THE RADIATION RANGERS
Developers of Simi Valley’s Runkle Canyon claim the water tested clean. Then a band of citizens discovered super-toxic goo seeping from the ground
By Michael Collins
Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – June 21, 2007
The sweating point man leads a small group up the dusty inclines of Runkle Canyon. This undeveloped swath of chaparral near the town of Simi Valley is where KB Homes hopes to build 461 residences. The unforgiving sun blazes as Terry Matheney heads toward the same creek water that he had already warned the city was suspiciously shiny, with an oily sheen that should be tested for toxins. He volunteered to take them there.
The city declined, saying the developer had already done tests on the surface water in 2003, examining one sample on the 1,595 acre property. So, one week before this day’s march, Matheney went to collect the gooey fluid himself. He was in for a big surprise.
“I was filling these plastic bottles when my chemical gloves started bubbling,” says Matheney. “I couldn’t believe it! I thought it’s obviously eating its way through my gloves so I just tore them right off of me because it looked like it was permeating the rubber!”
Serious as it is, the story sets off gales of laughter. Matheney’s a genial sort, a creature of these dry and dusty dells about 35 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles where he hikes with his dog Jake. He works at AeroVironment in Simi Valley, a defense contractor that tricks out spy planes with names like Hawk Eye, Switchblade, and the Global Observer.
But the man is angry. He thinks there’s something obviously wrong with Runkle Canyon. It is, after all, next to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), otherwise known as Rocketdyne, site of innumerable rocket tests and the worst nuclear meltdown in American history, spewing radiation from the unconfined Sodium Reactor Experiment the night then-Vice President Nixon squared off against ex-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in the famous Kitchen Debate in 1959. The effects of that meltdown would be felt decades later.
Taking this hike is no Cold War memory lane for Matheney, however. It’s a journey that’s transformed him into “Toxic Terry,” one of a crew of concerned citizens who call themselves the “Radiation Rangers” – their way of laughing at what they see as the sheer insanity of developing this possibly-polluted land.
Now he’s headed up these hills with a lab technician and his neighbors to professionally sample the goo he saw in the water. Little does he know that the results of his reconnaissance would yield proof of Runkle Canyon pollution that never appeared in the Runkle Canyon development Environmental Impact Report. That EIR was passed in 2004 by the Simi Valley City Council, which apparently didn’t notice that tests had not been done for some very nasty metals in that sole surface water sample, including the notorious one that the Radiation Rangers would find: arsenic.
“They could call it Three Mile Island Shores or Chernobyl Estates,” Matheney says. “It’s ludicrous. My company is sending our drones over there to protect our troops and the United States from possible terrorists, from them finding a nuclear bomb and getting in here to create real havoc, and here we have a nuclear threat in our backyard. Boeing and Rocketdyne are wrapping themselves in the American flag and claiming they’re defending us when what they’re really defending is that dollar. What’s happened to America, that the city council would sell us down the river for a profit?”
Accompanying us on this journey through majestic Valley Oaks and over land parched by drought were other members of the Radiation Rangers, including “Fearless Frank” Serafine, an award-winning sound engineer and composer who recently performed at the Henry Fonda Theater with Thomas Dolby. And “The Good Reverend John” Southwick who marries folks at WeMarryYou.com. Absent this day, because of work, is the vice president of a huge financial company, “Perchlorate Patty” Coryell, who runs StopRunkledyne.com.
“All we were asking for was an unbiased, comprehensive chemical and radiological characterization of Runkle Canyon before construction activities began,” says Coryell later. “The city council ignored these requests and instead asked various federal agencies to go back over the same developer-generated reports and render an opinion. Most of these reports have been completely discredited – and the rest are so incredibly limited in scope that they are meaningless. Finally, we paid to have the necessary testing done ourselves. In two weeks, we had answers, not opinions.”
Coryell counts around 60 other Simi Valley residents as opponents of the KB Homes development plans for Runkle Canyon. Most are affluent white Republicans who never knew activism until Rocketdyne’s lethal legacy brought them together to fight a development that CityBeat has estimated will launch over 112 tons of dust into the air, dust impacted by high readings of the leukemia-causing radionuclide strontium-90 (see our cover story “Neighborhood Threat,” March 10, 2005). Strontium-90 readings in Runkle Canyon average 37 times normal for the area with a high over 411 times above background.