Overflow crowd attends revived SSFL Work Group meeting in Simi Valley demanding answers about lab cleanup
News & Analysis
They were back. And this time, they brought their friends.
A standing room only audience filled the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center February 5. The SSFL Work Group had returned, drawing longtime and new cleanup advocates concerned about the contamination and remediation of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. That was the good news.
The decades-active group has been fighting for the cleanup of the massive rocket testing and nuclear experimentation once-secret government site in the hills between the Simi and San Fernando valleys. That cleanup may be in jeopardy, said members of the Work Group panel. That was the bad news.
Recent public state and federal government meetings have caused people working for the lab’s cleanup to suspect that the lead agency for SSFL’s remediation, the California EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), may be trying to back out of an historic 2010 agreement to clean up the former Rocketdyne lab to background levels of radiation and chemical contamination.
Concern has arisen over NASA’s commitment to the clean up as well, and information obtained by EnviroReporter.com after the Work Group meeting strongly indicates that the Department of Energy (DOE) is also attempting to break its pledge to undo a half century of radiological and chemical damage done by it and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission.
Altogether, the need for some straight talk about one of the most intensely fought environmental battles in the country was long overdue. The last Work Group meeting, where actual representatives of the public run the show, was over two years ago. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake with the contaminated heart of Southern California in the crosshairs. SSFL is the headwaters of the Los Angeles River which courses through dozens of cities with Rocketdyne toxins in its wake.
The packed auditorium at the February 5 Work Group meeting learned about the lab’s history of partial meltdowns and chemical contamination at the 2,850-acre site located about thirty miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Over the years it has been called the lab, Rocketdyne, SSFL, and the Hill. Some of the radiation and chemicals include strontium-90, cesium-137, trichloroethylene and perchlorate.
“It is with great pleasure that we announce the resumption of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) Inter-Agency Work Group,” wrote California Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-Thousand Oaks) and State Senator Fran Pavley (D-Calabasas) in an invitation letter to the meeting. “Founded by then-Congressman Elton Gallegly, the Work Group has, for more than two decades, been the primary way for members of the nearby communities to learn, on a quarterly basis, about the radioactive and chemical contamination at SSFL and for the public to hear from the responsible agencies on efforts to clean it up.”
The Work Group was shut down two years ago when DTSC ended the meetings. EnviroReporter.com subsequently exposed lab owner Boeing and DTSC’s scheme to replace the Work Group with an anti-cleanup Community Advisory Group (CAG) that could help thwart a comprehensive cleanup. The revelations of Boeing’s Meltdown Makeover came in 2012 due to the inadvertent online posting of Boeing’s secret media plan to use these “third party voices” who shared its “open space vision” to declare the site already clean enough for a park.
Over a year later, the CAG continues to operate in the polluters’ interest, criticizing the cleanup agreements and blatantly boasting on its website that it helped defeat Democratic club resolutions supporting the 2010 cleanup agreements. At least two CAG members have resigned, including its original petitioner, who has objected that the CAG is “trying to debunk the cleanup.”
The implications of not ridding Rocketdyne of its massive amounts of contaminants are considerable. Toxins would continue to slosh into the headwaters of the Los Angeles River and down into the Arroyo Simi. Hot dust and chemical particulates would persist in polluting neighboring communities.
The Hot Zone would become a Fun Zone according to this anti-cleanup scenario. It is a simple plan. Fight the cleanup to background as somehow being destructive to the nature it is meant and designed to resuscitate. Save Boeing hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs and call the company an award-winning environmental steward. Declare the contaminated land clean and invite the whole family.
But the meltdown makeover juggernaut did not fool the public. It was why many in the crowd at the Work Group meeting had come. Some had driven in from as far as Utah, including retired Rocketdyne workers and people who have suffered cancer and other illnesses that they suspect are due to the lab’s decades of chemical and radiological pollution.
Many of the Simi Valley residents in the theatre voiced anger and frustration at the dust being generated by heavy construction of the controversial Runkle Canyon development. KB Home’s massive 1,595-acre property borders SSFL Area IV where at least three partial meltdowns took place. [KB Home’s Runkle Canyon development is now called Arroyo Vista at the Woodlands.]
