China Syndrome Town
Rewriting Rocketdyne photo by William Preston Bowling


Department of Energy’s attempts to gut Area IV cleanup could cost taxpayers more than money

News & Analysis

Just days after the SSFL Workgroup meeting in which John Jones, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) project director for the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, assured the community that it would keep its commitment to remediation of radiation and chemicals to background, the other radioactive shoe dropped. DOE said it would consider alternative cleanup “concepts”, and claimed that over three to five times as much radioactive and chemically contaminated dirt would have to be excavated and sent to low-level nuclear dumps than previously estimated.

These new huge numbers came courtesy of a DOE document called “Rough Order of Magnitude Estimates for AOC Soil Cleanup Volumes in Area IV, and Associated Truck Transport Estimates based on DTSC Look-up Table Values.” A reporter could easily concoct, as one cleanup activist suggested at a DOE meeting in Simi Valley February 27, a headline that blared, “DOE Announces It Contaminated Up To Five Times As Much Soil At SSFL With Toxic Waste As Previously Disclosed.”

This new document was the subject of much criticism at the Simi Valley DOE meeting and one March 1 in Calabasas. The events were to get public comment on DOE’s upcoming Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is supposed to examine alternative ways in which the department can meet the 2010 Agreement on Consent (AOC) to cleanup to background levels of contamination.

The AOC, conceived by then-DOE Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist, cuts through the red tape, delay and expense of lengthy health risk assessments by simply remediating the soil to background levels of chemicals and radiation. DTSC, as lead agency on the cleanup of SSFL, signed a similar agreement with NASA in 2010 as well.

Plutonium 239-240 over 3 times backgroundCleanup advocates at the two DOE meetings accused the department of trying to get out of cleaning up its area that was the site of three partial meltdowns, including the worst in the nation’s history in 1959, numerous radioactive spills, dumping and open air burning. They say that leaving contamination on the site will endanger people that live below SSFL for generations.

Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition member Barbara Johnson began her comments with a reminder of what the fuss was all about. “I have lived since 1970 just below the contaminated site. I have had cancer; my son has had cancer, way too many of my neighbors have as well.” Johnson reminded the DOE of previous health studies that found elevated rates for key cancers in the offsite population closest to the site compared to people living further away.

Johnson registered an objection that was repeated often throughout the session – of DOE’s four alternative cleanup “concepts”, only one is compliant with the AOC and the others violate it and would leave most of the contamination in place. Johnson also drew attention to the fact that DOE’s Notice of Intent listed the alternatives of “On-site containment of buildings, wastes, and radiological and chemical contaminants at SSFL Area IV” and “Combination of on-site disposal/off-site disposal for SSFL Area IV.” Both of these actions are expressly prohibited by the AOC, which bars “leave in place” alternatives or on-site burial of contamination.

DOE’s consideration of lesser cleanup standards took some in the audience by surprise. As recent as May 2012, some noted, DOE issued a Fact Sheet for Development of Alternatives in the EIS which stated that the purpose and need for the project is to clean up the site to the standard in the AOC, and that DOE’s EIS alternatives would be limited to alternative ways to meet the AOC cleanup standard.

Dirty Tricks

The community may never know the reason for DOE’s turn-around, though some suspect it has to do with influence from Boeing, which may view the AOCs as a threat to its more lax cleanup standard. Boeing wields its influence in a variety of ways, including, as those attending the meeting called out, having its own contractor prepare DOE’s soil report.

Scientist Brian Lindquist at DOE Calabasas meeting March 2 2014“We focus our comments on a deeply questionable document released by DOE as part of this scoping process that raises troubling questions about the scientific integrity of the process, and which creates further appearance of an effort to try to get out of the obligation to clean up the contamination at SSFL,” said Brian Lindquist representing the Southern California Federation of Scientists (SCFS) reading a prepared statement.

“DOE has now issued the afore-mentioned soil volume and truck estimates. But in fact DOE did not prepare them. Dixie Hambrick and two colleagues from MWH did. MWH is Boeing’s prime contractor at SSFL to provide support for Boeing’s arguments it should be relieved of most of its cleanup obligations, and Ms. Hambrick has been key to that work.”

Inflating the numbers may seem counterintuitive because it would further demonstrate just how hot radioactively and gooey chemically the 270-acre Area IV actually is. But DOE and Boeing are likely of the same mind on the strategy to inflame collaborator astroturfers with blown out soil estimates. More soil means more trucks going through the privileged neighborhoods of the west San Fernando Valley which is fodder for the anti-cleanup rump group.

The trouble for DOE and Boeing is that their numbers don’t add up. In order to inflate the amount of soil to be removed, MWH added 30 percent more volume assuming the dirt would fluff up when dug up. That the normal industry standard is 20 percent is irrelevant because the dirt recompresses into a truck bed when dumped in. Indeed, NASA seemed to know this when it stated at the February 5 SSFL Work Group meeting that it wouldn’t include any fluff calculations into its figures.

“[T]his is not a scientific review by DOE or by an independent scientific group, but appears to be a piece of advocacy paralleling Boeing’s efforts to avoid cleanup,” said the SCFS’s Lindquist. “It is therefore not surprising that the report asserts that the amount of contaminated soil needing remediation in Area IV of SSFL could be many three to five times higher than previous estimates.”

DOE does more than fudge the fluffing numbers, according to the SFCS statement. The MWH document shows that it was assumed that a surface drainage or channel that had more than one sullied soil sample was so contaminated that the entire area would have to be excavated even with no evidence of toxins in the wider area. Plus, the excavations would be all the way down to the bedrock even if no contaminants were that deep in the earth. MWH was providing the anti-cleanup folks a convenient ‘moonscape’ scenario so they could continue to demand no remediation.

