High radiation readings were found in Brandeis-Bardin “Offsite Well #10” by EPA not far from one of the retreat’s main hiking trails, according to an agency poster board display May 17, 2012 in Simi Valley. Beta radiation was found nearly three times its drinking water “Maximum Contaminant Level” and the most dangerous form of radiation, alpha, registered an astonishing 8.6 times its MCL.
That high radiation, now denied by DTSC as an “anomaly,” was most likely from Area IV activities. Besides a Hot Lab and Fuel Fabrication Facility, ten experimental reactors with little superstructure protection against radiation leaks operated at the site as well. Partial meltdowns occurred at two other reactors after the 1959 SRE meltdown in 1964 and 1969. Nuclear work continued through 1989 when it was shut down due in great measure to the community group Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition.
Rocketdyne’s Tainted Past
The first rocket stands erected at the SSFL were built at the Bowl Test Facility, or “Bowl,” according to the 2009 EnviroReporter.com article Bowled Over. “Thanks to the Nazi designs brought to the U.S. after the war by SS officer and rocketeer Wernher von Braun, these five stands built in 1949 played a crucial role in America’s burgeoning rocket program.”
Von Braun’s V-2 rockets slaughtered 7,250 military and civilian personnel in World War II, mostly in London and Antwerp, Belgium. Production of his lethal rockets cost 20,000 Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp inmates their lives with 9,000 dying from exhaustion alone. About 350 of these Nazi slaves were hanged, including 200 for sabotage, with the remainder shot or dying from disease and starvation.
A chance encounter with a former Rocketdyne employee at the Work Group meeting revealed more about the lab’s stained origins. Taking a break during the meeting, a former worker of 30 years named Don told this reporter that von Braun’s original rocket test stand built at what would become known as the Bowl was not built from scratch using the plans of the brilliant rocketeer and Hitler favorite, von Braun. “They took it apart in Europe and shipped it over unassembled,” he said. “It came in mahogany boxes with Nazi swastika’s emblazoned on them.”
Von Braun’s original Nazi test stands are long gone at SSFL but their legacy of contamination remains. Some of the most chemically impacted areas of the lab are underneath and adjacent the still-standing NASA rocket test stands Alpha, Bravo and Coca, two of which are slated for demolition if cleanup opponents can convince NASA to keep one for posterity.
Prior stories from workers on the Hill have ranged from two-headed snakes to employees drinking carcinogenic trichlororethylene (TCE) tainted water from wells from the early 1950s to 1964. After that they drank bottled water, but still used the bathroom sink taps to wash their hands and faces with TCE-laced water because the lab didn’t replace the plumbing with imported water. Today, SSFL’s groundwater is contaminated with over 530,000 gallons of TCE, mostly from NASA rocket tests.
NASA’s Peter Zorba presented to the Work Group on the space agency’s cleanup of its portion of the lab. NASA operated in SSFL Area II, consisting of 409.5 acres, along with 41.7 acres in Area I, both owned by the U.S. Government and used by the space agency. In the process, NASA left so much contamination that an entire hillside in its quadrant of SSFL is made up of toxic debris including antimony and asbestos.
The space agency came under fire last year when it announced it wanted to transfer ownership of its property, while the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians expressed interest in acquiring the site. The Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution advocating that no transfer take place until the land was cleaned up per the AOCs, and the Ventura County Board of Supervisors took a similar position.
Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks expressed continued concern at the Work Group meeting. “Why is NASA trying to sell its property at SSFL before it is cleaned up?” Parks asked in a written question that was read aloud. “If it’s sold to the Santa Ynez Chumash will the Tribe be required to clean it to State and Federal standards?”
“I’m not sure I can answer all that,” Zorba said from the audience in response to Park’s question. “Some of that is above my pay-grade and I’m not aware that… NASA isn’t selling. The property has been excessed, right? Declared excess. And [the federal General Services Administration] will take receipt of it after we’ve cleaned it up. After there [sic], the disposition of the property is GSA and I can’t speak to what GSA does.”
“Just to clarify, it’s not really quite my understanding,” said Hirsch from the stage. “GSA says it’s trying to transfer the land now, has repeatedly said that it wants to do that before cleanup and that’s what has caused Supervisor Parks to introduce resolutions to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, the LA County Board of Supervisors as well. And obviously people are somewhat concerned given the fact that the Chumash have a casino north of Santa Barbara and this would be extraordinary valuable land for a casino here in the area. But, no, GSA’s position in writing on its website is that it is trying to sell that land now and that it believes that it has the authority to sell it before cleanup is conducted.”
Zorba responded that “NASA is still responsible for that cleanup even if that land transfers,” and Hirsch pointed out that all bets are off if the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians gets the land. “The issue is a tribe can claim sovereignty and being exempt and all that is the concern that the county legislator [Parks] has expressed,” Hirsch said.
Were NASA and Boeing able to unload their huge holdings of polluted land on the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash without cleaning the land up properly according to agreements already signed by both, they would save hundreds of millions. The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, which actually reside two counties and over 100 miles away from Rocketdyne, are now laying claim to the entire SSFL site as sacred ancestral land.
Should the tribe be able to get this land and use Native American sovereignty rights to obliterate any comprehensive cleanup, they could do just about anything else a sovereign nation could do in the heart of millions of people in Southern California – such as build a casino.
They could call it Hot Slots. It’s not an impossible scenario. Solvang-based government affairs and legal officer for the Chumash, Sam Cohen, who is a member of the astroturf CAG, recently attended a DOE community meeting wearing a Chumash Casino Resorts shirt. Whether an early advertisement or not, the shirt served as a not so subtle reminder of what could truly be at stake for SSFL’s hot property.
Boeing would save hundreds of millions ‘donating’ the toxic expanse of radioactive flatlands and rocket-blasted hillsides to a casino-building tribe. It would be the breathtaking kind of mega-maneuver worthy of inclusion in Southern California’s inglorious history of aqueduct water wars and covered up aerospace and defense-related sites still contaminated by space age toxins.
Call it China Syndrome Town.