Despite concerns of foul play and conflict of interest, troubled federal agency says it will pursue and expand its Boeing-touted proposal to evaluate health risks from SSFL
• In bumbling response, ATSDR tells EnviroReporter.com it will continue controversial plan to re-assess SSFL health risks over health researcher and community objections
• Statement released by site owner and aerospace giant Boeing claims no SSFL health impacts and boasts ATSDR plan
• New NBC4 investigation reports massive onsite contamination and extensive offsite cancers
• Moving testimony from cancer survivors recounted at SSFL Work Group meeting with NBC4 I-Team
• Boeing’s own reports show site contamination even more deadly than already known
News & Analysis
Facing community outrage over federal actions to weaken the full cleanup of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), federal officials say they will nonetheless stay the course with a health assessment of SSFL. The new study was requested by a Department of Energy contractor who denies health impacts from the contaminated site and opposes full cleanup, as reported by EnviroReporter.com in Feds conspire to gut Santa Susana Field Lab cleanup on September 18.
Responding to questions in follow-up to EnviroReporter.com’s exposé, the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (ATSDR) said it had put its controversial plans to review past SSFL health studies on hold before reversing itself twice, finally saying it was pushing ahead in a confusing statement.
ATSDR’s plans include reanalyzing and reinterpreting two independent health studies that found evidence of contamination migrating offsite and elevated cancers near the lab, site of numerous radiological and chemical accidents, spills, dumping and burning.
“ATSDR has not agreed to and does not plan to reevaluate health studies already conducted at the SSFL,” the agency wrote September 24. Yet just four sentences later, senior press officer Bernadette Burden wrote that ATSDR will “Provide the SSFL community with public friendly information and presentations of ATSDR’s findings and the strengths and weaknesses of SSFL-related epidemiological studies.”
Then to confuse matters even more, the agency reversed itself again before coming up with a new justification for re-evaluating SSFL health studies at the behest of Abe Weitzberg, an anti-cleanup contractor for one of the responsible polluting parties, the Department of Energy.
“ATSDR will not be reanalyzing the epidemiological studies conducted by the independent contractors,” Burden states, contradicting herself before offering that, “ATSDR has heard that members of the community were not provided with understandable, clear information about the findings of these reports.”
Actually, that “understandable, clear information” has been around for years. This reporter’s 2006 Los Angeles ValleyBeat story The Fallout laid out the story in pretty understandable language, including the reason the studies under attack were carried out by independent experts and not the federal government.
“The new studies were commissioned in 2000 by the state Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, at a cost of $700,000, after ATSDR had outraged the community by performing a month-long preliminary review the year before and declaring that SSFL chemicals and radiation were harmless to locals,” the article said showing that 16 years later the agency is still up to its old tricks.
“We are only now beginning the process of engaging the community,” the September 24 ATSDR email read as it changed font, and speaker, now apparently in the writer’s voice of agency director Pat Breysse. “As the new director of ATSDR, I would like to meet with County Officials, their subject matter experts, and other community stakeholders to review our plans to date and to determine whether they are in conflict with state, county and local efforts.”
Not surprisingly, Boeing was delighted at the ATSDR coming to town and took the opportunity to say so in a letter sent to community members and elected officials.
Boeing prefaced it’s boasting of the ATSDR study by reiterating its claim that SSFL has never hurt anyone. “Through extensive community outreach, we have long responded to any questions and concerns our neighbors have about the potential health impacts of past facility operations. To provide reassurance, we point to a number of community health studies that have been conducted over the past 25 years. These studies all conclude that there is no definitive evidence that past facility operations have affected the health of the local community.”
The letter continued, “In addition, in an April 2013 letter to the mayor of Simi Valley, DTSC stated, “To date we have not found evidence of off-site contamination from SSFL that would pose a risk to human health or the environment.””
Since many people who live near the site do not buy what Boeing or DTSC says, the company was pleased to announce ATSDR as a new player who will probably also tell area folks not to worry.
“The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is going to conduct another study that looks at all the data collected over many years and considers the possibility for offsite exposure,” Boeing’s SSFL site closure program director David W. Dassler wrote September 21. “They will also look at plans for cleanup and whether the proposed cleanup plans will be protective.”
That ATSDR’s plan has Boeing’s blessing is a strong indication that the agency is likely to weigh in against the cleanup, despite the fact that the agency has no expertise or jurisdiction to even offer an opinion on the matter. Dassler, as EnviroReporter.com previously reported, told a group of SSFL tour attendees January 31 that it would be safe to hike at SSFL once a week. Dassler’s singing a different tune in the new Boeing letter. “This means we will clean up our portion of Santa Susana so it will be safe enough that someone could live there and be at the site every day if development was allowed.”
