Operation Astroturf

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However, since Hirsch’s work to protect public health usually involves thwarting the plans of large corporate and government entities, he has developed many powerful, well-resourced enemies along the way. “To his supporters, he is a reserved hero, fluent in the language of policy and science. To those he challenges, he seems more like a bombastic, exasperating thorn in the side,” stated a 2008 profile on Hirsch in the Ventura County Star.

And, no where was this more evident than in the SSFL Inter-Agency Work Group meetings. The quarterly meetings were established in 1990 at the urging of Congressman Elton Gallegly to keep the community, legislators and media informed about SSFL. The Work Group panel was composed of government agencies, community representatives, and environmental advocacy groups including Hirsch’s CBG.

Time and again, Hirsch would cut through cleanup-evading language and presentations of agencies and responsible parties – the polluters – calling them on their misinformation and sleights of hand. Such exchanges were crucial to the community’s understanding of the cleanup, as Hirsch was also able to break down complex technical information in a way that the public and media in attendance could comprehend. This made Hirsch, and the Work Group, a polluter’s nightmare.

The Work Group meetings at the Simi Valley Cultural Center were regularly attended by local residents and the growing number of SSFL activists. Longtime activists were delighted to see new faces who could join in their seemingly never-ending struggle to clean up the site. The effort was made stronger and richer by people like Bonnie Klea, who used to work at SSFL and made it her life’s mission to aid former Department of Energy workers and subcontractors from Area IV who were made ill from working there.

Left to right: Dawn Kowalski, Marie Mason, Dan Hirsch, Holly Huff, Christina Walsh, D'Lanie Blaze, Bonnie Klea, Bill Bowling, Dave Einhorn

Both longtime and new Rocketdyne activists celebrated the state’s control of SB990 in January 2008

Together, the community worked with state legislators to achieve the passage of SB 990 in 2007, a law to cleanup SSFL to the highest standards. It was a crowning accomplishment that involved the efforts of activists old and new.

For Boeing, that was the last straw. It had enough, and began working a plan to tear out the grassroots of the neighborhoods around SSFL and “astroturf” them with a cadre of people willing to do its bidding. This would also mean getting rid of the SSFL Interagency Work Group and replacing it with a community group more sympathetic to it’s cause.

All the company and its government allies had to do was look for susceptible individuals with ego-driven motives who yearned to feel important and influential. With some attention and coaching, these community members could become the “third-party” allies that Polakovic’s Boeing plan say are necessary to “blunt allegations of greenwashing.”

OPERATION ASTROTURF

When William Preston Bowling opened the Aerospace Cancer Museum of Education (ACME) May 13, 2008, he offered West Hills resident and founder of CleanUpRocketdyne.org, Christina Walsh, an irresistible partnership: a fully functioning facility that would be unlike any other museum in the world. Walsh jumped at the chance. Soon community meetings were taking place at the Southwest-styled building that once was a yoga studio along Valley Circle West. Under the direction of Bowling and Walsh, ACME promised to serve an important role in educating the community on SSFL’s past as well as current cleanup efforts.

Walsh had first came to this reporter’s attention in 2004 at a celebration of Rocketdyne-adjacent Ahmanson Ranch collapsing under the weight of perchlorate revelations. That land, even larger than SSFL in area, became state park land instead of the huge development that now-defunct Washington Mutual had fought for.

Walsh received praise from many quarters including this reporter. “Her expertise and ability to crunch numbers, analyze data, and conceptualize how it all stacks up in the grand scheme of things are remarkable,” I wrote in an August 20, 2009 EnviroReporter.com post entitled Cleanup Rocketdyne Runkle Canyon Comments. “Walsh has taken much of the work out of analyzing this information herself.”

What I hadn’t fully realized at the time is that Walsh was already prone to ruthless behavior. Her success at ACME had only fueled her zeal, need for recognition, and relationships with polluters and compromised government staff – all of which made her a perfect target for Boeing’s plan to undercut Hirsch and the Work Group and in effect replace the community.

On August 27, 2009, Boeing Environmental Communications’ Kamara Noelle Sams wrote Walsh and Bowling asking “[D]o you have some time to sit down with Tom Gallacher,” according to an e-mail obtained by EnviroReporter.com. “He’d like to update you on our status as it relates to the Consent Order. Please let me know.”

Gallacher is Director of Safety, Health and Environmental Affairs for Boeing at SSFL. On August 16, 2007, DOE, NASA and Boeing entered into a Consent Order for Corrective Action with DTSC, reads the DTSC draft consent order. It required that these three parties responsible for the contamination at the site “submit a corrective action schedule, and to take other steps necessary to complete the cleanup of all surficial media by June 30, 2017.”

Three days after Sams’ e-mail, it’s clear that Walsh and Gallacher did in fact meet. “Thank you for our recent meeting/discussion,” Walsh wrote Gallacher in an August 30 e-mail. “We have been doing a lot of thinking and have requested a cag. We will need support on this, and I hope you still mean it when you said you would fund a cag.”

A CAG was not needed – the SSFL Interagency Work Group had been an effective vehicle for public participation for over 20 years. But the Work Group members wanted SSFL cleaned up to strict standards, and Boeing did not. A replacement group was required, and an SSFL CAG would do just the trick. This was, and is, classic astroturfing.

