WASHINGTON - One of the nation's largest federal defense contractors says the U.S. government should pay the cleanup costs - likely in the tens of millions of dollars or more - from pollutants leaked during the production and testing of U.S. military and space rockets.
Federal policies at one former Lockheed Propulsion Co. rocket plant in California allowed for burning toxic chemical waste in open, unlined dirt pits during the 1970s, according to a lawsuit that Lockheed Martin Corp. filed against the U.S. government.
The practice has been linked to pollution in groundwater and soil.
Lockheed, whose propulsion company helped build rocket motors for the Apollo and Mercury space programs, has faced personal injury lawsuits over the past decade from residents upset about pollution near the now-closed Redlands, Calif., rocket facility, according to U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings.
The company wants the government to pay past cleanup costs and to be held liable for future expenses.
A Lockheed spokeswoman declined to comment on the company's lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in the District. The lawsuit doesn't say how much money the company is seeking.
Lockheed is reporting more than $500 million in liabilities companywide from "environmental matters," which include soil and groundwater contamination in Redlands and unrelated projects, according to SEC filings.
According to the lawsuit, Lockheed says two sorts of pollutants - ammonium perchlorate and trichloroethylene - "escaped into the environment in the course of operations at the Redlands facility," and turned up in local soil and groundwater.
Trichloroethylene, or TCE, is an industrial solvent that can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and cancer. Exposure to perchlorate can affect the thyroid gland, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.
Located about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, the Redlands facility was run by Lockheed Propulsion from 1961 to 1975. Working on military and space exploration projects for the government, the company was a division of the Lockheed Aircraft Corp., a predecessor of Lockheed Corp., which, through a merger with Martin Marietta Corp. in 1995, became Lockheed Martin.
A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency - one of several government agencies and departments named in the lawsuit - said federal officials generally do not comment on pending litigation.
The Lockheed complaint said ammonium perchlorate was required in most government contracts for rocket propellant. Used as an oxidizer, it provided a concentrated form of oxygen to support the burning of rocket fuel after ignition.
The substance also was ground into a fine, almost smokelike powder that was impossible to collect and contain, according to Lockheed.
"Some small portion of the dust and 'smoke' created by the grinding invariably escaped the collection process and entered the environment," the Lockheed lawsuit stated. Later, the contaminated dust settled onto soil and was washed away by rain into the groundwater, it said.
The complaint said government manuals on the disposal of excess rocket propellant, including ammonium perchlorate, "provided that the burning of the material on bare ground was one of two or three acceptable methods of disposal."
Environmental groups and state regulators have said toxic waste escaped through the use of the open burn pits at Redlands and polluted groundwater, according to the lawsuit. Lockheed said it "has incurred and will continue to incur substantial costs to treat and remove pollutants from the groundwater."
Contamination traced to rocket fuel also has been found in other states.
Richard Wiles, executive director of the nonprofit District-based Environmental Working Group, testified before Congress in May that perchlorate has leaked from hundreds of military and defense plants nationwide, with reports of contamination in 28 states.
© 2008 The Washington Times, LLC.