[KB Home’s Runkle Canyon development is now called Arroyo Vista at the Woodlands]

Bubble TroubleCity of Simi Valley forced to test Runkle Canyon water and soil for arsenic

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – July 26, 2007

No sooner had Simi Valley’s cadre of concerned citizens, the Radiation Rangers, discovered that arsenic and other heavy metals were fouling the water and soil of Runkle Canyon than the knives came out. The findings of these toxins in the 1,595-acre canyon where Westwood-based KB Home wants to build 461 new residences, were first reported in CityBeat (see cover story “The Radiation Rangers,” June 21). The city and local media jumped on the news with a vengeance, as if the citizens group had not already been pleading with the city to test the suspiciously gooey water and muck discovered by a hiker in last Thanksgiving.

City officials questioned the accuracy of the Rangers-financed testing results, performed by Moorpark-based Pat-Chem Laboratories, since this reporter had only posted the two pertinent pages of the 17-page report online at EnviroReporter.com – the other 15 pages simply noted negative results for other contaminants. “We knew that if we didn’t divulge the other pages, if we only gave them two pages of the original testing, we knew that would make them want to test,” the Reverend John Southwick of the Rangers told the Simi Valley Acorn in its July 6 edition. “And that’s exactly what they’ve done.”

Southwick was invited by city officials to accompany them to Runkle Canyon for a July 2nd retest ostensibly to guide the group to where the Rangers and this reporter had originally sampled the suspect water and dirt May 18. Among those in the caravan of SUV’s that plied the canyon’s dusty roads to the sampling sites were Simi Valley Mayor Paul Miller, Councilmember Barbra Williamson, City Manager Mike Sedell, Ventura County Supervisor Peter Foy, and Scott Ouellette, executive vice president of KB Home. They were joined by an environmental consultant from Pasadena-based Tetra Tech, Inc., hired by the city to analyze the lab results when they are received from the very same lab used by the citizens group, Pat-Chem Labs. The results of these tests, and their analysis, are still pending.

Instead of being grateful that the Rangers had spent their own money to bring forth evidence of high arsenic, nickel, and vanadium, government officials manipulated the local papers into reporting that the citizens were simply meddling charlatans who would pull any trick to make sure that the picturesque canyon wasn’t developed by KB Home. The Ventura County Star jumped into the mix and floated this journalistic gem July 3: “The residents said a rubber glove used in sampling the water bubbled up and melted away before their eyes, raising a fear that cancer-causing chemicals are in the water and the soil.”

The residents never said that and no glove ever melted. They had only noted that the surface water in Runkle Canyon, water never tested by the developer’s lab for toxic heavy metals, had bubbled on chemically rated gloves after about 20 seconds for reasons still not understood. Mayor Miller, who did not respond to an e-mail to him and other city officials requesting comment on the residents’ complete Pat-Chem report – online since July 6 – was apparently satisfied that the operative word was “melt” nevertheless. “Well, I put that rubber glove in the water and it didn’t melt,” Miller told the Acorn. “And we have retained that glove in a plastic bag to see if it ever will melt.”

Failure to comprehend CityBeat‘s reporting, whether feigned or not, is no comfort to the residents of Simi Valley alarmed over this already approved development project that lies in the shadow of the extremely polluted Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), commonly known as Rocketdyne, which is the site of several partial nuclear meltdowns and innumerable radioactive and chemical accidents and spills. An 11-acre drainage from the nuclear area of Rocketdyne leads into Runkle Canyon where we have reported extraordinarily high amounts of the leukemia-causing radionuclide strontium-90 (see our cover story “Neighborhood Threat,” March 10, 2005) that, according to our conservative estimates, will launch more than 112 tons of dust generated by the development’s grading and construction.

The residents are also concerned that the city, already running a budget deficit which would be a surplus if the millions of dollars in delayed Runkle Canyon permitting fees were to begin flowing, hasn’t even a basic grasp of the science it needs to know in reassessing the dangers of this project whose environmental impact report was approved in early 2004. They point to comments made by the mayor and Councilmember Williamson in the Acorn as proof that the city has already decided that, arsenic and strontium-90 aside, the canyon is a verdant garden free of Rocketdyne pollution, the same kind of pollution that sank the nearby Ahmanson Ranch development in 2003. “We saw lots of bees, butterflies,” Williamson told the Acorn. “I would think if there was something really toxic in the ground we wouldn’t see that.”

Concerned that the high levels of arsenic in Runkle Canyon could be explained away as “natural” since arsenic occurs in California soils separate from man-made sources, the website of the Rangers, StopRunkledyne.com, analyzed the high concentrations of arsenic found on the Rocketdyne site as a possible source. As first reported by CityBeat (see “Blinded by the Light,” July 22, 2004), the lab has seen its share of arsenic pollution. “At an SSFL landfill location, with construction debris and soil/rock fill disposal, arsenic was detected in 69/75 samples, seven registering over the “field action level” (FAL), a Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) standard where “further investigation is warranted,” the website noted. “At Building 359, arsenic was detected in 93/103 samples, 21 over the FAL. Arsenic readings in the northern part of the ironically named Happy Valley section of Rocketdyne’s massive 2,850-acre mountaintop complex were detected in 79 out of 80 soil samples with 63 of them being over the field action level.”

StopRunkledyne.com also calculated that the arithmetic mean amount of arsenic at the Rocketdyne lab, which is the benchmark number derived from half the arsenic measurements being above and below it, is “7.7 times the arithmetic mean reading of Rocketdyne’s polluted soil! By comparison… Runkle mud is 9.7 times the State’s arithmetic mean!”

Another disturbing aspect to the mystery of Runkle Canyon’s astronomically high arsenic and gooey water is a subterranean fault map that shows a faultline carving through the middle of the Rocketdyne site and leading right down into the canyon. This could account for the polluted seeps that plague the proposed development’s property even during drought years such as this one.

But most disturbing could be the dismissive attitude of the city of Simi Valley itself of the residents’ claims. When asked July 17 by Radiation Ranger Frank Serafine, on film for a documentary, if she had seen the entire Pat-Chem report for the residents posted online, Councilmember Williamson seemed oblivious and hostile. “You guys have made these accusations and yet you have not turned over any of the documentation that we had asked for,” Williamson said. “You keep saying, ‘It’s coming, it’s coming,’ but it hasn’t gotten into anybody’s hands to verify what you’re saying … We want to see the tests. We want to see the actual results. We don’t want to go online and read it.”