Up a River Without a Cleanup

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The Los Angeles River headwaters are located at SSFL – photo by William Preston Bowling

PART FIVE – UP A RIVER WITHOUT A CLEANUP
Government guts Rocketdyne cleanup imperiling communities and the LA River, misuse of $41.5 million EPA Rocketdyne study prompts calls for investigation

Residents demanding cleanup of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) descended on the Grande Vista Hotel in Simi Valley December 12. Veteran SSFL activists voiced anger that they had been betrayed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency after a 23-year fight to clean up Rocketdyne to some semblance of the unpolluted paradise it was before Nazi rocketeer-turned American tool Wernher von Braun built its first two rocket test stands.

EPA held the meeting to discuss the findings of its $41.5 million tests to ascertain the background levels of radionuclides at Rocketdyne and how much radiation was spread across SSFL’s Area IV.

Residents said that the agreement to clean up the nuclear part of SSFL to background were deep-sixed by the EPA in favor of cleanup levels many times higher, an agreement-breaking move embraced by the state EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). But that’s not all. The study found astronomical amounts of the most dangerous man-made radionuclides known, much of it in places previously checked off as having been remediated.

The 4,727-page EPA report “Draft Final Radiological Characterization of Soils, Area IV and the Northern Buffer Zone, Area IV Radiological Study” showed that the radiation contamination across Area IV of SSFL was far greater than previously known. Huge hits of strontium-90, plutonium 239-240 and cesium-137 are mapped showing wide swaths of radioactive soil, roads, and reactor remains.

Highway to Hell One Area IV road is contaminated with strontium-90 at 67 times background. Cesium-137 clocks in at 1,016 times normal in one spot and a stupefying 1,918 times background in another. Nearby, a borehole under an old reactor finds a hot spot deep beneath the surface: Plutonium 239-240 over 24 feet down intensely ionizing at over 92 times background.

What makes these enormous radiation readings even more alarming is the fact that most of Area IV has supposedly been remediated, twice in some cases. Plus, government surveys signed off on these areas declaring them fit for unrestricted use. Perhaps the whopping finds were indicative of the slipshod manner in which the cleanup was conducted, much like the shabby job remediating Area I.

Equally alarming, the EPA accurately sampled, tested and tallied the contamination in Area IV but instead of comparing it to background levels of contamination that EPA itself determined, the agency tossed the use of background out the window. Instead a complicated formula was suggested as being more accurate in the lab even though the method would leave huge amounts of contaminated soil in place.

This is a direct contravention of 2010 Agreement on Consent (AOC) between the Department of Energy (DOE) and DTSC to finally cleanup Rocketdyne by remediating to background. DTSC has the same agreement with NASA.

The federal EPA was paid to perform for DOE and DTSC, but instead it has effectively said to pay no attention to the background numbers and go with levels the EnviroReporter.com previously exposed in Radiation Readings Soar at Rocketdyne and Rocketdyne Still Hot as being substantially above their respective normal levels in soil identical to Rocketdyne’s defiled dirt.

EPA field office at SSFL Thus, the EPA has effectively gutted the cleanup by dismissing the Background Threshold Values (BTVs) that the agency’s contractor detected over the last three years costing tens of millions. It also failed to deliver on what it promised – background levels for 55 radionuclides and a clear map of where they exist over their BTVs so they can be remediated.

Not only has the federal agency pulled another elaborate bait and switch, it has done so in a clearly orchestrated show with DTSC. That became apparent at a DTSC “Radiological Look-Up Table Update Meeting” at DTSC’s Chatsworth headquarters December 5.

DTSC’s project manager for SSFL, Mark Malinowski, was accompanied by the federal EPA team assigned to SSFL with longtime Rocketdyne vet Gregg Dempsey as he introduced a 45-slide PowerPoint explaining why background values didn’t really amount to much. As hard as Malinowski and Dempsey tried to the sell the large crowd on why background was being shown the backdoor, the convoluted explanations didn’t add up. The result, though, was quite clear: background values so expensively derived would be disregarded.