Not so, says longtime SSFL cleanup advocate Dan Hirsch, a professor of nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz and president of the government watchdog organization Committee to Bridge the Gap. Not if that future resident has a garden and eats vegetables and fruit from it.
Hirsch’s eagle eye has uncovered new information buried in thousands of pages of Boeing reports that shows that massively contaminated parts of the lab are so drenched in chemicals as to make them incredibly dangerous for anyone who might live there in the future under current zoning laws. Boeing is trying to relieve itself of cleaning up to the agricultural standards for which it is zoned, one of its main goals since inaugurating its greenwashing and astroturfing campaign in 2012.
Using Boeing’s own numbers, Hirsch found that the current estimated lifetime cancer risk for soil exposure at the former Environmental Effects Laboratory at SSFL is a staggering one in three, meaning one in three people exposed could be expected to get cancer within 30 years living there and eating out of their garden. The same scenario at the Systems Test Laboratory IV would yield almost an absolute certainty that the person would die from the chemical goo in that Rocketdyne soil: 96 percent chance of death.
[Environmental Effects Laboratory report: 14.3 MB See pages 622 (last two paragraphs; “ELCR” means “estimated lifetime cancer risk”), 641 and 847.
Systems Test Laboratory IV report: 60.5 MB See pages 2856 and 2878-9.]
Both areas sit at the headwaters of the Los Angeles River. And both areas will be cleaned so that, in the same scenario, two in ten would get a fatal cancer from the dirt after Boeing’s desired cleanup. Typically, the EPA reaches for a one in a million cancer risk. Boeing’s level would be 200,000 times EPA’s standard optimal goal.
Hirsch also recently showed to a Simi Valley audience Boeing maps of the site revealing that much of the property was due to be written off as “NFA” meaning “no further action”. In other words, not cleaned up at all. He noted that there is only a short window of time until the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) signs off on Boeing’s proposal.
This shocking information was presented at the September 24 meeting of the SSFL Work Group at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. A standing room only crowd gathered into the center to watch KNBC’s I-Team investigation of SSFL called LA’s Nuclear Secret which began earlier in the week.
The audience, which included many of the victims of diseases blamed on SSFL contamination who were featured in the investigation, were shocked, angered and determined to demand full cleanup of the lab after watching the investigation again. They expressed gratitude to investigative television journalist Joel Grover and producer Matthew Glasser.
“These first two stories were really the beginning because I think the one thing we learned was the more we learned, the more question there are to be answered,” Grover said to the audience. “And we’re getting more and more of those questions answered every day and this will be an ongoing project for NBC. So stay tuned.”
That isn’t good news for Boeing or its government cronies who want to dismiss health concerns about the lab. Jessica Gesell, who writes about her illnesses on her blog Mommy Bistro, says that there is no one to blame but Rocketdyne (the former name of the SSFL site and name by which it is commonly called.)
“When I was four years old I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and I battled thyroid cancer for two years in the hospital,” Gesell shared with the audience along with other survivors onstage. “I had a recurrence in 2003 and last year I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. And I have no family history of cancer. I was so happy that so much is being reported now. Thank you to NBC for reporting so much about what many of us have been living as a nightmare for most of our lives. I’m really grateful. I don’t have any tears left to cry after watching the report this week but now that I’ve moved on from my crying and my anger to really want my passion to make something happen on this.”
While many new people are now emerging in the issue, old timers like Ralph Powell, also onstage, reminded the Work Group audience that this had been going on from before he even worked at the lab over half a century ago. “I moved to Simi Valley in 1962 and the same year I went to work for Atomics International,” Powell told the assembled. The former security guard for three years actually was “engulfed in the explosions from the barrels that was blowing up in the disposal pits.”
“I was dispatched through different areas of contamination and I don’t know what chemicals or what were the things I came in contact with,” Powell continued. “I had extreme peripheral neuropathy. They don’t know what caused it. They don’t know if that [lab experiences] caused it or something else caused it but I have lost my only son from leukemia. My wife had cancer. I had cancer. I can stand in my front yard. The guy on my right died from cancer. The guy across the street died from cancer. The guy up the street died from cancer. The fire captain died from cancer. My neighbor now has leukemia, his only grandson has leukemia and his wife has leukemia, living right across the street from me. Ladies and gentleman, there is something going on in Simi Valley. There was then. There is now. And the sooner we get this mess cleaned up, the better off we will be.”
Indeed, thousands of folks who never had heard of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory know all about it now. Others like Denise Dardarian were newly motivated to speak out. Just that day she found out good and bad news and was brave enough to share it with a group of strangers, well almost strangers, as the people Grover interviewed have now bonded together and are joined in wanting to fight for full cleanup.