“In the Summer of 2009, without my knowledge, Christina Walsh, founder of CleanupRocketdyne.org, accepts a meeting with The Boeing Co. then asks me to ‘Tag Along’ for ‘Support,” Bowling told EnviroReporter.com in an e-mail October 14. Bowling initially supported the CAG but grew to oppose it after his relationship with Walsh dissolved. “I had no knowledge of what was on the agenda until we got up to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) and met Tom Gallacher (SSFL Site Director for Boeing).

“It was clear, from opening conversations that there had been extensive dialogue between Gallacher and Walsh. It was like they have been talking about this for weeks. As we settled in, it was requested that Kamara Sams (Environmental Communications Boeing) and Steve Shestag (Director of Remediation Boeing) ‘Sit in’ on the meeting. This is when Gallacher offered us money for a CAG (Community Advisory Group), he said ‘Boeing will fund it.’ We did not agree to anything, as we left with ‘Thinking about it.’ I find out after the fact that Christina agreed to the offer as she subsequently sent letters to elected officials and their staff without my knowledge.”

“I suggest you give Norm Riley a call,” Gallacher wrote Walsh September 1. “He can explain the process and most likely some of the hurdles that must be overcome to make this CAG a reality. Norms [sic] last day is this Thursday.”

Riley was an enormously controversial DTSC supervisor for both the SSFL and Runkle Canyon properties. He was first greeted enthusiastically by the community as he seemed like a straight-shooter. That honeymoon did not last long as it soon appeared that Riley felt that the law passed to protect and cleanup SSFL, SB-990, was too strict and shouldn’t be applied.

Riley was canned August 19, 2009, just days before the publication of article where he was quoted as siding with Boeing’s contention that SB 990 was unnecessarily restrictive. A few weeks later, Riley attacked EnviroReporter.com in an e-mail which was covered in a September 15 post called “Riley’s Revenge.” Riley would return onto the scene in 2012 as a lobbyist for KB Homes long-delayed development in Runkle Canyon which was under DTSC’s purview as well as SSFL, meaning Riley’s control.

In fact, Riley was one of several Boeing allies who had also pushed for a community-replacing CAG, including a former Boeing employee and Boeing consultants Charlie Stringer and Tom Eisenhauser of Renewable Resources Group. In a March 15, 2009 e-mail to activist John Luker, Walsh wrote, “As far as Norm saying you should lead a CAG, as you might have noticed by the very recent letter signed by SIX ELECTED OFFICIALS, you were not the first or the last he hit up…. He apparently went to many with the CAG idea and it came back and bit him pretty good.”

The letter from elected officials that Walsh refers to was a March 9, 2009 letter to then Secretary of CAL EPA Linda Adams decrying Riley’s efforts to push for a CAG. “We cannot see how an issue this technically, legally, and politically complex, and with such a long and tangled history, including the involvement of the Federal District Court, could possibly lend itself to a CAG,” states the letter signed by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, State Senator Fran Pavley, former State Senator Sheila Kuehl, Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, and Los Angeles City Councilmember Greig Smith.

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  1. Cindy says:

    Does anyone recognize any of the names of the people chosen to be on the CAG selection committee? See http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ssflcag/message/2190 I don’t think any of these people have been involved before except Walsh and Karchem who is new but gives cleanup advocates a hard time. I googled them all and see no history with SSFL whatsoever. One of them signed the CAG petition but is described as neutral? And another specializes in archaeology concerned with “protecting cultural heritage” so clearly in favor of the pollution park people. Another the “occidental petroleum chair” in chemistry with bad reviews by students at ratemyprofessors.com who say he gets mad at those who disagree with him. Another represents Chumash who seem more interested in getting the property and than clean up. So this group of strangers never involved before will pick who will be on the CAG meaning more like themselves easily fooled by Boeing DTSC etc. Seems to be the perfect group of “third parties” that Gary Polakovic wants to help Boeing avoid charges of greenwashing as his plan says. What a sham!!! The Udall Institute should be ashamed too and also I wonder who the CAG will get to fund the “neutral facilitator? To me this confirms points made in this article that the whole idea of the CAG was to get rid of one community and replace it with another one that isn’t a community at all. Meanwhile children in the community are exposed to all of the poisons from the lab but don’t worry they will commission a blue ribbon study to say its all ok nothing to see here move along.

  2. Another Simi mom says:

    Thank you for this excellent expose. I got a CAG application in the mail. No thanks I want no part in Boeing’s group. I support the old-timers – thank you for your dedication do not give up! It is worth it for the safety of our community.

  3. Joan Bien says:

    How do I feel about astroturfing and the mean-spirited nature of these nasty schemes? AAARRRRGGGGGHHHHHHH! Boeing and its co-conspirators have spent a lot of time planning how to undercut and destroy their critics and no time whatsoever on cleaning up the mess on their property. They prefer to save money and SUE the state. Someone cleaned up on that one.

  4. Troy Ng says:

    Wow, these Boeing guys are thorough. They’re getting good advice from their media and astroturf consultants, and they’re following it. Boeing’s going to assert over and over that they’re on the side of the angels, and casual observers will begin to believe them.

    This is depressing reading. Boeing is rich and persistent, and a number of folks in this story have clearly and simply been BOUGHT.

  5. Margery Brown says:

    Michael,
    Your incredible recording of all the events,emails, personalities, changes of alliances, and financial support by Boeing in this article make me feel like Alice, who fell down the rabbit hole into insanity. But then, poor Alice probably would have been wiped out by some Cesium 137 or some toxic chemicals.

    Thank goodness that you have been keeping track of all of this madness. This article has absolutely made my whole year! I didn’t realize how bad things have been until I read it. Please keep up your good work. I don’t see how things could possibly get any worse.

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