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China Syndrome Town
Truth or Scare

Cleanup detractors claim remediating nuclear and chemical contamination at SSFL is bad, Government agencies are complicit in disinformation campaign

News & Analysis

The majority of comments received by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) supported the 2010 Agreements on Consent (AOCs) to clean up the radiological and chemical contamination at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) and NASA’s leased and owned property at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) to background levels. Overwhelmingly, DTSC said, community members expressed “excitement and support” for the agreements that would see the site restored to its natural, pre-contaminated, condition.

The excitement was short-lived. The first sign that the agencies might not be so committed to the cleanup agreements came less than a year later, in July 2011, when NASA announced that its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the SSFL cleanup would examine “alternative” cleanup standards. The community was outraged, and called upon DTSC to intervene, which ultimately it did, as did Senator Barbara Boxer and the Council on Environmental Quality, which informed NASA that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) did not, as they had claimed, require them to evaluate lesser cleanup levels.

NASA’s draft EIS, released last August, nevertheless did include varying cleanup scenarios. The EIS also contained, without any technical basis, soaring figures about the number of trucks required to remove the contaminated soils and other misleading information. Community members blasted the EIS as a blatant attempt to manipulate the public into opposing the cleanup. They noted that EIS ignored important provisions of the AOC to protect endangered species and Native American artifacts, and included no analysis at all of the witches brew of toxic chemicals on its property and their impact on health.

In sum, NASA received thousands of comments from community members and cleanup advocates urging them to keep their commitment to the AOC and explore sensible mitigation measures which were not included in its draft EIS.

NASA will issue its final EIS this month, and its Record of Decision shortly thereafter. If it attempts to break out of the AOC cleanup agreement, it will be up to DTSC to take action. As several commenters pointed out, the SSFL cleanup is regulated under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and the authority to implement and enforce in RCRA in California has been delegated by the US EPA to DTSC. NASA is subject to RCRA and thus to DTSC’s regulatory authority. It has no discretion in determining how much of the contamination it created gets to be cleaned up. DTSC, the regulator, determines cleanup standards and NASA is supposed to comply with its directives or face enforcement action.

Whether or not DTSC would take such action is uncertain, particularly given what transpired at two DTSC public scoping meetings in the San Fernando and Simi valleys in December. The meetings were held to get public comment on options for cleanup under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as it begins to prepare its Environmental Impact Report for the entire site, including Boeing’s property.

Boeing did not sign an agreement to cleanup to background, and is instead supposed to comply with a weaker 2007 consent order. As many cleanup advocates have noted, according to current law, the land is supposed to be cleaned up to the standard for which it zoned. In Boeing’s case, that would be agricultural, which advocates say is sufficiently health protective. Open space standards, which Boeing wants, would leave most of the contamination untouched.

The first meeting was held at Chatsworth High School auditorium. The gathering of nearly 60 people was held by the Department of Toxic Substances Control December 10.

As the community has now come to expect, a small but vocal rump group supported by Boeing to fight the Rocketdyne cleanup showed up to proclaim that the contaminated site would be violated anew somehow by being remediated. Bewildering to longtime cleanup advocates, the cleanup naysayers present an ever-expanding list of ever-strange reasons as to why SSFL should remain contaminated.

At the Chatsworth meeting, cleanup detractors ventured multiple notions on why one of the most polluted places in the United States shouldn’t be cleaned up to background levels of radiation and chemical contamination.

It was suggested by one resident that remediating Rocketdyne to normal levels would encourage development on the site so better the contamination stay in place. Another cleanup adversary offered the novel twist of saying the land was too contaminated to be moved. Still others said it didn’t need to be cleaned up because it wasn’t that badly contaminated at all.

With DTSC and Boeing officials in the audience, one San Fernando Valley resident, Dianne Dixon Davis, claimed that a truck would be rolling through her neighborhood every three minutes around the clock for fifteen years. That equals 2,629,745 truckloads in this scary but impossible fantasy scenario.

And if that didn’t do the trick, the banana gag would. “If you drop a quarter of a banana on the ground, that land will be contaminated to the point that it will have to be trucked out to Utah,” Dixon Davis said straight faced. “If I dropped two drops of ethanol on the ground, or alcoholic beer, the land would be contaminated and it would have to be dug out and carried out to Utah.”

