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.
But radiation isn’t on the minds of the men heading up the canyon this day. They know that the slime’s sheen wasn’t caused by radiation. They also know that if they collect the gunk themselves, the city and the developer will reject it outright as being biased. So they reached deep into their pockets and hired Ron Lovato of Moorpark-based Pat-Chem Laboratories, who also soldiers along with the band as it makes its way higher through this beautiful mountain landscape. Lovato’s kit includes water sampling ladles, soil scoopers, and various containers for volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds. A heavy cooler designed to keep the samples properly preserved for the lab is lugged laboriously.
Careful to avoid any contact with his skin, Lovato uses a long white scooper to dip into the mysteriously streaked creek water. Rust-colored mud is scraped from where the creek has begun to dry up and recede. After an hour of sampling, Lovato carefully stows his cargo in the cooler for the long walk back.
“The only reason I knew where the water was is that I knew where the water table was before and where the cattle got their water,” Matheney says. “There are cattle tracks all over the place. The cattle are going down and drinking out of that.”
“If we can walk directly back in there and the first place we find water it has got that slime on it, how the hell can they not find it?” Matheney continues. “And [KB Home is] unable to, and yet they’re doing all the testing.”
Arsenic and Waste
The results of the nearly $3,000 worth of collection and analysis by Pat-Chem Labs were astonishing. An astronomical amount of poisonous arsenic was detected in the surface water and adjacent soil of Runkle Canyon. In wetter times, that water eventually makes its way downhill to collect in Runkle Reservoir, up gradient of the Arroyo Simi. Water reaching here, or migrating through the groundwater, replenishes an aquifer that supplies water to tens of thousands of people in Simi Valley. That extracted groundwater makes up about 20 percent of the water blend utilized in the area.
Due to increasing awareness of the lethality of arsenic, the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the “maximum contaminant level” (MCL) for the substance in drinking water from 50 parts per billion (ppb), established in 1975, to 10 ppb in 2001. “A 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the 50 ppb standard did not adequately protect human health,” EPA says in describing its new arsenic rule. “EPA set the new MCL of 10 ppb to protect the public against the effects of long-term, chronic exposure to arsenic in drinking water. The new MCL will decrease non-fatal and fatal bladder and lung cancers and will reduce the frequency of other health effects such as diabetes, developmental problems, gastrointestinal illness, and heart disease.” Arsenic has also been linked to many other non-fatal conditions.
Runkle Canyon’s surface water readings for arsenic are 15 times the MCL for drinking water, over 21,000 times the EPA’s “preliminary remediation goal” and 37,500 times the agency’s “public health goal” for potable water.
The mud sample was laced with arsenic as well, coming in at over 548 times the EPA’s preliminary remediation goal for the contaminant in soil. That amount of the toxin is also 213 percent of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) arsenic “field action level,” where further investigation is warranted.
As to the source of this arsenic, it seems logical to look uphill to SSFL which is probably more famous for its two partial nuclear meltdowns in 1959 and 1964; the earlier disaster releasing hundreds of times more radiation than Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979. However, arsenic has been found at high levels at the lab. As CityBeat has reported (“Blinded by the Light,” July 22, 2004), arsenic readings in the northern part of the Happy Valley section of Rocketdyne’s massive 2,850 mountaintop complex were detected in 79 out of 80 soil samples with 63 of them being over the field action level.
The toxic metals nickel and vanadium were also detected in the water at worrisome levels by the Pat-Chem lab, in the case of the later, tripping a government “notification level” designed to keep pollutants out of the drinking water supply. Nickel was over 12 times the EPA’s public health goal in water and vanadium came in at 1.8 times the notification level which is a threshold at which the most local government entity should be informed. That entity would seem to be the city of Simi Valley since it annexed Runkle Canyon in September 2004.
The Runkle Canyon water is loaded with potassium, calcium, and sodium. Merely pouring it onto chemical-rated rubber gloves causes them to bubble after about 15 seconds for reasons not yet understood. This water, which percolates to the surface through seeps year-round, is so caustic that it seems to possess the properties of sodium hydroxide, or lye. It’s as if Drano or Liquid-Plumr is flowing through Runkle Canyon.
“I don’t think we’ve seen numbers that high but we’re not qualified to say if it’s natural or unnatural,” said one Pet-Chem employee who asked to remain anonymous. “That’s the hardest goddamn water in your life. It’s a little bizarre. I would hope not too many people would touch that water.”