Background is background. It means normal. And in Rocketdyne’s case, back to normal. The EPA’s decision to jettison the very core of the cleanup after burning through the $41.5 million it received from DOE to remediate Area IV brings up some troubling questions.

Since accurate backgrounds were established and samples accurately measured in the EPA Area IV radiation survey, why wouldn’t remediation triggers be the BTVs as the Agreement on Consent (AOC) clearly spells out? Why did EPA and DTSC even do this sampling and testing in the first place if all EPA was going to produce was suggestions to break the very basis of the cleanup agreement? Does this amount to more than another public outrage that will leave Rocketdyne contaminated forever? Or, activists wonder, is it fraud and abuse of state and federal taxpayer dollars in a coordinated scheme to save Boeing millions of dollars?

When questioned by this reporter as to when EPA knew it was going to not be delivering a look-up table based on BTVs, Dempsey said, “EPA was asked if it could work in a framework of this agreement and we felt that we could but trying to get the measurements that were right around background with really good numbers on them proved a lot harder than we thought it would. And our experience with the laboratories that did the background study work although we got good data out of them we really had to spend a lot of extra effort with them on making sure that the data product they got to us could be validated.”

SRE site sizzles radiation

SRE site sizzles radiation

So a little of that “extra effort” was made and it paid off. Accurate BTVs on 52 radionuclides of concern and a total of 3,487 environmental soil samples and 55 sediment samples, not including quality control field duplicates, were collected in Area IV. The EPA says 423 of the samples contained man-made radioactive contaminants exceeding background levels.

But now the EPA and the lead SSFL cleanup agency, DTSC, say that achieving accurate measurements down to background levels couldn’t be done again, it shouldn’t be done again, so it wouldn’t be done again. Instead, in a few years time and significant mumbo jumbo math and pseudo-science, the toxic departments will cook up a set of cleanup numbers that will be vastly higher than background.

Dan Hirsch president of the nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap, would have none of it.

“The fundamental thing of the look-up tables violates the core of the AOC which says that the BTV, the background values, and the detection limits to determine to be the background studies shall be the look-up table,” Hirsch said. “Now [you've] thrown that out the window and instead we will not clean up to background; we’ll clean up to vastly higher levels through a complex formula that probably there isn’t a single one of the people at DTSC or DOE in the room that could even understand and a complex decision tree which throws the entire concept of the look-up table out the window. It also destroys the capability of staying on schedule.”

Over the interruptions of the meeting moderator, Hirsch concluded. “When a government agency wishes to do something dirty, it does it at the last minute without an ability for there to be transparency, review and comment,” he said. “You’ve done a great job for three years and in the last week you’ve decided to sabotage both the $40 million stimulus requirements and the AOCs and I find it grossly unethical.”

And not logical. When pressed on why EPA maintains that laboratories can detect down to background on the study but couldn’t on the remediation, Dempsey offered this explanation: the labs just weren’t interested in the money, even with the tens of millions blown on the cleanup in just the last three years with nothing to show for it but scary maps and scarier radiation readings.

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  1. Another Simi Mom says:

    There is a story going around that a group of Bell Canyon residents deny that the reactor melt downs at Rocketdyne ever occurred, deny that radioactive contamination at Rocketdyne exists, and seek to disrupt any use of the main roads in Bell Canyon for trucks to remove radioactive soil from what is now euphamistically called the Santa Susana Field Lab aka Rocketdyne. Clearly these “radiation deniers” are being manipulated by Boeing to some extent. Clearly, DOE could require Boeing to build a new “haul road” in a location which would protect residents of all surrounding communities from radioactive dust flying off trucks as they head towards proper dump sites.

