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

This task recently got more complicated. "Explosive chemicals have also been found in ground water at two locations," said Christine Brown, the DTSC's project manager for the facility, at a Chino Hills public hearing in May 1999. "That water eventually ends up in a creek that goes . . . into the Santa Ana River," which supplies two million Orange County residents with 75 percent of their water.

At the Aerojet site itself, dioxin, lead, perchlorate, and the incendiary chemicals RDX and HMX were found, according to a 1999 DTSC report. Perchlorate was detected at 887 ppb, nearly 50 times the allowable government limit for ground water, 42 feet below the surface. In an "open-burn" pit, RDX "was found to be 1,110 ppb, which exceeds its munition health advisory, which is 400 ppb for an adult," the report stated.

Don Vanderkar, Aerojet's director of environmental restoration at the facility, repeatedly has assured residents that they are not in danger. "The activities of Aerojet [have] not affected surface water and ground water and certainly not your drinking supply," he publicly stated last year, days after DTSC's accounting of the company's sludge slopping into streams leading to the Santa Ana River.

Despite that finding, neither DTSC nor DHS has asked the Orange County Water District (OCWD) to test for Aerojet contaminants; district officials in Fountain Valley said they knew nothing about the Chino Hills site and "were having trouble locating it on a map."

An OCWD official said the district doesn't test for the explosive chemicals HMX and RDX–indeed, HMX isn't in the OCWD data base and the federal Environmental Protection Agency is still developing a test for RDX. While the official said perchlorate has been found in "trace amounts," he pointed out that the district tests water at the base of the Prado Dam in Riverside County and at the Santa Ana River at the Imperial Highway juncture in Anaheim Hills; both sites are miles upstream from where state officials figure Aerojet toxins are entering the river from Carbon Canyon Creek.

Since Aerojet received the DTSC's approval to begin dismantling the facility in 1995, some 364 tons of soil tainted with perchlorate have already been hauled away, according to geoscientist Joseph Bahde, who works for McLaren/ Hart, an Irvine-based environmental contractor brought in by Aerojet. The company awaits state approval for removing additional contaminants. Bahde explained that 10 areas require remediation because of explosive chemicals, ordnance, ordnance fragments and tear gas left at the facility. Other details of the cleanup of the Aeroject plant are being worked out by the company and the DTSC.

California Senator Barbara Boxer said she will work to make sure the federal government fulfills any obligations to "ensure Chino Hills is a safe and healthy environment."

"I am extremely concerned about the effect of radioactive waste and other chemical contaminants on our communities and particularly on children, who are so vulnerable," Boxer stated. "There are hundreds of former military-related sites across the country, and we have an obligation to clean them up."

Despite such reassurances, locals are worried. They report that since 1995, Aerojet workers have excavated some of the complex's toxic soil late at night under floodlights visible from the neighborhood below in what residents began to call the "dead shift." Drivers then hauled away the soil through the local residential streets. Karen Miller, who lives near the entrance of the facility, walked her dogs late at night and was often horrified by what she saw. "I would see these clouds of gas or dust billowing from Aerojet, illuminated by floodlights." But what really set Miller off was her discovery that the hauled-off dirt was contaminated with depleted uranium. "I am a witness to the fact that tarped trucks were rumbling through our neighborhood for at least a year and a half," she said. According to Aerojet's Younts, the materials hauled off-site ended up at Envirocare, a licensed dump in Clive, Utah.

According to a DTSC study, the trucking of toxic sludge isn't over. The proposed cleanup will require "an estimated 20 trucks per day for 16 days (308 trucks total) . . . to transport contaminated soil off-site to the nearest rail location."

Aerojet's Vanderkar was grilled about night hauling at a community meeting last year. He responded, "There was no hauling done purposely at night or otherwise at night except, perhaps, if we had a long workday and trucks continued into the evening after it got dark." He added, "We have heard the concern, and we will make certain that the hauling is done in reasonable hours."

But the trucking of toxic goo is hardly the only worry for residents such as Miller. "We have the rarest forms of cancer in our community," she said. "Two little girls have died and another is about to. These things just don't happen out of the blue."

Kelly Almand, a soft-spoken 25-year-old woman, grew up in the shadow of Aerojet. She used to play in a mucky creek behind her Chino Hills home. Then, at Christmastime in 1983, Almand was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), also known as acute myeloblastic leukemia. She and her parents recall that three other neighborhood kids were diagnosed with cancer in the same month. And that year, four additional children contracted cancer at her grade level. One boy died, and Almand was admitted to the hospital. Doctors gave her a slim chance of survival and desperately tried to save her with numerous blood transfusions. She ended up missing a year at Glenmeade Elementary School and now has hepatitis C from the transfusions. But Almand survived and is now a party in the lawsuit. Her hospital roommate was a 3-year-old named Amy with liver tumors—she soon died.

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