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Boeing under federal investigation - says runoff rules too strict

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By Amanda Covarrubias
Times Staff Writer
December 12, 2006

The company will ask the state to ease limits on pollution at its former Simi Hills lab. Critics say it could be an effort to thwart a federal probe.
Boeing Co. on Wednesday will seek to ease limits on runoff pollution at its former nuclear research and rocket testing lab in the Simi Hills amid a criminal investigation into whether the company violated clean-water standards there.

Boeing wants the State Water Resources Control Board to amend a permit that allows the company to discharge industrial wastewater and surface storm water from the laboratory.

As part of that request, the company said it had received subpoenas from a federal grand jury that was looking at whether it violated the federal Clean Water Act in the discharge of industrial wastewater and surface storm water from the hilltop laboratory.

The water contamination has been a controversial issue for years, with neighbors contending that the field lab allowed water tainted with chemicals used at the rocket lab to run into the local watershed and, ultimately, to the Pacific Ocean.

Critics say the rocket testing and nuclear research conducted at the laboratory for more than four decades has caused employees and nearby residents to contract cancer and other illnesses from the toxic material in the air and water at the 2,850-acre hilltop laboratory. Field lab officials have disputed many of those allegations.

Boeing spokeswoman Blythe Jameson said Monday that the company wanted more time to comply with state standards.

"Immediate compliance is not possible," Jameson said. "We're asking for more time to set up a timetable, so we can be in compliance."

But nuclear watchdog Daniel Hirsch, a longtime critic of the field lab, worries that easing the pollution limits might scuttle the federal government's efforts. He and others fear that changing Boeing's permit rules now could be used as a defense by the company against any federal charges, if they are filed.

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who represents the area, has asked the state water board to deny the request.

"I think this continues their [Boeing's] pattern of failing to comply with even the meagerest orders of cleanup," she said. "Essentially, they want to overturn the regional water board and give Boeing more time and looser standards under which to clean up a portion of the problem they caused in regards to water. It's completely irresponsible."

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board imposed increasingly stringent discharge limits on Boeing in 2004 and again in January and March of this year.

Assemblywoman Julie Brownley (D-Woodland Hills), who represents the area, agreed that Boeing should not be granted a revised permit.

"The sole reason for Boeing's appeal of the order appears to be their own desire to reduce the level of monitoring that is required of them while they remain under investigation for their current level of compliance," Brownley wrote to the state water board. "There is no basis that serves the public interest to issue an order that Boeing do less."

She also agreed that the timing of the request was questionable.

"Any action to revise, weaken or otherwise change the permit that the Regional Board issued, following lengthy public hearings and extensive public comment, will surely be cited by Boeing as a part of their defense to any legal action," she wrote.

Jameson, the Boeing spokeswoman, strongly denied that there was any connection between the federal investigation and its request for a modification to the state runoff permit.

According to Boeing's filing with the state, the U.S. attorney's office contacted the company in November 2005, seeking documents pertaining to its permit compliance from 2001 to 2005.

Boeing declined to comment further on the investigation, as did the U.S. attorney's office.

It is not the first time that the field lab has been the subject of a criminal investigation. In the 1990s, two workers were killed in an explosion at the lab, and its owner at the time initially denied involvement in the illegal disposal of hazardous materials. After an FBI raid on the plant, the U.S. attorney indicted the company, which pleaded guilty to multiple environmental felonies.

A study released in October found that radioactive emissions from a 1959 nuclear accident at the lab may have been much greater than previously suspected and could have resulted in hundreds of cancers in surrounding communities.

Chemical contamination from rocket engine testing at the site continues to threaten soil and groundwater in the area around the field lab, the study also found. The advisory panel was created by local legislators in the early 1990s to oversee some of the studies.

Boeing rejected the findings, saying that the study was based on miscalculations and faulty information.

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