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

Almand, a fragile woman, is at once shaken and angry. "What they were doing there contaminated the water," she said. "Plus, they spewed gas into the air."

During the same period, four adults in her neighborhood also were diagnosed with cancer. "Back then, I didn't see it as a big deal," she said wearily. "I was a tomboy, just getting dirty. But now, as an adult, looking back, I think it's sick. I think Aerojet knew what it was doing. They knew it was wrong, and they continued to do it, and now they are trying to cover it up."

Seven thousand new cases of AML are reported each year in the United States. A primary cause is "exposure to high doses of irradiation," according to the Leukemia Society of America. AML isn't the only rare cancer in Chino Hills. There have recently been three cases of neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer that strikes about 500 kids annually in the U.S. The disease usually strikes children under the age of 5. Three local children have been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, with a little boy dying of the disease in 1996 and another boy succumbing in June 1998 at the age of 71⁄2. Another girl recently had a bone-marrow transplant and is undergoing chemotherapy.

Despite such stories, one recent study dismissed the notion that people living in the Chino Hills neighborhood are contracting cancers at an abnormally high rate. That report, by the Desert Cancer Surveillance Program at Loma Linda University Medical Center, found that cancer cases increased 61 percent from 1990 to 1996 but that the population had gone up 80 percent during the same period.

Lawyer Michael Bidart is not convinced by the study. His March 1 lawsuit claims that 5,000 pounds of Aerojet poisons annually leached into the ground, percolating "into the water table under the area and into local aboveground water sources that are drinking sources . . . and used for household purposes such as bathing and washing."

Aerojet's environmental record is far from stellar. Two other sites of company factories, in the San Gabriel Valley and Sacramento County, are now designated as Superfund sites, which are contaminated areas targeted for special, high-priority government intervention. Strangely enough, the Chino Hills location is not a Superfund site; Aerojet would like it certified as safe so it could sell the valuable land. Already, major developers have eyed the property and the vacant land around it. The Catellus Residential Group proposed a 270-home development last year, next to the facility. It was to include an 18-hole public golf course and a place for a fire station. The $17.4 million venture was rejected by the Chino Hills City Council in July 1999 on a 4-1 vote, after community members voiced concerns about school overcrowding and the possibility that excavation work could release toxins from contaminated dirt. And in February, the city revoked a grading permit for a different proposed upscale development: concerns about unexploded ordnance that were raised by the DTSC.

Regardless, the developer, Redlands-based Harvest Development Co., received San Bernardino County's permission to go ahead with its plan to grade 70 acres of land on the northern perimeter of the Aerojet site for a 610-acre project that would would construct 205 upscale homes and a golf course.

Despite numerous "hunt-and-peck" and field-magnetometer searches of the area for unexploded munitions, some parts of the facility are so polluted that the explosives had to be left in the ground. In 1996, McLaren/Hart, Aerojet's environmental contractor, commissioned Wyle Laboratories of Norco to sweep the site for ordnance. In one test area, the report noted, "Sweep data indicates the presence of buried metallic objects; however, no excavation to identify was performed because of depleted uranium (DU) contamination." At another test range, "Extensive intrusive investigations were not conducted because of the potential for DU exposure."

Mother Nature also played a hand in making it almost impossible to ensure that the site is free from armaments. Wyle Laboratories found that "sections have apparently undergone a landslide, and if any ordnance contamination is present, it will be located very deep within the hillside." Weirder still is the possibility that animals have been stashing bombs in their own hiding places, according to bomb expert and resident Fred Sharp. For years, Aerojet tested Dragon Tooth mines in the rugged ravines. Dragon Tooth mines are small anti-personnel mines, high explosives encased in a plastique and canvas covering. The mines were used extensively to carpet-bomb the jungles of Vietnam. Upon landing on the ground, the bombs were activated; a second impact, triggered by a person stepping on it, might blow a leg off. According to Sharp, Aerojet left numerous Dragon Tooth mines in the open to see how they would be affected by the elements. But some of the mines went missing. It was determined that squirrels had made off with the mines and stashed them in their burrows creating a potentially explosive situation if builders use heavy equipment to excavate the area.

"It probably wouldn't hurt a Caterpillar tractor," Sharp says with a laugh, "but it would sure wake them up."

Taking Aerojet to task for its problems in Chino Hills won't be easy, claim activists monitoring the situation. Like most of Orange County, this section of San Bernardino County is filled with business-friendly Republican officials who feel more of a natural affinity to Aerojet than to environmentalists. Besides that, many are terrified by the prospect that the resale prices of their homes could plummet if word gets out in stories like this one.

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