  2. Joyce norton says:

    I lived in Simi Valley from 1963-1975 and was in the first graduating class of Royal high. One of the things that struck me, growing up in Simi, was the strange diseases I saw cropping g up in different families I knew. During the years since then, I often wondered if these problems came from the continual exposure many of us faced living at the base of the mountain that housed rocketdyne. I have friends who grew up to have children born with severe abnormalities, unusual cancers and seemingly healthy people dropped dead from heart attacks. I sincerely hope that more research is done so the people living in Simi will be protected.

  3. Joan Bien says:

    It is disheartening to hear a representative from the EPA say such ridiculous and condescending things. The public does not deserve such scurrilous treatment from the very people we pay to do a job. They owe everyone a legitimate reason for utterly failing at their task. Not unlike the tobacco dwarves, this bunch needs to be called before Congress and required to reimburse the taxpayers. After which, they should be sentenced to ten years of living in Area IV, eating only what they grow in the contaminated ground and drinking only the contaminated water.

    Dream on.

    Any person who can say Michael Collins and Dan Hirsch are disingenuous, uninformed, or grandstanding is basically an idiot with an agenda. They have both given the rest of us the freedom to go about our daily lives, knowing that someone is watching the store and taking inventory.
    Boeing may believe it is all over, especially when they say so repeatedly. Boeing can lie like a rug, but the truth never changes.

    Now, it has been written down in detail.

    My heartfelt thanks to all of the citizen-soldiers who have taken up the battle at great personal cost.

  4. Troy Ng says:

    “Another Simi Mom” has got a hell of an idea — it would be awesome if Collins could rip the lid off the EPA’s performance on all these toxic sites. The EPA seems to treat the Rocketdynes and coal companies of the world as clients — not as the miscreants they are.

    Even more exposure might not help, though — it’s frustrating to read all this and to realize that despite the exposure, the polluters are getting away with it — aided and abetted by stooges and PR hacks.

  5. Margery Brown says:

    Michael,
    By the time I finished reading this final article, I was seriously nauseated and absolutely OUTRAGED!

    The Government agencies involved here, have accepted and now spent $41.5M of the tax payers’ money, and yet have not provided the agreed upon look-up table and other necessary information. Nevertheless,they seem to be planning to depart with their task undone. This just has to be illegal!

    Meanwhile, they have apparently decided that we really don’t need to excavate all of the contaminants down to background…only 1%..which means leaving 99% of it in the ground. Go figure that one!

    Meanwhile also, Boeing, the billion dollar corporation, is sponsoring a public relations campaign to get public APPROVAL for leaving the SSFL acreage still heavily contaminated with radionuclides and toxic chemicals…to be declared Open Space and a “Park” for everyone to enjoy.

    Unfortunately, this is the plot of an all too familiar story like Downey, Rocky Flats, Hanford and probably other nuclear sites. The story has to do with accepting public money, making acceptable sounding promises..but then doing a bait and switch…and finally…LEAVING when the money runs out…..leaving behind carcinogenic radionuclides and toxic chemicals…but taking with them, their army of government and corporation attorneys.

    It seems to me, that at this time, ALL of the environmental activists absolutely need to talk to each other, work with each other and make sure that the public is informed, no matter how divided their strongly held opinions may be on how deep we should dig. This needs to be done, lest Boeing have an opportunity to exploit these divisions in the Community to the detriment of everyone.

    We simply cannot afford to take this RISK!

  6. Bonnie Klea says:

    These stories are staggering. I have been an observer and been in the middle of the battle since 1995. Thank you Dan Hirsch for supporting our community. I have seen you pounded down when you accurately uncovered motives and truths to rise up stronger than ever. Michael Collins has brilliantly and silently stored data to accurately report in detail our long struggle to clean up Santa Susana. William Bowling is also brilliant in his fact finding and picture taking to capture details that most of us missed. This slip-shod cleanup of nuclear facilities is sadly going on all over the United States. Rocky Flats is one example of an “accelerated cleaup” that went wrong. The plutonium found after the cleanup was as high as precleanup numbers. Their nature park never opened and a proposed new highway would have been built on residual plutonium with high levels of breathable plutonium under houses.

