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China Syndrome Town
High Stakes for Hot Property - photo by William Preston Bowling


Overflow crowd attends revived SSFL Work Group meeting in Simi Valley demanding answers about lab cleanup

News & Analysis

They were back. And this time, they brought their friends.

A standing room only audience filled the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center February 5. The SSFL Work Group had returned, drawing longtime and new cleanup advocates concerned about the contamination and remediation of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. That was the good news.

The decades-active group has been fighting for the cleanup of the massive rocket testing and nuclear experimentation once-secret government site in the hills between the Simi and San Fernando valleys. That cleanup may be in jeopardy, said members of the Work Group panel. That was the bad news.

Recent public state and federal government meetings have caused people working for the lab’s cleanup to suspect that the lead agency for SSFL’s remediation, the California EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), may be trying to back out of an historic 2010 agreement to clean up the former Rocketdyne lab to background levels of radiation and chemical contamination.

Concern has arisen over NASA’s commitment to the clean up as well, and information obtained by EnviroReporter.com after the Work Group meeting strongly indicates that the Department of Energy (DOE) is also attempting to break its pledge to undo a half century of radiological and chemical damage done by it and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission.

Altogether, the need for some straight talk about one of the most intensely fought environmental battles in the country was long overdue. The last Work Group meeting, where actual representatives of the public run the show, was over two years ago. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake with the contaminated heart of Southern California in the crosshairs. SSFL is the headwaters of the Los Angeles River which courses through dozens of cities with Rocketdyne toxins in its wake.

SSFL Work Group meeting filling up Feb 5 2014The packed auditorium at the February 5 Work Group meeting learned about the lab’s history of partial meltdowns and chemical contamination at the 2,850-acre site located about thirty miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Over the years it has been called the lab, Rocketdyne, SSFL, and the Hill. Some of the radiation and chemicals include strontium-90, cesium-137, trichloroethylene and perchlorate.

“It is with great pleasure that we announce the resumption of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) Inter-Agency Work Group,” wrote California Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-Thousand Oaks) and State Senator Fran Pavley (D-Calabasas) in an invitation letter to the meeting. “Founded by then-Congressman Elton Gallegly, the Work Group has, for more than two decades, been the primary way for members of the nearby communities to learn, on a quarterly basis, about the radioactive and chemical contamination at SSFL and for the public to hear from the responsible agencies on efforts to clean it up.”

The Work Group was shut down two years ago when DTSC ended the meetings. EnviroReporter.com subsequently exposed lab owner Boeing and DTSC’s scheme to replace the Work Group with an anti-cleanup Community Advisory Group (CAG) that could help thwart a comprehensive cleanup. The revelations of Boeing’s Meltdown Makeover came in 2012 due to the inadvertent online posting of Boeing’s secret media plan to use these “third party voices” who shared its “open space vision” to declare the site already clean enough for a park.

Over a year later, the CAG continues to operate in the polluters’ interest, criticizing the cleanup agreements and blatantly boasting on its website that it helped defeat Democratic club resolutions supporting the 2010 cleanup agreements. At least two CAG members have resigned, including its original petitioner, who has objected that the CAG is “trying to debunk the cleanup.”

The implications of not ridding Rocketdyne of its massive amounts of contaminants are considerable. Toxins would continue to slosh into the headwaters of the Los Angeles River and down into the Arroyo Simi. Hot dust and chemical particulates would persist in polluting neighboring communities.

The Hot Zone would become a Fun Zone according to this anti-cleanup scenario. It is a simple plan. Fight the cleanup to background as somehow being destructive to the nature it is meant and designed to resuscitate. Save Boeing hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs and call the company an award-winning environmental steward. Declare the contaminated land clean and invite the whole family.

But the meltdown makeover juggernaut did not fool the public. It was why many in the crowd at the Work Group meeting had come. Some had driven in from as far as Utah, including retired Rocketdyne workers and people who have suffered cancer and other illnesses that they suspect are due to the lab’s decades of chemical and radiological pollution.

Runkle construction Dec 14 2013 AMany of the Simi Valley residents in the theatre voiced anger and frustration at the dust being generated by heavy construction of the controversial Runkle Canyon development. KB Home’s massive 1,595-acre property borders SSFL Area IV where at least three partial meltdowns took place. [KB Home’s Runkle Canyon development is now called Arroyo Vista at the Woodlands.]