The soil report also claims that if a water body or pond in Area IV had a couple of hot samples, the whole thing would be drained and dug up even with no proof of further contamination. MWH’s estimates are further inflated by not excluding soils that are exempted under the AOC including endangered or threatened species and Native American artifacts. No in-situ remediation of toxic soils is even considered when NASA expects to clean fully a third of its contaminated soil in place.

“Then, to top it all off, MWH went ahead and inflated matters further, to come up with a second, even more ‘upper range case,’” the SCFS statement said. “For this, it assumed that vast areas where no contamination had been found would be dug up anyway. (Showing the bias further, we note that there is no “lower range case” provided.) This is not science; this is not disinterested technical analysis; this is mangling data for a predetermined outcome.”

No Walk in the Park

The public comment took place after a DOE presentation by SSFL project manager John Jones who referred to the Sodium Reactor Experiment partial meltdown in 1959 as an “incident.” That “incident” released over 450 times more radiation than Three Mile Island did in 1979.

“Tonight’s meeting is a new beginning,” Jones told a crowd of about 40 in Simi Valley’s City Council chambers March 27. “We are committed to a complete cleanup.”

Simi Valley resident Marie Mason of the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition wasn’t convinced. “We need to get this stuff off the ground,” Mason said at the commenters’ podium. “If it’s this contaminated and there’s zillions of trucks that will have to come off, then it’s worse than they told us because they told us there’s hardly anything up there. So we can’t have it both ways. .. and if it’s there, it needs to go. That’s the reality of it.”

Mother of 3 Cindi Gortner at DOE Calabasas meeting March 2 2014This reporter suggested that if DOE leaves the site in any other condition than at normal levels of radiation, then at least put up signs that show where it’s thousands of times background. Otherwise intrepid future vistors would include YouTubers with detectors and cameras who could upload the shocking videos of the radioactive reality of Glow in the Dark Park.

Three days later at a community center in Calabasas, DOE held an identical meeting that elicited a similar community response.

“What’s important to me?” said Thousand Oaks mother of three Cindi Gortner. “That you comply with the cleanup law that you signed in 2010. You’re not complying with it now. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because there was a study that showed in 2007 by Dr. Hal Morgenstern, which was funded by the DOE, UCLA and the University of Michigan, that found increased cancer in people living within two miles of the site as compared to those living more than five miles. Sixty percent!”

“Why is that important to me?” Gortner continued addressing Jones. “I want to protect the community. I don’t want people to be dying. I feel that if you comply with this law, you’ll be saving lives. You don’t comply with the law, you are endangering lives.”

Gortner’s kids are founding members of Teens Against Toxins. One of the teens, budding journalist Chloe Michaels, made it clear what mattered to teenagers in the area. “I am a member of Teens Against Toxins,” Michaels said. “We are in support of the cleanup at the Santa Susana Field Lab. We strongly believe that the nuclear waste and the chemical waste at the site should be cleaned up for the benefit of our whole community. Nothing takes precedent over the health of our people so we believe that we have to do the right thing.”

Albert KnightThe DOE meeting, predictably, also brought out the anti-cleanup contingent, who turned up the volume on their rhetoric to decry the AOCs as illegal and accuse cleanup advocates of somehow making money off of the cleanup. Perhaps no one better exemplified the audacity of this group than Albert Knight, a member emertius of the Santa Susana Mountain Park Association.

“I think there is a lot of hysteria and propaganda going on around here,” Knight said. “I challenge all of you, everyone you know producing unequivocal evidence of one single person ever getting sick, one single person ever dying, of one single person in the hospital today because of anything that was produced at the field lab at any point in time now or in the future.”

Such disrespect for those who have suffered the debilitating effects of cancer or the grief of losing loved ones to cancer is profound, as is the disregard for the ample evidence of increased cancer rates around the lab as pointed out by Johnson.

But this is how dirty the battle has become, sinking to ever lower depths in the overblown mountain of radioactive dirt.

As the government fulfilled its obligation to hear public comments on the environmental reviews of cleaning up Rocketdyne to background, it became evident that there is a rising tide of residents and environmentalists, new and old, reasserting themselves. The public’s power to mold their communities’ destinies has become more clear, even if victory isn’t assured.

As the dust from KB Home’s massive land grading in Runkle Canyon descends upon the Simi and San Fernando valleys, residents may find themselves increasing alarmed at the prospect of Glow in the Dark Park or a Hot Slots casino torpedoing the long-promised and legally-binding cleanup.

Whether or not the many people and businesses in the Conejo, Simi and San Fernando valleys demand a full cleanup of SSFL may determine the health and well-being of the heart of Southern California. The odds are long but time is short to get guarantees from the government that their signatures are worth more than the paper on which the AOCs were signed.

This isn’t the first time Southern California has struggled with its own dark secrets. We have so many sordid tales that making movies out of them seems to be one of the only things we’re good at.

This is China Syndrome Town. People have already died. Others may after much suffering.

But the community members who’ve been turning out to speak their minds looked plenty alive and aren’t going away anytime soon. “Make no mistake,” warned Arline Mathews in a fiery statement. “The people will be heard.”

20 years of ongoing SSFL/Rocketdyne investigative reporting
June 1998June 2018

One Comment

  1. If Arrogant Albert Knight isn’t so concerned he should set an example and go roll around for a week in the dirt. Maybe even ingest some.

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