Firefighters worry about chemical exposure in Topanga Fire


Many are getting tested after battling strange colored flames at Rocketdyne during September’s Topanga Fire. A senator has demanded that the California Air Resources Board investigate the possibility of air pollution resulting from burning chemicals.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

Some firefighters who battled the Topana Fire in September are asking if the green flames and strange smoke they saw and smelled means they were exposed to leftover dangerous chemicals from a controversial rocket test site. The fire dusted western Malibu with smoke and ash as well, and it burned across an area that has long been suspected of causing air and water pollution.

Ventura County firefighters are seeking chest X-rays, blood tests and other medical examinations as a result of battling the strangely colored flames at Rocketdyne, the rocket engine and nuclear energy test site, about five miles north of Agoura Hills.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she is worried the fire possibly dispersed chlorinated dioxins and other cancer-causing substances into a plume of smoke that covered part of the Conejo Valley and Malibu coast.

In addition, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board this month sought a cease-and-desist order to prevent chemicals such as chlorine, chromium, dioxins and mercury from flowing off the Rocketdyne Test Facility into several local creeks.

Firefighters who were on the test site during the September fire told The Malibu Times they saw evidence that chemicals were burning along with the rugged bushes and trees near rocket test pads.

“It was burning with these weird green flames,” said one firefighter, who asked not to be named. “We’d never seen anything like that before.”

Firefighters said they could also smell unusual chemicals burning.

“We have a concern, more than any evidence, about what was burned up on Rocketdyne,” said Chris Mahon, a Ventura County fire captain who heads the firefighters union. “We’re encouraging our members, if they were up in that area, to get some medical testing done.”

Residents of western Malibu experienced falling ash and smoke from the fire, which started at the 118 Freeway near Topanga Canyon Boulevard, at the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley, Sept. 28. It quickly burned southwest, toward Thousand Oaks and across Rocketdyne’s facility. The fire burned almost 25,000 acres, and at least 2,000 acres of Rocketdyne’s isolated test facility burned, including some buildings.

Smoke levels were naturally much higher in areas closer to the fire such as Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village than along the coast. But a Ventura County health official said he has heard no complaints from anyone near the flames of suffering ill effects from the smoke.

“No one has presented any information yet to make me concerned that there is anything threatening to the public health,” Dr. Robert Levin, Ventura County’s health officer, said in a telephone interview.

Another fire captain said his squad was one of several, including crews from Malibu, working to protect buildings near a large rocket engine testing pad that has been used for decades to test rocket fuel formulations. As many as seven buildings, including some used to prepare rocket fuels, burned during the fire.

“We have been told that none of the buildings that burned were storing any hazardous chemicals,” said Ron Baker, chief of the information office for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control in Sacramento. “And our toxicologist is telling us that the transfer of inert materials into plants, and the burning of those plants, would most likely not result in release of contaminants that would be of concern.”

The testing facility site is owned by Boeing, and a spokeswoman said the company is aware of local worries but convinced that nothing hazardous was contained in the smoke. Company spokeswoman Inger Hodgson referred a reporter’s questions to a company statement, which asserts that no contaminants burned other than “brush, wood and building materials, as well as kerosene, machine oils and lubricants. “

The company statement does say that “it is likely that the levels of some chemicals in surface water, including dioxins and metals, will increase as a result of the fire.”

Boeing promises to increase testing in creeks and report the results to local officials.

Critics of the plant, and Feinstein, worry that the decades of accumulated perchlorate, beryllium, dioxin, PCBs and heavy metal disposal and burning at the site caused the groundcover to concentrate toxins, which were dispersed into the air when the area burned.

Feinstein has demanded that the California Air Resources Board investigate, and inform her of its findings. But one longtime Rocketdyne critic says the testing that was done was insufficient.

Daniel Hirsch, director of the Santa Monica-based Committee to Bridge the Gap, said Ventura County’s only air pollution detection equipment is permanently stationed in a location that did not get smoke from the Topanga fire.

That site, in Simi Valley, suffered a power outage during the fire, and is equipped only to measure smog, not carcinogenic or radioactive chemicals.

“The only reason they can say nothing has been detected is because no one has been testing for any burning chemicals, other than the regular smog-producing smoke,” Hirsch said.

The Rocketdyne facility has a 55-year history of contributions to the nation’s defense and space efforts. Rocket engines for the Apollo moon effort, and for the space shuttle, were test-fired on massive firing pads in the rugged mountain site, 24 miles due north of the Malibu Civic Center.

Test firings may have coated the nearby brushy mountains with rocket fuel and residue, and fuel components such as perchlorate have been detected in wells at the site and to the north in Simi Valley. Part of the affected land is in the Malibu Creek watershed.

In addition, the location was used for nuclear energy and waste disposal tests in the 1950s and ’60s. A small nuclear reactor failed and melted down there in the 1959, and two research scientists were killed in 1995 in a chemical disposal mishap.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that a federal grand jury is investigating Boeing over contaminated stormwater and wastewater flowing from the mountaintop site, which drains into the Los Angeles River and Calleguas Creek watersheds. The headwaters of Malibu Creek also are near the test area, but officials have not included that waterway in the order. The Rocketdyne site has previously been fined 13 times for violating its state water quality permit, the Times reported.