When contaminated land is remediated responsibly, care is taken to mitigate dust arising from the cleanup activities. Not so much with development. Now the dust of construction is settling on neighborhoods adjacent to Runkle Canyon, just as EnviroReporter.com predicted in 2005; according to plan at least 112.26 tons of dust will be generated by KB Home’s building of nearly 300 hundred homes, 25 single-family estates, and 138 apartments. The construction – and dust – will last for years.

Radiation Remains

Longtime Work Group member Dan Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap gave an overview of SSFL’s history. Hirsch, an UC Santa Cruz lecturer on nuclear policy, pointed out that the 1959 partial meltdown of the Sodium Reactor Experiment, while smaller in size than the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island twenty years later, spewed out hundreds of times more radiation because the experimental SRE wasn’t fortified against disaster like TMI was with its concrete superstructure. Before it became, and stayed, the worst meltdown in American nuclear reactor history, the SRE supplied electricity to the then small Ventura County town of Moorpark in 1957.

Hirsch said the land and groundwater will remain contaminated if not cleaned up to the Agreements on Consent (AOCs) that DTSC signed with NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE). That means remediating to levels of radiation and chemicals that would exist now if those government entities hadn’t used the place as a Space Race and Cold War chemical and radiation playground where no one picked up their toxic toys after themselves when it was over.

Mary Aycock of the US Environmental Protection Agency presented to the Work Group the findings of the $41.5 million EPA radiation survey study of Area IV of SSFL, where the SRE was located. The testing centered on the DOE’s leased 90-acre Energy Technology Engineering Center but encompassed the whole 270-acre Area IV site and the Northern Buffer Zone.

EnviroReporter.com exposed the astronomical radiation findings from this survey in 2012. These same EPA numbers were totally ignored or deliberately misinterpreted by DTSC. Neither California Governor Jerry Brown’s Boeing-influenced administration nor the federal government have shown any concern regarding this massive fraudulent expenditure, where the testing was done right then promptly regurgitated in ways that impede achieving a true cleanup to background.

SSFL track mounted gamma scannerBut the raw EPA numbers from the survey obtained by EnviroReporter.com were dead on. Cesium-137 was found at 9,328 times its background in Area IV. Strontium-90, a “calcium mimicker” that targets human bones and blood, clocked in at 71 times background in a sample dug out a foot to five feet below the surface next to a torn down nuclear reactor. The results were impressive especially considering claims that Area IV was remediated twice before the survey took place.

“EPA found the highest number of soil samples to be contaminated with cesium-137,” said Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles board member Dr. Robert Dodge during his Work Group presentation. “It is a powerful gamma emitter, dangerous whether outside you or if incorporated into the body by inhalation or ingestion. It can cause cancer in any organ. It has also about a thirty-year half-life, dangerous for centuries.”

This was new information to much of the audience and their concerned countenances showed it. That the meeting took place was a minor miracle. DTSC, which has been under considerable criticism for cozying up to polluters instead of fulfilling its own mandate, refused to join the Work Group onstage except when called upon to make a presentation.

This antagonistic behavior was also adopted by other SSFL agencies responsible for the high levels of contamination at the site including NASA and the Department of Energy. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (LARWQCB) also declined to sit on the dais even after it presented damning evidence of Boeing’s ongoing releases. Those toxins are flowing into the headwaters of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Simi which leads to Calleguas Creek and through Ventura County before draining into the Pacific Ocean.

LA water board Boeing fines at Work Group meetingLARWQCB revealed that it had fined Boeing $672,000 in penalties and assessments over its effluent sloshing offsite since 2010. The drainages off of SSFL are considered “blue line” waterways and therefore protected by the Clean Water Act. Continued runoff polluted by PCBs, dioxins and heavy metals threaten the $2 billion renovation of the 48-mile long Los Angeles River which is being repurposed and will include public recreational opportunities in the water.

Much of Rocketdyne’s runoff into Simi Valley goes down into the American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin property. In the mid-1990s, the property owners sued SSFL resulting in a confidential settlement in 1997. More recently, the EPA survey found strontium-90 at 256 times background in an area that drains into Brandeis-Bardin where warning signs tell hikers not to drink or use the water.

