Cal/EPA opposes U.S. EPA Superfund Listing for Santa Susana Field Laboratory citing “faster, more protective cleanup” done by State

The Santa Susana Field Lab fired over 30,000 rocket tests leaving grossly polluted soil and groundwater
The Santa Susana Field Lab fired over 30,000 rocket tests leaving grossly polluted soil and groundwater

In an historic move to maintain California’s control of the costly cleanup of the former Rocketdyne lab in the hills between the Simi and San Fernando valleys, Cal/EPA Secretary Linda Adams said late yesterday that the agency would oppose federal Superfund listing for the radiologically and chemically-polluted 2,850 acre site.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) is a former rocket engine testing and nuclear research facility where a reactor partially melted down in 1959 with a subsequent partial meltdown in 1964. Radiological and chemical dumping and mishaps have left the lab grossly polluted.

“We’ve decided to turn down the U.S. EPA’s offer to consider placing the Santa Susana Field Lab site on the National Priorities List because we think we can deliver a faster, more protective clean up,” said Linda Adams, Secretary for Environmental Protection, in a statement before addressing a group of Rocketdyne activists in a conference call meeting in Governor Schwarzenegger’s Los Angeles field office. “The state will continue to oversee the cleanup of the site, working with the U.S. EPA on a thorough and expeditious site investigation and cleanup.”

Left to right: Dawn Kowalski, Marie Mason, Dan Hirsch, Holly Huff, Christina Walsh, D'Lanie Blaze, Bonnie Klea, Bill Bowling, Dave Einhorn
Click photo to read about Rocketdyne activists' reactions

The reaction of the activists at the meeting was exhilaration and near-disbelief. “To me, today was one of those days in your life that you never forget,” said Christina Walsh who had sent Governor Schwarzenegger a letter asking him to keep state control. Walsh runs the website and co-founder of the Aerospace Museum of Cancer – Los Angeles. “Sitting in the meeting room at the Governor’s office hearing the news that the State was not going to deal in any more nonsense, and was keeping control where it belongs – with California – was wonderful and will save lives.”

The unprecedented move codifies SB990, a state bill authored by termed-out State Senator Sheila Kuehl passed in late 2007 that would commit to the daunting task of cleaning up Rocketdyne’s contaminated soil and groundwater to the highest cleanup levels enforced, or “rural residential” standards which assume that occupants of the remediated land are growing food on it.

SSFL-owner Boeing has agreed to donate the land as parkland once remediation is completed in 2017, and would have benefited from an U.S. EPA Superfund designation on the National Priory List (NPL) of the most polluted places in America and the likely “open space” or “residential” standards that would follow.

Those more lax standards are hundreds to thousands of times higher for allowable radioactive and chemical residue contamination. The potential federal Superfund limit for the radioactive isotope cesium 137 (Cs 137), for example, would be 3,154 times higher than the one now required by the state. Cs 137 has a half life of 30.23 and is toxic in minute amounts. The water-soluble isotope can cause cancer years after ingestion, inhalation or absorption.

The higher standards mean higher cleanup costs and will cost the responsible parties — Boeing, the Department of Energy, and NASA — several hundred million dollars. Both the DOE and NASA asked the Bush Administration for last minute listing on the NPL, moves roundly denounced by activists demanding the highest cleanup levels that California requires.

“DOE and NASA, two of the three Responsible Parties (Boeing being the third) for the contamination, requested that the outgoing Bush Administration list SSFL and do so immediately, before leaving office,” a coalition of environmental groups wrote to Adams in a letter January 6. “This would entail breaching commitments USEPA had made to the Governor that he had until mid-January to decide whether to concur with such listing; other commitments USEPA had made that no listing recommendation would occur until spring; USEPA’s normal process that listing recommendations are only published twice a year, with the next one being months after President-elect Obama takes office; and USEPA’s historical practice that it does not list without a Governor’s concurrence.”

In a conference call with reporters after the closed citizens meeting, Adams noted that continued state control of the cleanup keeps Cal/EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) as the lead agency on the chemical and radiological cleanup yet her agency was still working cooperatively with U.S. EPA. “We feel that we have built momentum towards a binding cleanup agreement,” she said adding that had the feds taken over, there was no assurance that they would have abided by SB990. “This is a little bit stronger statement of non-concurrence.”

SSFL project chief for DTSC, Norman Riley, made clear that the state is fully in charge of the cleanup of Rocketdyne. When asked by about problems with Boeing-supplied data in a December 2007 report on potential offsite contamination, riddled with errors and omissions yet signed under penalty of perjury by a Boeing head, Riley said that the giant aerospace company could face $10,000 a day fines for not complying with DTSC information requests. DTSC had not queried Boeing about the report in question, Riley however noted.

Secretary Adams informed the assembled activists that she would be sending a letter to U.S. EPA later this week stating that California doesn’t concur with Superfund listing for the old Rocketdyne lab, bringing to a close one of the most contentious and uphill battles that a relatively small group of people waged for decades. Making sure that the Santa Susana Field Lab is never developed has always been a major part of what has driven these residents that ring the lab, several of whom have fought cancers that they believe was caused by Rocketdyne. Enshrining the strictest cleanup standards seems like an almost impossible dream come true.

Towards the end of the meeting, Adams told the assembled over the speaker phone that Kuehl had ambled into her office in Sacramento. The Los Angeles meeting erupted in sustained applause, a few of the assembled teary-eyed as they cheered. Bonnie Klea, who once was a secretary who worked in a room next to a Rocketdyne reactor and has fought cancer she blames on the lab through repeated chemotherapy and radiation treatment, was one of them. “At the end of the meeting, all of a sudden Secretary Adams announced that Sheila Kuehl just entered her office,” Klea said after the meeting. Everyone started clapping, we were ecstatic. Sheila spoke briefly. Dan [Hirsch of Committee to Bridge the Gap] gave all the credit to Sheila. He said that four bills lost but she never quit. Makes me want to cry.”

“What can fellow Americans learn?” Klea asked rhetorically. “David can actually slay Goliath! We are the only DOE site in America where activists took control and decided what kind of cleanup was good for California. California is still the leader in making good decisions. All other states watch us. Unfortunately other states did a DOE Accelerated cleanup already.”

“We have come such a long way in this last year, and with the leadership we have now, and the agreements and law we have in place, there is absolutely no reason why we can’t get this right, finally,” said Walsh. “We’ve been defending SB990 for a year now, and today, we see law, and a paradigm shift to new possibilities. Now it is time for all of us to roll up our sleeves and see what we can accomplish.”

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