(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.
As for the state’s financial situation, it has already affected it. People that work for me and myself are furloughed three days a month. We confront the possibility of a fourth day. So that’s three days a month that we are not working on this project. And it may be potentially four days a month that we are not working on this project. That means no one is reviewing the data. No one is out inspecting activities that are going on at the site. Absolutely, the current financial situation has an impact on the whole project.
The stimulus funding has materialized for the DOE [Department of Energy]. DOE has put down about $40 million of stimulus money to complete the characterization of the former nuclear area, Area IV. There’s going to be a radiological survey performed by EPA paid for by DOE using stimulus dollars. But there are no other stimulus dollars forthcoming. There’s no stimulus money coming to DTSC, for example, which would somehow enable us to overcome more easily the challenges we face. There is no stimulus money coming to NASA that I know anything about. There certainly none going to Boeing.
I don’t agree with the concerns that this move by NASA to declare its property as excess somehow signals their intent to walk away from their clean up obligation. NASA fully intends to clean up the site. It is [going] through this excess property procedure because it is required to do so by regulation. It no longer needs that land for mission purposes. We decided, we being the people in the United States of America, we decided to end the shuttle program. That ended NASA’s need for that particular property. So it is required by federal law to notify members of Congress and others that it no longer needs the land for mission purposes and therefore the land is called excess and the federal government then steps through procedures to dispose of the property. But none of that says NASA is going to walk away from the clean up. So I believe that concerns in that direction are exaggerated.
Has SB-990 been helpful in moving the clean up forward?
Has it been a hindrance?
Yes. That is because the entities responsible for meeting those standards have resisted of those standards which they consider to be unreasonable. I think that the standards are unnecessarily restrictive. We’re talking about…It says clean up the site to an agricultural standard. Agricultural! When that is done, and we certainly will enforce the law because that is our job, I’m not suggesting that we’re not going to uphold SB-990 and I will be very disturbed if your article says otherwise, we will enforce SB-990. But here’s a fact: when this clean up is done, this is going to be the cleanest land in Southern California. You can go to any other farmland, farmland, in this state today, and it will not meet SB-990 standards. That’s because of all the chemicals that are on it, exactly. And its farmland and you and me and our kids and everybody else are perfectly happy to eat the fruits and vegetables that come off that land. This dirt that will be excavated from Santa Susana in order to meet the agricultural standard, will be in some cases, good enough, clean enough to be used a clean fill material at other sites. It’s not that contaminated.
And, finally, and this is very important for you to understand, clean ups are normally geared to reasonably foreseeable land use. You clean up depending on what you intend to do with the land. If you know the land is going to be used for industrial purposes, then you clean up to a standard consistent with that foreseen land use. Here, the reasonably foreseeable land use is open space parkland. Not residential. This is going to be park land. No one is ever going to build a house up here. It’s going to be open space. So we are talking about a requirement for a clean up that is orders of magnitude more stringent than is necessary for the open spaces scenario. And therefore, very expensive to complete. And that is why the parties responsible for the clean up have resisted 990 and that is why I say that 990 has not helped speed up the clean up. Have I tied this together for you adequately? Do you understand what I’m telling you? There was an agreement [to not develop the land as residential], but it failed. But we continue to have assurances from the Boeing Company and from NASA that that is what they would like to see happen to this property. They are not interested in seeing this property developed for residential use. They don’t want to see it developed for industrial use. They want this to be open space. And Boeing, which owns the vast majority of the land, can certainly make that happen. Boeing intends to give the property to the State after it is clean up. It will be state land and it will be a park, open space, wildlife preserve, and it will be very clean.
It is important that you get it right. Please understand, I have not said that we think 990 is unconstitutional, I said that we intend to enforce 990. You asked me if I felt 990 has helped speed up the clean up and I said no, it hasn’t because there has been resistance to 990 by the responsible parties who have even talked about the possibility of litigating. If we are not able to reach an agreement with them [Boeing] for the land pursuant to 990 standards, then there will be litigation.
I would imagine it would get started almost immediately because there is a statute of limitations that runs out at the end of this year. If they are going to file a claim concerning constitutionality of the measure. they have to do it in within two years of it going into effect January 1, 2008. That means they have got to certainly get it started before January 1, 2010, and might actually be tied to the date it was signed into law by the Governor, which is something like October 17, 2007, which would be October 17, 2009. There’s a 2 year window and we are fast approaching that limit so if there is going to be litigation; it would have to get started soon.
Boeing is not a company without means. They have some very good lawyers. Boeing does not want to litigate because it is a waste of time and money. Boeing is not one to litigate. What Boeing wants to do is clean this site up and they want to clean it up to 990 standards even though they are not happy about it and don’t think it is necessary. They want to clean it up to 990 standards but they want to make sure that in doing so that they are treated reasonably. There are various ways that one can interpret provisions of 990 and they want the law to be interpreted reasonably, not unreasonably. They do not want, we don’t want them to end up in a situation where they end up excavating a million or two million cubic yards of dirt because people in command of the situation decide that it has to be interpreted in some particularly stringent way. Do you have any idea what an excavation of a million cubic yards of dirt would entail? Let me tell you. First, it would take about 20 years. That’s twenty years of trucks flying up and down the roads every day. Second of all, it would be an ecological catastrophe because it would moonscape the mountain and I don’t think any of us wants to denude the mountain.
And who has the final say in the interpretation?
DTSC. That is my department. DTSC has the final say in the matter but this is a political project. So there are political forces at play. There are people with political influence who have some say in the matter, too. This is a highly politicized project and let’s just say that we work very hard here at DTSC that members of the public are kept informed about what we are doing. We do our best to meet on a regular basis with members of the public to answer their questions. There are some questions that we will never be able to answer. And there are some people who will never be satisfied with the fact that there are certain questions that can’t be answered. So they will never be happy no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, they will never be happy.
I’ve been working on this project since early 2007. In one respect, yes, this is the most difficult project I have ever tackled. Look, this is a difficult project technically. But that is not what makes this project the most challenging that I’ve ever tackled. What makes this project the most challenging that I’ve ever tackled is the emotional side of it. It’s the preconceived notions that people bring to every meeting, to every discussion that make this one of the most difficult projects that I’ve been involved with in the course of my career.
People think that their ailments are caused by exposure to the elements from the mountain. And they’re afraid. But the science doesn’t support that. The meltdown was fifty years ago. They want me to tell them their cancers are caused by Boeing. We can’t do that. No, I don’t think there will be an answer to that question. Not ever. The survey will not answer any of those questions. Absolutely not. Definitively not. All the survey will tell us if it is contaminated and, if so, to what extent. What are the constituents that are contaminating the surveyed property? Where are they, how wide, how deep, how far? Whether they are responsible for someone’s bladder cancer who lives two miles away or who worked at the property back in the 1950s or 60s, we can’t say that. I’m not saying we can’t say it because we don’t want to say it. There’s no way to prove that. There are so many other things that could cause the kinds of cancers that people unfortunately have. And we all know what those factors are. There are lifestyle issues, there’s smoking, there’s diet, there’s genetic predisposition, there are certainly environmental exposures that could be responsible. But who’s to say that the exposure that caused somebody’s cancer came from Santa Susana as opposed to some other location. Could be the gas station, or wherever you lived before you moved to West Hills, who knows? Just the fact that you live in an urban setting increases your risk of cancer above that which a person who lives in a rural setting because there are more pollutants in the air in an urban environment than there are in a rural setting.