EnviroReporter.com’s analysis of the final DTSC Runkle Canyon Response Plan

Ever since breaking the story of pollution problems in Runkle Canyon coming from neighboring Rocketdyne in spring 2005, this reporter has produced a substantial body of scientific analysis exploring the radioactive and heavy metal contaminants that impact the property.

The same cannot be said for the Department of Toxic Substances Control which, since April 2008, has had a voluntary cleanup agreement with canyon owner and developer KB Home.

With the historic deal that DTSC negotiated with NASA and the Department of Energy to remediate their areas of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, many Rocketdyne activists don’t realize that DTSC’s failures in Runkle Canyon may continue to threaten public health regardless of what happens at the lab.

Take, for example, just one paragraph in DTSC’s July 22, 2010 “Review and Comments on the Runkle Canyon Response Plan” it sent to KB Home July 22, 2010:

Surface Water

Community members expressed concerns regarding some surface water samples that they had collected which exhibited some higher metals concentrations than samples collected during previous and subsequent investigations. To evaluate current conditions DTSC staff collected two samples after a rainstorm and analyzed the samples for metals concentrations. Surface water flow at the site is ephemeral so sampling runoff is only possible directly after rainstorms. These samples contained relatively low concentrations of metals which are comparable to concentrations detected during previous investigations. Arsenic, vanadium and chromium were not detected in the surface water samples. Analytical data from these two samples validate the analytical data from previous investigations; consequently, DTSC is not requiring additional surface water investigation.

The first sentence says that there was a “previous” investigation of Runkle Canyon’s surface water before the Radiation Rangers performed their own tests. That is clearly false as we reported in “The Radiation Rangers” in June 2007. We do not understand how DTSC could make such a mistake when many of our articles as well as community comments have made this quite clear.

DTSC didn’t collect “two samples” as stated above according to the lab report. It took one sample and split it, coming up with vastly different results for the same Runkle Canyon water. For instance, one “split sample” tested positive for cobalt, selenium and zinc while the other had none of these heavy metals.

The paragraph incorrectly states that “Surface water flow at the site is ephemeral so sampling runoff is only possible directly after rainstorms” which is patently untrue as photo galleries of the Radiation Rangers collecting samples in May 2007 and the City of Simi Valley in July 2007 show that there is water even during the driest months. In fact, Runkle Canyon is home to several rare and endangered vernal pools, in stark contrast to the DTSC assertion.

Apparently, DTSC didn’t also note something strange in the single water sample having no arsenic in it. All water samples from Runkle Canyon have had arsenic in them, some at alarming levels. Arsenic is in all California water. According to the California Department of Public Health, “Arsenic is ubiquitous in nature and is commonly found in drinking water sources in California.”

Yet DTSC bases its entire evaluation of Runkle Canyon’s heavy metal water problems on a single sample that it thinks is two samples, a sample that has similar (and therefore high) concentrations of heavy metals as other testing yet has no arsenic in it. This single suspect sample is what the department bases its decision to tell KB Home that it need not test the surface water even once more. This is unsound science.

When we pointed out the problems with this water sample, DTSC wrote us back saying:

“Response: As described in our phone conversation in August, DTSC understands the concern you raise on the discrepancy of results, and is researching the sample results and analytical methods to determine if there is any explanation for the obvious differences between results presented for “split” samples. DTSC has not yet concluded this evaluation, and will make no final decisions or interpretations of the data until this issue is satisfactorily resolved. The actual lab sheets for the samples in question are attached.”

That may sound reasonable but this statement, including “DTSC… will make no final decisions or interpretations of the data until this issue is satisfactorily resolved,” is pure rhetoric. The July 22, 2010 Response Plan letter sent by DTSC to KB Home is its decision.

The suspect surface water lab readings are also the result of sloppy procedures at DTSC’s lab or some other problem. How does DTSC deal with that? Get a new lab?

Problems with the department’s lab first surfaced in Runkle Canyon when the Radiation Rangers brought former Runkle Canyon DTSC project manager Norman E. Riley samples of suspicious looking white rocks from the canyon. When the rocks tested high in chromium in the DTSC lab, as we wrote about in the June 26, 2008 Ventura County Reporter cover story “White Blight,” the department’s response to the shocking findings was to suggest the Rangers somehow manipulated the rocks’ heavy metal content! This tactic has been used again here in DTSC’s Response Plan comments.

In addition, the department ignored several hundred pages of community and advocate comments on the contamination problems in Runkle Canyon, problems pointed out in 58 pages of Radiation Rangers comments and a 7-page introduction, as well as comments by other citizens concerned, about the development of the 1,575-acre property which will launch over 112 tons of strontium-90 impacted dust into the air during its anticipated construction.

EnviroReporter’s Runkle Canyon Response Plan comments and questions were tossed off as well, even though they clearly demonstrated a comprehensive understanding of the pollution problems in the canyon.

Now it boils down to two central questions for DTSC and KB Home.

Why are the laudatory standards DTSC has set to clean up Rocketdyne to background or normal levels for radiation and chemicals not the standards it demands in Runkle Canyon when the canyon property will eventually have hundreds of homes, yet the lab will become open space with no people living there?

What is KB Home trying to accomplish when it should know that failing to test for heavy metals that plague its property, and robustly sampling and testing for strontium-90 which is 27 times background site wide, and then taking out these toxins, is the only way to convince the public that its otherwise pristine land is safe for habitation?

The answers seem two-fold. First the DTSC appears to not to care what people think. Blow enough smoke after being inscrutably silent makes for a grateful yet docile public. Reading the press reports of the latest turn of events attests to that. This gamble may work.

KB Home may figure that DTSC’s stamp of approval will reclaim the good name of Runkle Canyon despite the fact that almost no remediation of the land will take place. That sharp contrast to the hundreds of millions being spent just across the property line in Rocketdyne might make no difference to future residents of Runkle. This gamble won’t work.

There is a third major question and it is for the community, activists and elected representatives who have worked so hard to clean up Rocketdyne: How can they trust the dedication and competence of a department that has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to conduct good science and blatantly disregards public input?

You can rest assured that the LA Weekly, Ventura County Reporter and EnviroReporter.com will keep asking those questions until they are answered satisfactorily, if ever at all.

It’s also fair to deduce that the Radiation Rangers will continue to do what was considered nearly impossible when they started in 2006: stopping Runkle Canyon’s development until the developer is forced to clean up what it has been trying to hush up for years. Toxic Terry, Perchlorate Patty and the Good Reverend John are going to have the fight of their lives trying to protect their community from harm.