The Radiation Rangers didn’t want to test this suspicious water themselves – that’s what they thought the government was for. Then, this spring, the group decided to ask the city to demand that KB Homes investigate the mystifying muck even though they had been derided in the Simi Valley Acorn by Councilmember Glen Becerra. “If something is wrong up there, then absolutely we’re going to get to the bottom of it, but if it turns out something is not wrong, then I don’t want to see a complete devaluation of homes just because a few neighbors created mass hysteria,” Becerra said April 30.
Becerra, whose wife Sally is a real estate agent for Troop Real Estate in Simi Valley, continued hammering the group at an April 23 city council meeting. “Several weeks ago in the Acorn, there was an article about our trip to Washington, D.C. and specifically the meeting we had with Senator Feinstein trying and asking her to facilitate getting EPA involved in the Runkle Canyon property. There were some comments in there I made about wanting to make sure we managed that issue responsibly, that we do it without creating hysteria,” Becerra said. “I stand by those comments.”
So it was with some reticence that Matheney, Serafine, and Southwick pleaded with the mayor and council members May 7 to come take a look at what was bubbling up in the hills above the city. “Nobody wants to run down property value, I mean, I’m sympathetic like everybody else but we cannot put the people in danger,” Matheney said during public comment at a city council meeting. “I’d be willing to go up. If you won’t pay for it, we will. I don’t know how much more fair we can get than that.”
“I happen to have been up there, also,” said Southwick. “There is some very nasty stuff up there.”
As the council members sat stone-faced, Serafine made a final pitch. “I’ve videotaped it if you don’t want to go up there. But I really think that it would be best for us to all go up, take a sample, give half of the sample to KB, let them go off and do their tests. We take our sample and we all go down to the post office to drop it off together. We all witness it went out to a lab that is transparent.”
Mayor Miller stirred to life. “This council really wants to know what’s going on up there so we can make arrangements to go up with you and we will do that,” said Miller, police chief of the city for 12 years before being elected mayor in 2006. “We have your phone numbers here and we’ll have the city staff get a hold of you and we’ll arrange a time to get together and we’ll go check it out and we can go from there.”
It was not to be. The city soon informed the Stop Runkledyne group that KB Homes had reminded them that they had already tested the surface water and had submitted that information in a comprehensive 42-page report that was already in the development’s EIR. That 2003 report by Huntington Beach-based Miller Brooks Environmental Inc. tested one asphalt sample and a nearby surface water sample.
In the body of the report, Miller Brooks writes that Title 22 metals were “below state and federal regulatory limits (see Table 1).” Title 22 metals are toxic metals listed in Title 22 of the state health code. But the report’s Table 1 actually says that the Title 22 metals in the surface water sample were “not analyzed.” Oddly, the Title 22 metals were tested in the asphalt but not in the water.
Really, Really Hot Property
The 2003 Miller Brooks report is the environmental report the city told CityBeat it used of all the reports on the project since 1999. It is also the same report that the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) called “not considered useful” when analyzing the strontium-90 in Runkle Canyon dust as we have already reported (“Dust in the Wind,” March 15, 2007).
CityBeat also reported that the citizens submitted a list of questions to the city which were forwarded to CDHS. Those questions were answered by the department on April 10 and contained some interesting omissions. Except for one soil sample slightly above background, CDHS wrote that there’s no evidence of elevated strontium-90 on the land between Runkle Canyon and Rocketdyne, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. The implication was that if Brandeis-Bardin had little or no elevated Sr-90, and it’s closer to Rocketdyne, that Runkle Canyon’s high Sr-90 readings were suspicious.
CDHS states twice in its answers to citizens that there is only one sample known of elevated Sr-90 ever found on the Brandeis-Bardin property. Actually, there are 25 Brandeis-Bardin soil samples with elevated Sr-90 according to a Rocketdyne-funded study, the 535-page 1995 McLaren/Hart report, “Additional Soil and Water Sampling – The Brandeis-Bardin Institute and Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.” The report also noted two hot water samples with Sr-90 on the Jewish camp property.
