2003 CPEO Military List Archive

From: CPEO Moderator <cpeo@cpeo.org>
Date: 14 Jul 2003 15:09:15 -0000
Reply: cpeo-military
Subject: [CPEO-MEF] As few regulators watched, pollution, concerns seeped in
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As few regulators watched, pollution, concerns seeped in

Odessa Phillips and her daughters were just pulling into their driveway
in rural Norco when they saw a white cloud racing toward them from a
hazardous-testing complex.

Employees at Wyle Laboratories sprinted for their cars as a garbled
voice boomed from the company's loudspeakers, said Phillips and her
daughter Gail Snow.

As the cloud rolled down a hillside, Phillips and her three young
daughters sat in their car -- doors locked, windows closed tightly.

"It was terrifying," Phillips said. "I had no idea what it was."
The cloud dissipated, and the employees slowly left their cars, the
women said.

Phillips and her daughters never found out what happened that day in
1966. The current manager of Wyle's Norco site could not confirm the
event, and Phillips acknowledged she didn't press the matter at the

"Maybe I was naive, but I told myself, 'If it were that dangerous, the
government wouldn't let it near us.' "

But now, almost 40 years later, after surviving breast cancer, losing
her husband to lung cancer and watching two of her daughters and several
neighbors battle life-threatening thyroid growths and cancer, she
wonders if anyone was looking out for the families around Wyle
An investigation by The Press-Enterprise found that few regulators were
watching as Wyle conducted secret tests for the military and aerospace
industry. At the same time, former employees say and documents indicate,
the company repeatedly mishandled toxic waste. Not until Wyle sold its
property in November to a developer who plans to build 368 homes did
regulators begin paying closer attention. Although scheduled to relocate
next year, the company still tests commercial and military products at
the Norco property.

For decades, government agencies responsible for protecting public
health had only sporadic contact with Wyle, records show.

State and federal regulators dismissed the company as a low priority,
even as they acknowledged they knew little about what went on there,
according to public documents. Since then, people who have lived or
attended school near Wyle have said they think a string of ailments
might be connected to toxic chemicals used there.

Tests commissioned by Wyle recently uncovered cancer-causing chemicals
in the soil, a creek and groundwater at the company's property. Regional
water officials believe some of that pollution is moving beyond Wyle's
land. But Wyle officials say they don't have any evidence that the
company is responsible for anyone's illness.

"The number and levels of contaminants in four years of sampling are not
high enough to get people concerned," said Drexel Smith, senior vice
president and general manager of Wyle Laboratories. Over the years, he
said, "our practices reflected what the legal standards required."
Environmental regulators also said they don't have evidence that would
hold Wyle responsible for residents' health problems.

Even so, regulators are striving to find out how much contamination
remains and how far it might have spread into the community.

Company executives and a spokesman for the developer who bought Wyle's
land say they are confident it will be safe for the families who will
move into the new homes.

The Press-Enterprise reviewed thousands of pages of documents dating
back to the 1960s and interviewed Wyle officials, regulators,
environmental experts, former Wyle employees and Norco residents. Among
the findings:

- Six former Wyle employees said they saw dangerous chemicals dumped
down drains or spilled onto the ground. Public records confirm their

- One former employee complained to county health authorities about
hazardous-waste dumping at the lab, but the county determined his
concerns were unfounded without inspecting the site.

- The state placed Wyle on an abandoned sites list in 1983, even though
the company was in full operation, testing weapons and other military
and aerospace components.

- In 1988, state and federal agencies, without going beyond Wyle's front
gate, concluded that the Wyle operation was of little environmental
concern. That report became the foundation for regulators' conclusions
about Wyle for at least the next 10 years. Residents say officials still
cite the report to allay their fears.

- Former employees say the company pumped excessive amounts of dangerous
chemicals into the air. The regional air quality agency inspected Wyle
pollution-control equipment but has no record of testing emissions to
see if they posed a health risk.

- Dozens of people who have lived, worked or attended Norco High School
across the street from Wyle wonder if the company's pollution made them
sick. To date, The Press-Enterprise has identified more than 30 people
with life-threatening thyroid cancer or growths that they think could be
linked to hazardous materials at Wyle. Dozens more wonder if Wyle is
responsible for their brain cancer, leukemia, heart conditions, asthma,
sinus trouble, bladder cancer, miscarriages and rare blood diseases.

Environmental regulators have said they don't know if residents and
their families were exposed to dangerous chemicals during Wyle's 46
years in Norco.

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