“The good news is I’m cancer free,” the spunky young woman said onstage, clearly distraught but also determined. “The bad news is my thyroid is dead, gone. So I’m going to be on this [medication] for the rest of my life and I will be monitored every six weeks. I’m still digesting this so, yeah it makes me mad and I might go home and cry about it but that’s just going to galvanize me more to fight. And I’ll be fighting for this and for all of us and for my stepdad and my friends that are no longer here to speak up. I’ll be fighting this until there is no more breath in my body.”
Dardarian , Powell and Gassel are just a handful of Southern Californians who think SSFL has made them sick and killed friends and family and who want the contamination removed. A new online petition by the Rocketdyne Cleanup Petition urging elected officials to demand that cleanup commitments be kept has over 1,400 signatures.
The cleanup is what the ATSDR study is truly about. If Boeing and the government can deny there is any risk from SSFL contamination, then they can also declare there is no reason to clean it up.
The ATSDR petitioner and anti-cleanup agitator, Abe Weitzberg, tried his hand at explaining away the old Rocketdyne’s lab’s extensive radiological pollution by simply spinning new yarns in the September 27 opinion pages of the Ventura County Star.
Weitzberg repeats falsehoods exposed in Feds conspire to gut Santa Susana Field Lab cleanup. He still claims the idea of asking ATSDR to come in resulted from a discussion with the lead author of the 2006 UCLA School of Public Health study on potential for offsite exposure to SSFL contamination, Dr. Yoram Cohen. In reality, Cohen and other researchers submitted a letter to ATSDR on September 8 protesting the decision to get involved at SSFL, stating “Representations made in the petition about our research and positions were misleading and disingenuous.”
The researchers added, “This petitioner does not hide his true intention very well, which is to discredit past research and relax current cleanup agreements. In addition, the petitioner’s conflicts of interest appear questionable. We respectfully urge ATSDR to reverse its decision.”
In his Ventura County Star op-ed, Weitzberg also makes the claim that Dan Hirsch of Committee to Bridge the Gap “directed” the UCLA and University of Michigan studies. This is one of Weitzberg’s 100-proof fibs, long on moon and short on shine, and an affront to both of these leading universities and their researchers.
Perhaps Weitzberg’s biggest op-ed whopper involved the Sodium Reactor Experiment. “The SRE facility was removed long ago and excavated to bedrock. EPA found very little radiological contamination and none that could be traced to the SRE accident,” Weitzberg wrote referring to the Sodium Reactor Experiment which partially melted down in 1959.
In reality, no such excavation has taken place. The empty lot where the SRE stood has a massive area of black tarp covering its contaminated soil. As for that “very little radiological contamination,” it appears Weitzberg missed the fact that, as exposed in 2012’s Radiation Readings Soar at Rocketdyne*, “On a scenic bluff overlooking Simi Valley next where the SRE once stood, leukemia-causing strontium-90, which has been found at high levels at Rocketdyne-adjacent Runkle Canyon where KB Home hopes to build hundreds of homes, soil sample #60446 was assigned an RTL 6.47 times Sr-90’s BTV and tested at 284 times background.”
The ATSDR hoax “study” may seem convincing. Persuade the public and elected officials that ATSDR can give them definitive information about current risks, spend a few months and a little money on the study, then give the all clear. Everyone can relax. No risk, no cleanup, no problem.
ATSDR told EnviroReporter.com , “We will specifically be looking to see if there are any current exposures to contaminants that may have migrated off the site (for example, sediments in drainage areas and windblown dust). We will identify if those exposures could pose a risk to health, and if so, will identify additional steps that can be taken to protect health.”
That might sound good to those looking for reassurance, until one considers the source. The U.S. EPA just spent over 41.5 million dollars of stimulus money on a radiological survey for just one area of SSFL, Area IV. ATSDR simply does not have the budget, capacity, expertise or credibility for extensive offsite testing.
And then, as the authors of the UCLA and University of Michigan studies, cleanup advocates, community members and workers advocates state in letters of protest to ATSDR, there is the matter of conflict of interest. For twenty-five years, they say, the federal government has agreed to stay away from health studies of SSFL due to a conflict of interest in establishing whether its own activities caused harm. Now, ATSDR is breaking that agreement.
Pointing to independent health studies already conducted and cleanup agreements already in place, cleanup advocates conclude that the only reason ATSDR is getting involved at this time, at the request of cleanup opponents, is to help the responsible parties get out of their cleanup commitments. Such help could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
This is what Boeing and those who want to help them get out of cleaning up their contamination are counting on. Whether or not elected officials, many of whom will soon meet with the ATSDR director, buy into the health study hoax remains to be seen.