Additionally, CDHS stated in their responses that in a November 8, 2006 CDHS analysis that the chance of dying from Runkle Canyon Sr-90 was 0.00045 in a million. That analysis seems flawed: DHS took the “risk-based” number of possible deaths, about 5 per million, converted it into a “dose-based” number and then back again to a risk-based result to come up with 0.00045 out of a million. This scientific slight of hand ends up with a result 10,774 times lower than what the department said the figure was to begin with.
Indeed, this tiny CDHS number doesn’t even match the risk from strontium-90 at the Runkle Canyon site as claimed by Al Boughey, Simi Valley’s director of Environmental Services. In letter to the City Manager Mike Sedell last August 23, Boughey wrote, “[B]ased on the levels of strontium-90 on the site, the calculations indicate an increased cancer risk of 0.26 cases of cancer in a million… [B]ased on the concentration of strontium-90 and the cancer risk associated with that concentration, exposure to dust at the site would not [their emphasis] pose a public health risk on or off site.”
This number used by Boughey is still 578 times higher than CDHS’s estimate. Neither set of numbers reinforces faith in the credible science practices of the department or the city.
Further undermining the department’s credibility are the public comments made recently by Robert Greger of the Radiological Health Branch of CDHS. At an April 19 meeting of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Work Group in Simi Valley, Greger seemed a bit tenuous about the department’s conclusions about Runkle Canyon. “Department of Health Services doesn’t really know what the status is there,” Greger told the crowd of around 80 people. “So we still don’t understand the situation.”
Apparently, Sacramento doesn’t understand the situation with the Radiological Health Branch of CDHS, either. In late May, 12 state senators, including Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D- Santa Monica) and Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) sent a letter to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee communicating their concern that the branch may be “engaged in an unauthorized de facto deregulation of the handling and disposal of [low-level radioactive waste].”
“My experience with the radiological health branch over time is that they have become – I won’t say captured – but somewhat sympathetic to the industry,” Kuehl told Sacramento-based Capitol Weekly. “We just need a lot more information. We need to know why they may have been helping the industry skirt some of the regulations.”
Kuehl is the author of new legislation that would require that Rocketdyne be cleaned up to most stringent EPA Superfund standards which aim for no more than a one-in-a-million chance of contracting a fatal cancer from any particular chemical or radionuclide. SB 990 was approved in a 21-16 vote May 21 in a huge victory for environmentalists and will move to the Assembly for consideration.
The legislation comes on the heels of a momentous EPA decision to reevaluate the old Rocketdyne lab for inclusion as a Superfund site, a designation it didn’t grant during its 2003 evaluation. Both U.S. Senators Boxer and Feinstein support putting it on the Superfund National Priorities List.
“EPA said it would take them about nine months to do that evaluation,” said Rocketdyne watchdog Dan Hirsch at the April 19 community meeting in Simi Valley. “The last time they undertook such a review, it wasn’t completed for about five years. They have done this evaluation twice before – twice before they have not listed it. The difference this time, they say, is that they will consider the entire site, not just [the nuclear area], and consider chemical contamination, not just radioactive.”
“Their formula is that you have to have people living on the site to be able to qualify as a Superfund site no matter how contaminated the site is,” Hirsch continued. “It doesn’t get to be Superfund until people move onto it. I wouldn’t hold your breath about the Superfund designation.”
Hirsch’s dour prediction might be mitigated by a May 2 court ruling by U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti, who slammed the Bush administration’s Department of Energy (DOE) study of radioactive contamination at Rocketdyne, a study that adopted a cleanup standard that would expose future residents to elevated risks of cancer far higher than the EPA allows.
The DOE study, which concluded that their $258 million cleanup of the nuclear area of the lab would leave no significant environmental impact, had been criticized by the EPA, Boxer and Feinstein, and the state of California. Hirsch’s group, the Santa Cruz-based Committee to Bridge the Gap, sued the DOE over these lax radiation standards in a 2004 lawsuit along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the city of Los Angeles.
Conti said, among other things, that DOE discounted groundwater contamination, overlooked the combined effects of chemical and radioactive contamination, and employed a radiation standard that would give each exposed person a 3-in-10,000 chance of contracting a fatal cancer. The DOE standard “improperly placed future residents of the site at an increased cancer risk many times higher than CERCLA (the federal toxic cleanup law) allows,” the judge said, noting that the SSFL is surrounded by millions of people who should be assured that the government is cleaning up the facility to the highest cleanup standards. “It is difficult to imagine a situation where the need for such an assurance could be greater,” Conti continued.