When contaminated land is remediated responsibly, care is taken to mitigate dust arising from the cleanup activities. Not so much with development. Now the dust of construction is settling on neighborhoods adjacent to Runkle Canyon, just as EnviroReporter.com predicted in 2005; according to plan at least 112.26 tons of dust will be generated by KB Home’s building of nearly 300 hundred homes, 25 single-family estates, and 138 apartments. The construction – and dust – will last for years.
Longtime Work Group member Dan Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap gave an overview of SSFL’s history. Hirsch, an UC Santa Cruz lecturer on nuclear policy, pointed out that the 1959 partial meltdown of the Sodium Reactor Experiment, while smaller in size than the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island twenty years later, spewed out hundreds of times more radiation because the experimental SRE wasn’t fortified against disaster like TMI was with its concrete superstructure. Before it became, and stayed, the worst meltdown in American nuclear reactor history, the SRE supplied electricity to the then small Ventura County town of Moorpark in 1957.
Hirsch said the land and groundwater will remain contaminated if not cleaned up to the Agreements on Consent (AOCs) that DTSC signed with NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE). That means remediating to levels of radiation and chemicals that would exist now if those government entities hadn’t used the place as a Space Race and Cold War chemical and radiation playground where no one picked up their toxic toys after themselves when it was over.
Mary Aycock of the US Environmental Protection Agency presented to the Work Group the findings of the $41.5 million EPA radiation survey study of Area IV of SSFL, where the SRE was located. The testing centered on the DOE’s leased 90-acre Energy Technology Engineering Center but encompassed the whole 270-acre Area IV site and the Northern Buffer Zone.
EnviroReporter.com exposed the astronomical radiation findings from this survey in 2012. These same EPA numbers were totally ignored or deliberately misinterpreted by DTSC. Neither California Governor Jerry Brown’s Boeing-influenced administration nor the federal government have shown any concern regarding this massive fraudulent expenditure, where the testing was done right then promptly regurgitated in ways that impede achieving a true cleanup to background.
But the raw EPA numbers from the survey obtained by EnviroReporter.com were dead on. Cesium-137 was found at 9,328 times its background in Area IV. Strontium-90, a “calcium mimicker” that targets human bones and blood, clocked in at 71 times background in a sample dug out a foot to five feet below the surface next to a torn down nuclear reactor. The results were impressive especially considering claims that Area IV was remediated twice before the survey took place.
“EPA found the highest number of soil samples to be contaminated with cesium-137,” said Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles board member Dr. Robert Dodge during his Work Group presentation. “It is a powerful gamma emitter, dangerous whether outside you or if incorporated into the body by inhalation or ingestion. It can cause cancer in any organ. It has also about a thirty-year half-life, dangerous for centuries.”
This was new information to much of the audience and their concerned countenances showed it. That the meeting took place was a minor miracle. DTSC, which has been under considerable criticism for cozying up to polluters instead of fulfilling its own mandate, refused to join the Work Group onstage except when called upon to make a presentation.
This antagonistic behavior was also adopted by other SSFL agencies responsible for the high levels of contamination at the site including NASA and the Department of Energy. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (LARWQCB) also declined to sit on the dais even after it presented damning evidence of Boeing’s ongoing releases. Those toxins are flowing into the headwaters of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Simi which leads to Calleguas Creek and through Ventura County before draining into the Pacific Ocean.
LARWQCB revealed that it had fined Boeing $672,000 in penalties and assessments over its effluent sloshing offsite since 2010. The drainages off of SSFL are considered “blue line” waterways and therefore protected by the Clean Water Act. Continued runoff polluted by PCBs, dioxins and heavy metals threaten the $2 billion renovation of the 48-mile long Los Angeles River which is being repurposed and will include public recreational opportunities in the water.
Much of Rocketdyne’s runoff into Simi Valley goes down into the American Jewish University’s Brandeis Bardin property. In the mid-1990s, the property owners sued SSFL resulting in a confidential settlement in 1997. More recently, the EPA survey found strontium-90 at 256 times background in an area that drains into Brandeis Bardin where warning signs tell hikers not to drink or use the water.