    The biggest mistake that Boeing made was promoting a CAG. The thousands of letters that were sent out seeking participation only advertised the local mess in our community to new people who didn’t know about it. At the Decembe 12 meeting there were lots of new people with their own horror stories of cancer and sickness who wanted answers from the EPA thinking that the EPA would protect them.

    As a former worker and cancer survivor, I learned a long time ago that people are expendable and corporate profits are king. It is an eye opener when the corporation does everything in their power to stop sick workers from getting federal compensation.

  7. Yet Another Simi Mom says:

    Amazingly well thought out story Mr. Collins. Thanks for helping normal Simi Valley residents and alumni understand what is at stake.

    The only relevant “facts” which I can add are that Simi Valley’s new Congressman will be none other than Howard “Buck” McKeon, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Buck’s resume, before entering Congress, was that he and his brothers owned a cowboy boot store in heavily contaminated Canyon Country, which ultimately went bankrupt stiffing a lot of local creditors. Buck’s major, in college, was animal husbandry. So that gives you a clue about the intellectual level of Simi Valley’s new Congressman whose principal job, theoretically, is to protect his constituents from harm at the hands of the Federal government.

    In the run-up to the November 2012 election, Buck found himself on the hot seat in the center of his District, because, in the previous 10 years, he had failed to follow through on his promise to Santa Clarita, Lancaster and Palmdale constituents that he would protect those communities’ access to the San Fernando Valley and beyond by arranging for the BLM and a Mexican gravel mining company to move their proposed “biggest gravel mine in the U.S.” away from the 14 Freeway out to the desert near Barstow. Congressman Buck following through on his promise to his constituents would have had the added benefit of protecting the air quality in Santa Clarita, which has one of the highest childhood asthma rates in the country. However, Congressman Buck couldn’t get the job done for his constituents because he was “too busy Chairing the House Armed Services Committee” and worrying about whether all of his defense contractor campaign contributors were happy and busy collecting Federal dollars.

    During the November 2012 re-election campaign, Congressman Buck’s constituents learned that one of his “Top 5″ contributors is Boeing. When interviewed on CNN about the “fiscal cliff” all that Congressman Buck could talk about was his conversations with Presidents of major defense contractors, who were very worried that under Sequestration the dollar amounts of their defense contracts would be cut.

    When asked, at a campaign forum, what he was going to do to support the remediation of Rocketdyne, Congressman Buck feigned ignorance, and tried to make his audience believe he knew nothing about Rocketdyne or its owner, Boeing.

    So it’s absolutely no surprise that Boeing is advocating a lowered remediation standard at Rocketdyne when it’s clear they will be supported by the Congressman in whose District Rocketdyne is located.

    As to DTSC’s top-to-bottom treachery towards Californians’ health, Michael Collins has told us all we need to know.

    As to the EPA, if one digs through national and local press stories, one can see EPA’s top political appointee decision makers back-peddling left and right on rigorously protecting the public health in terms of clean air, clean water and toxics remediation. Those not deluded by President Obama’s rhetorical flourishes understand that he and his staff, full of young Wall Street investment bank alumni, do not want the EPA being tough on private polluters let alone using a significant part of the Federal budget by spending money for remediation of former Federal facilities. I dare not ask Michael Collins to write one of his thorough exposes concerning EPA’s failings nationwide during the Obama Administration. Perhaps he’s told us all we need to know about EPA, by telling us they shut down their radiation monitors in Hawaii, after the Fukushima melt down began.

    To Dan Hirsch, the ladies from the Knolls, and all of the other honest activists demanding a thorough remediation at Rocketdyne, God bless. I hope 2013 becomes a successful year for you.

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