“Over and over again, I’ve had neighbors tell me that they were unaware of the nature of activities up at the SSFL,” said Coryell. “They don’t understand why the city isn’t demanding that Rocketdyne clean up the lab and adjacent land to EPA Superfund standards. In a city that undertakes a comprehensive marketing campaign to educate citizens about parking enforcement strategy, no effort has been made to increase public awareness with respect to Rocketdyne’s impact on our environment. Why?”
Fighting City Hall
Armed with this information, and the results of their own tests, Matheney, Serafine, Southwick, and this reporter met with Simi Valley Mayor Paul Miller and City Manager Mike Sedell on June 11. I was there to explain the Pat-Chem findings and ask how the city didn’t notice the inadequacy of KB Homes’ surface water tests. I also wanted to know who did the fact-checking around the municipality when it came to these environmental tests. The meeting was ostensibly to talk about where the development stood since the city received the April 10 CDHS answers to the group’s questions.
“After we received the letter back from the Department of Health Services, they had at the conclusion of their report that they identified that it might be advisable to do additional testing,” said Laura Behjan, assistant city manager. “We did meet with KB and talk with them about that and they indicated that they were willing to do some additional testing.”
Silence descended on the conference room in Simi Valley City Hall when Behjan, Miller, and Sedell heard that the group had gone up and taken and tested their own samples and had done so without trespassing on the property which is used every day by hikers and people walking their dogs. Matheney told the trio of having permission of the previous owner of GreenPark Runkle Canyon, LLC, Peter Kiesecker, as well as Bill Avery, who ran about 300 head of arsenic-drinking cattle in Runkle Canyon until they were shipped to Camarillo last spring.
“But [Kiesecker is] not the owner anymore, there’s a new owner,” countered Sedell. “I’m not trying to challenge you, but they were stolen samples that [you] were trespassing to get. Peter used to let people go up there. KB has not kept that policy up.”
“Regardless, they’re not going to outrightly believe that your samples are valid, even if you had permission to go up and get them, because they’re your samples and you have a different agenda,” Sedell continued. “We need other samples to be taken.”
Sensing where this was going, I interjected. “First let me address that. We never touched the samples. The samples were sampled by Pat-Chem lab. They touched them. The chain of custody is intact – photographs prove it. These guys didn’t pee in the cup, so to speak.”
“I think what troubles me most is when we talked about this and we said, ‘Do you guys want to go up there with us?’ [and you say] ‘Well, KB says everything is okay.’ So we had to do it,” said Southwick. “The lab I had do the testing is one of most prestigious labs in the United States.”
“But from a perception point, we’re still the middle guys on this thing,” Sedell said. “KB is on one side, you’re on the other in public perception so you’re probably best to have us go up there. I don’t mind if both sides watch it but that we try to facilitate what happens just for appearances if nothing else.”
Touchy as nerves got, the meeting ended amicably with the city pledging to do more investigating. Mayor Miller even smiled at Rev. Southwick as we adjourned. “We’re on your side,” Miller said as we left the room.
If history is any indicator, the city is anything but on the side of its citizens concerned about chemicals and radiation in Runkle Canyon. Nor is it an objective bystander. It stands to lose over $4.5 million alone from the permitting of the KB Homes project. Many millions more would flow from future taxes and services from the thousands of people who would live in Runkle Canyon.
“If [Rocketdyne] didn’t have such gross felonies on the record, it wouldn’t be so bad. But when KB Homes is following the lead of a known felon already, with minimal testing, there is something they’re hiding,” Matheney said after the meeting. “For the retired chief of police, the mayor, not to smell something suspicious is very hard to believe. If he pulled somebody over in a car and they gave him the excuses they’re giving us, he’d know something was wrong. What is he missing now?”
“Perchlorate Patty” Coryell thinks she knows why. “The elected representatives in Simi Valley left ‘credible deniability’ behind years ago – I found so many news stories, magazine articles, and internet reports describing the Rocketdyne contamination that I realized there are only three ways to explain the city’s reaction: they are incompetent or oblivious or in Rocketdyne’s pocket. You can damn well bet that these leaders aren’t going to run unopposed again for public office in 2008.”
Portions of the Runkle Canyon sampling and analysis reports, photographs of testing, and other comprehensive Runkle Canyon information are available at EnviroReporter.com.