Department of Energy’s attempts to gut Area IV cleanup could cost taxpayers more than money
News & Analysis
Just days after the SSFL Workgroup meeting in which John Jones, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) project director for the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, assured the community that it would keep its commitment to remediation of radiation and chemicals to background, the other radioactive shoe dropped. DOE said it would consider alternative cleanup “concepts”, and claimed that over three to five times as much radioactive and chemically contaminated dirt would have to be excavated and sent to low-level nuclear dumps than previously estimated.
These new huge numbers came courtesy of a DOE document called “Rough Order of Magnitude Estimates for AOC Soil Cleanup Volumes in Area IV, and Associated Truck Transport Estimates based on DTSC Look-up Table Values.” A reporter could easily concoct, as one cleanup activist suggested at a DOE meeting in Simi Valley February 27, a headline that blared, “DOE Announces It Contaminated Up To Five Times As Much Soil At SSFL With Toxic Waste As Previously Disclosed.”
This new document was the subject of much criticism at the Simi Valley DOE meeting and one March 1 in Calabasas. The events were to get public comment on DOE’s upcoming Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is supposed to examine alternative ways in which the department can meet the 2010 Agreement on Consent (AOC) to cleanup to background levels of contamination.
The AOC, conceived by then-DOE Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist, cuts through the red tape, delay and expense of lengthy health risk assessments by simply remediating the soil to background levels of chemicals and radiation. DTSC, as lead agency on the cleanup of SSFL, signed a similar agreement with NASA in 2010 as well.
Cleanup advocates at the two DOE meetings accused the department of trying to get out of cleaning up its area that was the site of three partial meltdowns, including the worst in the nation’s history in 1959, numerous radioactive spills, dumping and open air burning. They say that leaving contamination on the site will endanger people that live below SSFL for generations.
Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition member Barbara Johnson began her comments with a reminder of what the fuss was all about. “I have lived since 1970 just below the contaminated site. I have had cancer; my son has had cancer, way too many of my neighbors have as well.” Johnson reminded the DOE of previous health studies that found elevated rates for key cancers in the offsite population closest to the site compared to people living further away.
Johnson registered an objection that was repeated often throughout the session – of DOE’s four alternative cleanup “concepts”, only one is compliant with the AOC and the others violate it and would leave most of the contamination in place. Johnson also drew attention to the fact that DOE’s Notice of Intent listed the alternatives of “On-site containment of buildings, wastes, and radiological and chemical contaminants at SSFL Area IV” and “Combination of on-site disposal/off-site disposal for SSFL Area IV.” Both of these actions are expressly prohibited by the AOC, which bars “leave in place” alternatives or on-site burial of contamination.
DOE’s consideration of lesser cleanup standards took some in the audience by surprise. As recent as May 2012, some noted, DOE issued a Fact Sheet for Development of Alternatives in the EIS which stated that the purpose and need for the project is to clean up the site to the standard in the AOC, and that DOE’s EIS alternatives would be limited to alternative ways to meet the AOC cleanup standard.
The community may never know the reason for DOE’s turn-around, though some suspect it has to do with influence from Boeing, which may view the AOCs as a threat to its more lax cleanup standard. Boeing wields its influence in a variety of ways, including, as those attending the meeting called out, having its own contractor prepare DOE’s soil report.
“We focus our comments on a deeply questionable document released by DOE as part of this scoping process that raises troubling questions about the scientific integrity of the process, and which creates further appearance of an effort to try to get out of the obligation to clean up the contamination at SSFL,” said Brian Lindquist representing the Southern California Federation of Scientists (SCFS) reading a prepared statement.
“DOE has now issued the afore-mentioned soil volume and truck estimates. But in fact DOE did not prepare them. Dixie Hambrick and two colleagues from MWH did. MWH is Boeing’s prime contractor at SSFL to provide support for Boeing’s arguments it should be relieved of most of its cleanup obligations, and Ms. Hambrick has been key to that work.”
Inflating the numbers may seem counterintuitive because it would further demonstrate just how hot radioactively and gooey chemically the 270-acre Area IV actually is. But DOE and Boeing are likely of the same mind on the strategy to inflame collaborator astroturfers with blown out soil estimates. More soil means more trucks going through the privileged neighborhoods of the west San Fernando Valley which is fodder for the anti-cleanup rump group.
The trouble for DOE and Boeing is that their numbers don’t add up. In order to inflate the amount of soil to be removed, MWH added 30 percent more volume assuming the dirt would fluff up when dug up. That the normal industry standard is 20 percent is irrelevant because the dirt recompresses into a truck bed when dumped in. Indeed, NASA seemed to know this when it stated at the February 5 SSFL Work Group meeting that it wouldn’t include any fluff calculations into its figures.
“[T]his is not a scientific review by DOE or by an independent scientific group, but appears to be a piece of advocacy paralleling Boeing’s efforts to avoid cleanup,” said the SCFS’s Lindquist. “It is therefore not surprising that the report asserts that the amount of contaminated soil needing remediation in Area IV of SSFL could be many three to five times higher than previous estimates.”
DOE does more than fudge the fluffing numbers, according to the SFCS statement. The MWH document shows that it was assumed that a surface drainage or channel that had more than one sullied soil sample was so contaminated that the entire area would have to be excavated even with no evidence of toxins in the wider area. Plus, the excavations would be all the way down to the bedrock even if no contaminants were that deep in the earth. MWH was providing the anti-cleanup folks a convenient ‘moonscape’ scenario so they could continue to demand no remediation.
The soil report also claims that if a water body or pond in Area IV had a couple of hot samples, the whole thing would be drained and dug up even with no proof of further contamination. MWH’s estimates are further inflated by not excluding soils that are exempted under the AOC including endangered or threatened species and Native American artifacts. No in-situ remediation of toxic soils is even considered when NASA expects to clean fully a third of its contaminated soil in place.