Programs are under way at many sites, and some may take decades for a remedy.
Published Aug. 20, 2008|Updated Aug. 20, 2008

Over and over in the 1990s, defense contractor Raytheon bought out companies. Each time it inherited an environmental headache: Chemicals used by those companies had seeped into the soil.

More than 90 federal lawsuits have sought to make Raytheon pay for removing or cleaning up tainted soil. Residents of St. Petersburg's Azalea neighborhood in April became the latest to seek legal help to get a quick cleanup.

But Raytheon's track record shows the Azalea neighborhood may be waiting awhile.

At an Arizona site, the company's cleanup work sent tainted water to 50,000 people. It may take 30 years to finish that job. In California, Raytheon admitted to leaking chemicals, but would not take responsibility for cleanup. In Kansas, it took the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to prod Raytheon into action.

Today, Raytheon runs remediation programs in 45 locations, costing $149-million, according to company reports.

Attorneys for the Azalea residents want their case against Raytheon to go to trial quickly.

"This is a pressing environmental issue that Raytheon has put off for too long," lawyer Brian Barr said.

Azalea residents were stunned in March when they learned of contamination beneath their homes from chemicals once stored at E-Systems near Tyrone Square Mall. Raytheon knew about the pollution when it bought E-Systems in 1995, and both state and company officials have known since 1999 that the plume had spread.

Raytheon, which faces an Aug. 31 deadline for reporting the full extent of the underground contamination, strives to be a good neighbor, says spokesman Jonathan Kasle.

"Raytheon,'' he says, "takes its stewardship responsibilities to its employees and the community seriously."

But people who have dealt with Raytheon on other cleanups say the company hasn't been all that cooperative.

"In theory, they should be going side-by-side with us," said Matthew Jefferson, the EPA's remedial project manager on an Arizona site. "But sometimes it's really tough."

Hughes Aircraft opened a manufacturing plant in Tucson in 1950. Like lots of other aircraft and electronics companies, Hughes used the chemicals trichlorethylene, or TCE, and 1,4-dioxane to degrease metal. No one knew then that they might cause cancer.

Over the years, the chemicals leaked into the soil. The contamination spread, and eventually made its way into the Tucson water supply.

The pollution was first found in 1978 in residents' private wells. In 1981, an "unusual cluster of health problems," including cancer and lupus, sprouted up around the site, according to a University of Arizona report. Hughes officials were accused of hiding what they had done.

EPA put the site on its Superfund list in 1983. In 1991, Hughes settled a class-action suit for $84.5-million. Six years later, Raytheon bought the plant, knowing the pollution was still there.

Raytheon built what was then a state-of-the-art cleanup facility to handle the TCE, Jefferson said, but the dioxane remained. In 2006, the EPA found that Raytheon's cleanup facility was allowing unsafe levels of TCE in water being used by 50,000 Tucson residents.

Last year, the EPA ordered Raytheon to clean up the dioxane and upgrade the now out-of-date TCE pump-and-treat facility. Jefferson said the cleanup is making progress but is unlikely to be finished for up to 30 years.

Hughes operated a similar facility in Oceanside, Calif., which Raytheon purchased in 1997 despite the site's problems with TCE contamination. In 2002, government officials discovered the TCE had spread to the water supply.

The California Regional Water Quality Control Board fined Raytheon $6,000. Another agency, the North County Transit District, sued the company in 2006 to make Raytheon clean up the pollution so it could build a railroad.

Initially, Raytheon conceded that the contamination came from its site but denied that it was responsible for cleaning it up. When the suit settled in 2007, Raytheon agreed to pay $25,000 toward a cleanup.

About 80 miles south, in Rialto, Calif., Hughes operated a missile plant. Pollution from the plant was first detected in Rialto's drinking water in 1997. Several wells were shut down when tests found levels more than 1,500 times greater than what is considered safe. Raytheon bought the plant in 1998.

In 2001, Raytheon was fined $3,000 for letting the contamination spread. The city sued the company for cleanup expenses. Although Rialto dropped the suit, it is still seeking repayment from Raytheon. For now, the city provides added treatment to the water but charges its customers.

Beginning in the 1940s, Beech Aircraft operated at the Tri-County Public Airport in Herington, Kan. Raytheon bought the operation in 1980.

Raytheon's 1993 annual report said the company was fined $521,735 in 1989 for failure to meet wastewater discharge standards. That sparked a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers investigation into Raytheon's waste storage policies, which led to the discovery of TCE in the groundwater.

Ordered to investigate possible contamination of residential wells in 2000, Raytheon found it were indeed polluted, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. But in 2002, when the department ordered Raytheon to clean up the pollution, the company refused.

"We as an agency had to get the EPA to step in," said Jean Underwood, site remediation unit chief for the Kansas health agency.

The EPA began cleanup in spring 2004, but transferred responsibility for cleaning back to Raytheon. Instead, Raytheon sued the EPA, claiming the government was responsible for cleanup. The suit failed. It took another EPA order, in 2005, to get Raytheon to extend a pipeline into the town to provide clean water and dig out TCE-contaminated soil.

At its St. Petersburg site, Raytheon says it is set to begin a pump-and-treat program to clean up the contamination under its site within the next 90 days. The company is also trying to sell its property and move to Largo.

Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report.

FAst Facts

The chemicals

Trichloroethylene (TCE): a nonflammable, colorless liquid used to degrease metal, but also as an ingredient in adhesives, paint removers and spot removers.

1,4 dioxane: a clear, dissolvable liquid used as a solvent in the manufacture of chemicals and as a laboratory reagent.

Perchlorate: a colorless, odorless salt used to make explosives, fireworks and rocket motors.

Source: Department of Health and Human Services