New law cleaning up Rocketdyne for parkland may not stop adjacent KB Home development pushed by Simi Valley City Council
By Michael Collins
The apocalyptic Ranch Fire marching toward Simi Valley Oct. 22 never made it to the city limits, but smoky wind gusts up to 70 mph heralded the firestorm that would take place at the city council meeting that night. Shouldering against dust devils that made it hard to walk, the “Radiation Rangers,” a local citizens group, made their way into Simi Valley City Hall. They were determined to force the city to conduct a new Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the proposed 1,595-acre Runkle Canyon development because they contend that the original report is inaccurate and new pollution information has been uncovered by themselves and the municipality.
The Rangers assert that the 461-residence KB Home scheme is contaminated by radiological and chemical pollution emanating from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in eastern Ventura County. The Boeing-owned lab, commonly known as Rocketdyne, is the site of this country’s worst nuclear meltdown and countless toxic spills, dumping and mishaps over the 50 years it served on the front lines of the Cold War. The partial meltdown of Rocketdyne’s Sodium Reactor Experiment, which supplied the nation’s first commercially available electricity to the then tiny town of Moorpark, released up to hundreds of times more radiation than the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster. Studies have linked the lab to cancers in its workers and in the surrounding communities. Indeed, Boeing paid $30 million to settle lab-related lawsuits against it in the fall of 2005.
“If we hadn’t come forward to stop this thing, that home project would have started last August , been built and right now you would have a situation with toxins in that canyon in homes,” said “Toxic Terry” Matheney, a Ranger who lives next to Runkle Canyon. “We know the toxins are there. You checked it. We checked it. And yet the bill that was just signed, 990 — and you guys supported that — to have that Santa Susana Field Lab cleaned up to its utmost [is law]. We feel that if it’s good enough for you guys to vote for that to be done on such a large scale up there, knowing that it’s toxic, then we should do the same thing down here. We feel that lives are at stake.”
The city disagrees and has let both the residents and the media know it. Council members have condemned the Rangers as NIMBYs and alarmists, and have repeatedly questioned their character and motivations, hostile viewpoints reported in the Ventura County Star and Simi Valley Acorn.
Such contentiousness continued at the Oct. 22 meeting.
“Be careful with some of the people that are behind some of this stuff because it is rhetoric,” said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Sojka, who calls the issue personal because his father died of leukemia. “They put out fliers that say we’re in the back pocket of the developer, that we’re criminals, that just all we want to do is build all over Simi Valley, and that’s not true.”
While the Rangers’ fliers and Web site don’t refer to council members as criminals, they do reveal that four out of five council members, except Council Member Michele Foster, have received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from KB Home, the previous developer of the property, GreenPark Runkle, and Boeing since 2002.
Summaries of the contributions are published on the citizens’ Web site, StopRunkledyne.com, and have been substantiated by copies of campaign contributions forms obtained by the Reporter. It is unclear whether the city’s Code of Ethics and Conduct demands disclosure or that council members make a “declaration of conflict” prior to discussions of the development at City Council meetings.
Community members also complain that the city has not agendized the Runkle Canyon issue, even though two new tests of the property, one by the Rangers and the other by the city, have found alarming levels of heavy metals. They maintain that the council’s failure to fully discuss the issue of pollutants with the community, and misinterpreting scientific reports including their own, belies a disturbing lack of understanding of the science involved in developing Runkle Canyon, or maybe something worse.
For its part, KB Home has attempted to placate alarmed residents by conducting a new series of soil tests to determine if strontium-90 has turned the development’s soil into property too hot to handle. Sampling took place for three days beginning Oct. 3 with about 60 dirt specimens collected from where KB Home plans to build, or about one sample per two acres. This sampling, done with a city official looking on, seems at odds with KB Home’s Runkle Canyon Web site, which says no more testing is necessary: “We already have independent tests that indicate that the property is suitable for residential development, and no new information has been presented that would call into question those conclusions.”
Dan Hirsch, president of the nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap, has trepidations about the safety of the property and the new tests. Hirsch, who first revealed publicly the 1959 partial meltdown to Warren Olney of KNBC-Channel 4 News and the Los Angeles Times in 1979, also broke the news of the high strontium-90 readings in Runkle Canyon to this reporter in late 2004. Hirsch questioned the validity of KB Home’s new testing at a quarterly Rocketdyne Workgroup meeting Oct. 18.