Downey Studios

Downey Studios

DOWNEY -- At least 34 people who worked at Downey Studios have filed workers' compensation claims alleging they were made sick by environmental toxins left behind by the property's previous tenants.

The studio is situated atop a site once occupied by a NASA plant that produced spacecraft for the Apollo moon missions. The workers' compensation claims say toxic residue from years of aerospace research and manufacturing is responsible for the studio employees health problems.

Stuart Lichter, whose Industrial Realty Group operates Downey Studios, rejected the idea that environmental conditions at the studio made anyone sick. Downey city manager Gerald Caton likewise said the cleanup of the former NASA plant was thoroughly executed and evaluated.

A lawyer for the company said no evidence links the workers' illnesses to the studio. He said a lot of the employees do industrial work that involves fairly toxic materials.

Claimants say they have experienced symptoms including chronic congestion, headaches and rashes. They point to mold, dust churned up during renovations at the studio and toxic chemicals detected in the soil there.

And in 11 of 18 cases, independent doctors found that some or all of the symptoms were caused or aggravated by working at Downey Studios, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In three other cases, specialists certified by the state to give opinions in workers' compensation cases said the health problems appeared to be work related, but more testing was needed to know for sure.

In the four remaining cases, independent physicians said workers' symptoms were not work-related, The Times reported.

Insurers contracted by the payroll services companies that employ the production workers rejected all the claims related to Downey Studios. Workers appealed within the state workers' compensation system, and insurance carriers have since settle about a third of the cases.

At least 16 workers are fighting for benefits.

The property, between Lakewood and Bellflower boulevards north of Imperial Highway, has an extensive history of use in the aircraft and aerospace industries.

During World War II, Vultee Aircraft made heavy bombers there.

After the war, North American Aviation conducted research on nuclear power and rocket propulsion.

In the 1960s, North American, later part of Rockwell International, landed a NASA contract to build a booster rocket and the command and service modules for the Apollo lunar program.

Later, workers at Downey made and assembled components for six space shuttles.

Boeing Co. acquired Rockwell's aerospace and defense divisions in 1996 and shut the plant three years later.

Downey officials made plans for a shopping center, hospital and movie studio on the 160-acre site and bought 66 acres from the federal government in 1999.

All together, 259 toxic substances were identified at the site, but state and federal regulators determined that the contamination could be mitigated to the point that it would not pose a significant risk to workers or the public.

The city paid a contractor $20.5 million to clean up the site, and Lichter's Industrial Realty Group, which specializes in redeveloping old industrial sites, was selected to convert theaerospace plant into a film production hub.

In 2005, IRG filed a libel suit against the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, contending that the union scared away business by falsely claiming in its newsletter that Downey Studios was unsafe.

The union and its insurer paid $775,000 to settle the case.

Lichter filed another libel suit in August, this one against some of the injured workers and activist Vickie Travis, who has publicized their complaints on a Web site.