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.”

Wernher von Braun with Nazis during WWIIVon 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.

Massive NASA landfill mountain in Area IINASA’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.

Attorney Sam Cohen in Chumash Casino Resort shirt at March 1 2014 DOE Calabasas meetingThey 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.


China Syndrome Town

25 Years of Award-Winning SSFL/Rocketdyne Reporting

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  1. Another Simi Mom

    In March 2014 I made a comment on this story, which discussed the doctrine of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs taking legal title “in trust” for recognized Native American tribes, and that “trust land” was the only place a Native American tribe could build a casino.

    Since that comment, the U.S. Supreme Court has made a decision which significantly broadened the doctrine of “sovereign immunity” for Native American tribes, which in non-lawyer English means that one cannot sue an entity which has sovereign immunity. Icing that cake, in Summer 2015 the U.S. District Court shot down a lawsuit by residents of Santa Ynez trying to enforce a “residential only” deed restriction which arguably would have forbidden construction of a casino expansion on some land the U.S. acquired from the Roman Catholic Church.

    As a result, to our Chumash brothers and sisters and their leaders, please remember the Seneca wisdom keepers’ words that all of us are obligated to act and make decisions in a manner which protects the People in the next 7 generations descended from all of us. All of us need to find a way to protect innocent, unknowing People from the deadly effects of radioactivity in the ground water and soil on the Santa Susana Field Lab property and flowing out of it.

  2. How could it even be legal to sell contaminated land much less turn it into anything open to the public? Why would Chumash want toxic land? Are they that heartless they’d put their employees and customer at serious risk?

  3. Another Simi Mom

    An interesting side light to the story above: Mr. Cohen is not an attorney licensed to practice law or regulated by the State Bar of California. He’s only licensed in Arizona and Louisiana, despite the fact that he works and lives in the Santa Ynez, CA area.

    In California, corporations can employ lawyers who are not licensed in the state, as long as they don’t go to court or appear at public agency hearings or public meetings saying they are a lawyer or attorney.

    Quite obviously, the Santa Ynez Chumash Tribe can operate under the same rules. However that’s why I think Mr. Cohen describes himself as the tribe’s “Legal Officer” and “Government Relations Officer”, so he doesn’t get in to hot water with the California State Bar. (One can wonder why he never took the California State Bar exam and got sworn in as a California lawyer, since Mr. Cohen was obviously smart enough to pass the Arizona and Louisiana state bar exams, but the point is that he doesn’t have to unless the Chumash want him to do that.)

    Bottom line, the Santa Ynez Chumash have hired a smart guy, who was previously an in-house legal officer for the Tule Tribe, which also has a casino in Northern California. It also looks like he had experience representing tribes from outside of California. He’s clearly the business and P.R. brains of the Chumash’s business and real estate operations, rather than a member of the tribe filling those roles.

    News stories coming out of Santa Barbara County, where the Chumash Tribe tried to buy a 1,000+ acre ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, and have the BIA “take the land in trust” so that no real estate taxes would be due on it repeatedly refer to Mr. Cohen as the tribe’s spokesman in dealing with government agencies. As to the Santa Barbara County land, Mr. Cohen said the tribe said they wanted to build housing on that land for their members. The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors vehemently opposed that move on the “no more real estate taxes” issues, and many local Santa Ynez residents opposed the ranch purchase for the same reason. Fairly recently, the tribe dropped its efforts to buy that ranch land and take it in trust.

    Has anyone figured out how much money Ventura County receives in real estate taxes each year from Boeing’s ownership of the Santa Susana Field Lab?

    It seems highly unlikely that the Santa Ynez Chumash Tribe would want to obtain ownership of the Santa Susana Field Lab property, in the whole or in large part, and have the land “taken in trust” to provide a place for housing for the tribe members where they wouldn’t have to pay real estate taxes.

    At various times Mr. Cohen has said that the Santa Ynez Chumash’s principal interest in the SSFL land is to obtain absolute control of the NASA property where caves containing well preserved paintings predating the Spanish arrival in California are located, based on the presumption that the cave paintings were done by the Chumash’s ancestors.

