has apparently bought Aerojet's [contention] that decades of spraying and exploding death-dealing chemicals can be remediated simply by trucking loads of contaminated dirt off-site."

Now, after the nearly five-year-long dismantling of Aerojet's massive complex, activists and residents are worried that their air and soil have been contaminated by radiation and chemicals. Despite reassurances from the government that a proposed cleanup plan will repair the damage, they point to secretive Aerojet restoration activities, a lack of company openness about chemicals deemed classified, and an outright dismissal by Aerojet of responsibility for some of the toxins found in the area.

Aerojet produced potent and poisonous rocket fuel, including something called a perchlorate compound—a toxic rocket-fuel oxidizer that can lead to aplastic anemia and may cause autoimmune thyroid disease. Over the years, perchlorate and other poisonous substances were dumped into a 350,000-gallon polyethylene-lined pond and a 270,000-gallon unlined sludge pit. According to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), perchlorate drained into the hills' substrata. The cities of Chino Hills and adjacent Chino both rely on well water drawn in Chino for residential use. All nine wells supplying water to the city of Chino were found to contain perchlorate in a September 1997 sampling by E.S. Babcock & Sons, an environmental laboratory. One well had 21 parts per billion (ppb) of perchlorate; state provisional standards consider 18 ppb a threat to public safety. In a March 29 report, the level of perchlorate in the contaminated wells ranged from 5 ppb to 17.5 ppb, according to Dr. Kalyanpur Baliga, senior sanitary engineer at the San Bernardino district office of the California Department of Health Services (DHS) Drinking Water Division. Baliga said that these water wells are taken out of service during periods when perchlorate readings are found to exceed the legally defined "safe" limits. State officials note that it's possible that the perchlorate contamination came from a source other than Aerojet.

Rosemary Younts, senior vice president of communications for Aerojet, said the company is committed to cleaning up the plant. "I will tell you that we do not intend to leave that [site] until it is clean," she said. "We've reported on and evaluated all the data collected and are ready to proceed with cleanup."

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