(Bien conducted this interview as part of our co-bylined August 24, 2009 Miller-McCune article “50 Years After America’s Worst Nuclear Meltdown – Human error helped worsen a nuclear meltdown just outside Los Angeles, and now human inertia has stymied the radioactive cleanup for half a century.”)
Norman E. Riley was the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) Project Manager for two years ending August 19, 2009 as EnviroReporter.com reported in “Coup de Goo.” Riley was replaced on the project by 25-year Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) veteran Rick Brausch, best known previously as the agency’s policy and legislative director.
In this interview, Riley says that he considers the legislation to cleanup SSFL, State Senate Bill 990, to be a “hindrance” and “unnecessarily restrictive.”
Riley also laid out Boeing’s possible plan to sue the State over SB-990 and dropped this bombshell: “If we are not able to reach an agreement with them [Boeing] for the land pursuant to 990 standards, then there will be litigation.”
Joan Trossman Bien: Why has the cleanup of the lab taken so long?
Norm Riley: The reason the cleanup has been taking so long is that things have to be done in a stepwise fashion. One has to begin with a characterization of the site. In other words, an investigative effort to make sure of the nature and extent of contamination is fully understood. And that process is not yet completed. We are still in the middle of that site characterization effort. It’s a large site, it’s a complicated site. And we expect to be finished with the characterization work in 2012.
We don’t yet know what it will entail because we don’t yet know the full extent of the contamination because the investigation has not been completed. I think it’s a reasonably good bet that there will be significant excavation that occurs. Which is to say that contaminated soils will be scooped up and placed into a truck and carried away from the site to a proper disposal facility. It is also possible that there may be other technology applied. For example, with respect to certain kinds of organic contaminants in the soil, a bio-remediation is a possibility. With respect to the contaminated ground water, there are a variety of things that might be done. That might include some sort of pumping and treating of the contaminated groundwater, sort of assisted oxidation, perhaps some sort of bioremediation, we don’t know yet. And we won’t know until technologies with potential applications are tested to make sure that they’re effective.
This is roughly 3000 acres of extremely complicated geology, highly fractured bedrock on top of a mountain in an arid environment. There have certainly been larger facilities that have been cleaned up, Rocky Flats, for example, is a substantially larger site in Colorado. I know of no other site in California as large and as complicated as this one, however.
There was the 2005 Topanga Canyon fire. There yet may be other fires. There was one last year that came pretty close to the facility that required people living nearby to evacuate their homes. Yes, it is an area that is prone to fire. If there were fire, it might complicate the investigative effort but depending on what we are doing there and what burns it may or may not hinder clean up activities. Let me give you an example. The last time fire swept across the Santa Susana facility, it burned a lot of water line, PVC pipe. That sort of thing is disruptive and I’m sure it could happen again. And if our clean up activities were dependent on the use of such hardware that we would have a problem, and I suppose it is possible, though it seems less likely to me, that an earthquake could be similarly disruptive. Though I rather doubt that an earthquake would have any significant effect on the contamination problems up there. Fire may well because fire will change the chemical composition, it will alter chemically on constituents that are at or near the surface and it would add to constituents. Dioxins, for example are a common combustion product which happen to be dangerous compounds. But an earthquake doesn’t do that.
The biggest single problem that we face right now…well, it’s certainly not financial because the entities that we are dealing with have the financial means to clean the site up. There are certainly some technical challenges. The ground water system there is very complex. Fractured bedrock, for example. And it greatly complicates the problem of removing contaminants that are held within the fractured matrixes. And certainly there are political situations which complicate this project. But I don’t think any of the problems that I have touched upon are insurmountable. I think with time we will be able to solve all those problems and we will get this site cleaned up.
I think that if everything goes according to plan, 2017 is a realistic date but it won’t take much to cause that date to slip. Being able to hit 2017 means being able to adhere to a schedule that is already pretty tight. If something unforeseen were to happen like a failure on the part of the responsible parties to complete some aspect of the work or a failure of the state to complete its review because you lose staff and things like that were to occur it would jeopardize the 2017 schedule and cause the schedule to slip. But at this point, I still think that despite the enormous difficulties we confront, I still think that 2017 is a realistic target date.