    But then again, Mr. Cohen does appear to enjoy wheeling and dealing in real estate using the Chumash Tribe’s net cash flow from its casinos, so the idea of the tribe getting ownership of the whole SSFL might be appealing to him. The key point is that the land could be acquired by a tribal corporation for one stated purpose, and then with Federal government approval several to many years later “taken in trust” by the BIA for a different purpose.

    On the issue of Native American tribes’ obligations to remediate soil and ground water contamination on their reservations or tribal owned property, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency DO NOT have a history of brow beating tribes to do so.

    For example, the Navajo Tribe historically agreed to many areas of uranium mining and uranium processing on various parts of their reservations. A radioactive mess was made, Navajo people are getting very sick and dying, and neither the tribe nor the Federal government did anything about it for many years. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/20/us/nestled-amid-toxic-waste-a-navajo-village-faces-losing-its-land-forever.html and http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/122-a44/
    and http://www.navajotimes.com/news/2011/1011/100611epa.php#.UyO5L4WGrIU

    Whether Mr. Cohen wants to lead the Santa Ynez Chumash tribe into a similar legal swamp with respect to ownership all of the SSFL, in its contaminated state, is an open question. You can bet that the tribe has hired experts in toxic remediation law to research and work through scenarios as to how the tribe (or the BIA acting as the tribe’s trustee) could acquire the land but not have to clean it up. The tribe’s toxic expert lawyers would also research:

    (A) Whether buyers of new homes at Runkle Ranch could sue the tribe or tribal corporation in Federal court,

    (B) Whether existing residents of Simi Valley could sue the tribe or tribal corporation even though Rocketdyne has worked its way out of the Simi Valley litigation thicket, or

    (C) Whether people, corporations or cities “downstream” of the SSFL along the Los Angeles River or the Arroyo Simi couldsue the tribe or the tribal corporation, or

    (D) Whether California’s little known statutes allowing injured parties to sue “innocent party real estate buyer/investors”, despite those sorts of buyers being protected from suit under Federal law enacted during the Clinton Administration.

    The toxics law experts’ legal advice which the Santa Ynez Chumash Tribe and Mr. Cohen as one of its “officers” receive will be shrouded in attorney-client privilege and never see the light of day.

    However, assuming that the Chumash Tribe decides they do want to become the owner or trust-beneficiary of the SSFL in its entirety, or just the owner or trust-beneficiary of the NASA parcel with the painted caves, Mr. Cohen’s public statements in dealing with the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors show that Mr. Cohen clearly knows the difference between:

    (1) A Chumash owned corporation becoming outright owner of the land, where a casino cannot be built as a matter of tribal right, and

    (2) The Chumash having ownership of the land be “taken in trust” for the tribe by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs which is what allows a tribe the fairly unfettered right to build a casino and not to pay County real estate taxes on the land.

    The bottom line is that it’s entirely normal for archaeological studies and surveys to be undertaken, made public and evaluated by Federal agencies before they undertake (or allow a private corporation to undertake) to physically alter a piece of real estate which has significant archaeological importance. Neither Boeing nor NASA nor the GSA are going to start running earth graders in and out of the painted caves without complying with a full Federal statutory panoply of laws designed to protect those sorts of archaeologically significant sites. The caves and the rock strata above them can be “roped off” and preserved while the rest of the SSFL property is remediated to background level.

    To say otherwise is just slick pretext for non-remediation.

  4. W-a-a-a-a-y-y back, when I first heard about Rocketdyne, hexavalent chromium, TCE, and sodium reactors — I mean years ago, when these stories were first being brought to light — I told myself, “They’ll never clean it up. They’ll somehow hold this over the Public’s head, and make the Public clean it up.” Yep, the dodge of ceding the land to a sovereign tribe will probably work.

    I like how none of the people who’re getting away with this live anywhere near the facility. I can imagine the conversations… “Los Angeles is 100 miles downwind from here, SCREW Los Angeles.”

  5. DTSC has been shamelessly compromised by Boeing. You expect this sort of behavior from Boeing — they’re the idiots who destroyed their own manufacturing capabilities so that they could reap tax breaks — but DTSC is OUR agency. They’re supposed to work for the people who pay them, not the corporations that dodge all taxes.

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