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Shipments Of Toxic Rocket Fuels Through Populous Areas Worry Officials

September 20, 1987

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Routine shipments of highly toxic and explosive rocket fuels on busy Southern California freeways worry officials evaluating the damage a spill could cause in the heavily populated region.

The fuel passes through the Los Angeles metropolitan area on some of the nation’s most congested highways, headed for rocket launching sites at Vandenberg Air Force Base north of Santa Barbara, although less-traveled routes are available, The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday from Washington, D.C.

″What we have is a major breakdown in communications and in common sense,″ said Rep. Cardiss Collins, D-Ill., whose House Governmental Operations subcommittee plans hearings on the issue. ″Clearly, something has got to change before a real tragedy occurs.″

More than 1 million pounds of nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine were shipped through greater Los Angeles during 1984 and 1985, the last years for which figures are available, the Times reported.

Since only large shipments of the fuels must be registered with local officials, smaller truckloads can travel free of usual safety restrictions, the newspaper said.

The driver of one shipment this month parked his truck in an Oxnard storage yard overnight, drove it to a Ventura restaurant the next day and stopped for gas at a commercial service station, all of which was legal, the Air Force told Ventura County officials.

But at least they knew about the shipment.

Los Angeles officials who would have to deal with an emergency say they haven’t been formally notified about trucks carrying the fuels through their jurisdictions.

″Basically I an unaware of any military shipments going through the city of Los Angeles,″ said Steven Tekosky, supervisor of the environmental law section in the city attorney’s office.

Ken Rosenburg, a California Highway Patrol spokesman, said the CHP would play a lead role in any chemical accident on freeways but knew little of the routine shipments.

″We don’t get much of that stuff coming through here to my knowledge,″ he said.

Trucks hauling the fuel from Arkansas and Mississippi, where it is produced, go through the heavily populated San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys, east and north of downtown Los Angeles, before heading up the coast through Ventura and Santa Barbara.

Gilbert Noriega, an Air Force transportation specialist, said the route is safe.

″The Air Force has been shipping nitrogen tetroxide for over 20 years without an accident or incident regarding product loss,″ he said.

Others are skeptical.

″All it takes is one catastrophe and that argument is meaningless,″ said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the health and environment subcommittee of the House Energy and Environment Committee. ″Here we have a situation where millions of people could conceivably be at risk.″

A frequently mentioned alternate route, one of four available to the Air Force, according to the CHP, would take trucks across the sparsely populated deserts north of Los Angeles to Santa Maria, then south to Vandenberg.

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