PART FIVE – UP A RIVER WITHOUT A CLEANUP
Government guts Rocketdyne cleanup imperiling communities and the LA River, misuse of $41.5 million EPA Rocketdyne study prompts calls for investigation
Residents demanding cleanup of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) descended on the Grande Vista Hotel in Simi Valley December 12. Veteran SSFL activists voiced anger that they had been betrayed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency after a 23-year fight to clean up Rocketdyne to some semblance of the unpolluted paradise it was before Nazi rocketeer-turned American tool Wernher von Braun built its first two rocket test stands.
EPA held the meeting to discuss the findings of its $41.5 million tests to ascertain the background levels of radionuclides at Rocketdyne and how much radiation was spread across SSFL’s Area IV.
Residents said that the agreement to clean up the nuclear part of SSFL to background were deep-sixed by the EPA in favor of cleanup levels many times higher, an agreement-breaking move embraced by the state EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). But that’s not all. The study found astronomical amounts of the most dangerous man-made radionuclides known, much of it in places previously checked off as having been remediated.
The 4,727-page EPA report “Draft Final Radiological Characterization of Soils, Area IV and the Northern Buffer Zone, Area IV Radiological Study” showed that the radiation contamination across Area IV of SSFL was far greater than previously known. Huge hits of strontium-90, plutonium 239-240 and cesium-137 are mapped showing wide swaths of radioactive soil, roads, and reactor remains.
One Area IV road is contaminated with strontium-90 at 67 times background. Cesium-137 clocks in at 1,016 times normal in one spot and a stupefying 1,918 times background in another. Nearby, a borehole under an old reactor finds a hot spot deep beneath the surface: Plutonium 239-240 over 24 feet down intensely ionizing at over 92 times background.
What makes these enormous radiation readings even more alarming is the fact that most of Area IV has supposedly been remediated, twice in some cases. Plus, government surveys signed off on these areas declaring them fit for unrestricted use. Perhaps the whopping finds were indicative of the slipshod manner in which the cleanup was conducted, much like the shabby job remediating Area I.
Equally alarming, the EPA accurately sampled, tested and tallied the contamination in Area IV but instead of comparing it to background levels of contamination that EPA itself determined, the agency tossed the use of background out the window. Instead a complicated formula was suggested as being more accurate in the lab even though the method would leave huge amounts of contaminated soil in place.
This is a direct contravention of 2010 Agreement on Consent (AOC) between the Department of Energy (DOE) and DTSC to finally cleanup Rocketdyne by remediating to background. DTSC has the same agreement with NASA.
The federal EPA was paid to perform for DOE and DTSC, but instead it has effectively said to pay no attention to the background numbers and go with levels the EnviroReporter.com previously exposed in Radiation Readings Soar at Rocketdyne and Rocketdyne Still Hot as being substantially above their respective normal levels in soil identical to Rocketdyne’s defiled dirt.
Thus, the EPA has effectively gutted the cleanup by dismissing the Background Threshold Values (BTVs) that the agency’s contractor detected over the last three years costing tens of millions. It also failed to deliver on what it promised – background levels for 55 radionuclides and a clear map of where they exist over their BTVs so they can be remediated.
Not only has the federal agency pulled another elaborate bait and switch, it has done so in a clearly orchestrated show with DTSC. That became apparent at a DTSC “Radiological Look-Up Table Update Meeting” at DTSC’s Chatsworth headquarters December 5.
DTSC’s project manager for SSFL, Mark Malinowski, was accompanied by the federal EPA team assigned to SSFL with longtime Rocketdyne vet Gregg Dempsey as he introduced a 45-slide PowerPoint explaining why background values didn’t really amount to much. As hard as Malinowski and Dempsey tried to the sell the large crowd on why background was being shown the backdoor, the convoluted explanations didn’t add up. The result, though, was quite clear: background values so expensively derived would be disregarded.
Background is background. It means normal. And in Rocketdyne’s case, back to normal. The EPA’s decision to jettison the very core of the cleanup after burning through the $41.5 million it received from DOE to remediate Area IV brings up some troubling questions.
Since accurate backgrounds were established and samples accurately measured in the EPA Area IV radiation survey, why wouldn’t remediation triggers be the BTVs as the Agreement on Consent (AOC) clearly spells out? Why did EPA and DTSC even do this sampling and testing in the first place if all EPA was going to produce was suggestions to break the very basis of the cleanup agreement? Does this amount to more than another public outrage that will leave Rocketdyne contaminated forever? Or, activists wonder, is it fraud and abuse of state and federal taxpayer dollars in a coordinated scheme to save Boeing millions of dollars?
When questioned by this reporter as to when EPA knew it was going to not be delivering a look-up table based on BTVs, Dempsey said, “EPA was asked if it could work in a framework of this agreement and we felt that we could but trying to get the measurements that were right around background with really good numbers on them proved a lot harder than we thought it would. And our experience with the laboratories that did the background study work although we got good data out of them we really had to spend a lot of extra effort with them on making sure that the data product they got to us could be validated.”
So a little of that “extra effort” was made and it paid off. Accurate BTVs on 52 radionuclides of concern and a total of 3,487 environmental soil samples and 55 sediment samples, not including quality control field duplicates, were collected in Area IV. The EPA says 423 of the samples contained man-made radioactive contaminants exceeding background levels.
But now the EPA and the lead SSFL cleanup agency, DTSC, say that achieving accurate measurements down to background levels couldn’t be done again, it shouldn’t be done again, so it wouldn’t be done again. Instead, in a few years time and significant mumbo jumbo math and pseudo-science, the toxic departments will cook up a set of cleanup numbers that will be vastly higher than background.
Dan Hirsch president of the nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap, would have none of it.
“The fundamental thing of the look-up tables violates the core of the AOC which says that the BTV, the background values, and the detection limits to determine to be the background studies shall be the look-up table,” Hirsch said. “Now [you’ve] thrown that out the window and instead we will not clean up to background; we’ll clean up to vastly higher levels through a complex formula that probably there isn’t a single one of the people at DTSC or DOE in the room that could even understand and a complex decision tree which throws the entire concept of the look-up table out the window. It also destroys the capability of staying on schedule.”
Over the interruptions of the meeting moderator, Hirsch concluded. “When a government agency wishes to do something dirty, it does it at the last minute without an ability for there to be transparency, review and comment,” he said. “You’ve done a great job for three years and in the last week you’ve decided to sabotage both the $40 million stimulus requirements and the AOCs and I find it grossly unethical.”
And not logical. When pressed on why EPA maintains that laboratories can detect down to background on the study but couldn’t on the remediation, Dempsey offered this explanation: the labs just weren’t interested in the money, even with the tens of millions blown on the cleanup in just the last three years with nothing to show for it but scary maps and scarier radiation readings.