Bird bander Mark Osokow of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society floated his experience taking photos with Boeing at the lab as scientific proof nothing was wrong with the place. “In my years of studying birds at the Santa Susana Field Lab, I have detected no impact whatsoever, contamination, on bird life or any wild life at the field laboratory,” Osokow said at the meeting. “Those impacts on human health have been completely exaggerated. There is really no solid evidence to support those claims, certainly not cancers and so forth and that’s all I have to say.”

SSFL surface soil samplingThe many federally sponsored studies on SSFL health impacts, and a 2007 University of Michigan study that found that the cancer rate was 60% greater in residents living with two miles of the site as compared to those more than five miles out, are apparently not solid enough for Osokow, who also claimed that an EPA guide at SSFL “who was in charge of the actual work being done there” said that eating dirt at lab wouldn’t be hazardous even if “the level of contamination was between 600 and a 1,000 times background level.”

Who are we to believe? A bird-watcher and a nameless EPA official? Or the National Academy of Sciences, which says that no amount of radiation can be said to be harmless, let alone the highly contaminated Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

“In two comment periods, 99 percent support the AOCs,” Dan Hirsch, President of Committee to Bridge the Gap, said at the meeting. “Boeing and a few of its allies you’ve heard tonight were the 1 percent. Now we are holding a [Environmental Impact Report or EIR] scoping session which is violating the AOCs which is saying that we are not going to be compliant with the agreements that we’ve signed and we’ll do an EIR and we’ll look at all sorts of lesser cleanup that would leave the vast majority of the contamination in place.”

Sacred Slots

Not to be outdone by his fellow opponents of a full SSFL cleanup, the attorney who represents the casino-owning Santa Ynez Band of the Chumash Indians, Sam Cohen, stood up and read a statement essentially claiming the whole SSFL site for his tribe. Cohen is also on the SSFL Community Advisory Group even though he lives nowhere near the place. EnviroReporter.com exposed the CAG in Operation Astroturf in December 2012 for being in league with the polluter and government’s anti-cleanup interests.

“Santa Ynez Chumash have declared the NASA site as sacred pursuant to executive order 13007,” Cohen read from a prepared statement. “Santa Ynez Chumash is evaluating the entire SSFL site for consideration as sacred for the purposes of CEQA.”

That would suit the polluter and its government enablers just fine because the Santa Ynez Chumash could use their vast resources to engineer land unencumbered by prior cleanup agreements. It could also use its clout to eventually claim no obstacle stands in the tribe’s way of building a huge casino on the sprawling property.

It’s not clear whether the tribe could succeed in declaring the entire site sacred and take title of it because the order Cohen cited has to do with government property of which NASA is the only land owner at SSFL. Area IV’s primary tenant has been the Department of Energy as a lessee, which could technically allow the Santa Ynez Chumash access to that part of the lab’s potential sacred places, not title to the land itself.

Boeing, however, is the owner of most of the huge Rocketdyne site so its holdings wouldn’t fall under Executive Order 13007 which seems narrower in scope than perhaps Cohen envisioned.

The order is also not “enforceable at law” according to the document signed by President Clinton May 24, 1996. It says clearly that a sacred site “means any specific, discrete, narrowly delineated location on Federal land that is identified by an Indian tribe, or Indian individual determined to be an appropriately authoritative representative of an Indian religion, as sacred by virtue of its established religious significance to, or ceremonial use by, an Indian religion; provided that the tribe or appropriately authoritative representative of an Indian religion has informed the agency of the existence of such a site.” [Emphasis added]

Certainly the Burro Flats Cave at SSFL qualifies as a sacred site under this definition. The order says it shall “accommodate access to and ceremonial use of Indian sacred sites by Indian religious practitioners and avoid adversely affecting the physical integrity of such sacred sites.”

Area IV Hot Zone March 14 1962The physical integrity of much of SSFL has been impacted by massive earth moving, rocket test stands, 30,000 rocket tests, a huge nuclear complex with a Hot Lab and Fuel Fabrication Facility, multiple dumps and polluted pools filled with exotic and lethal chemicals. It is unlikely that access to these places is what any religious practitioner is looking for.

Cleanup opponents claim that remediating the 2,850 acre property would somehow disturb Native American artifacts, conveniently overlooking that after over half a century of major aerospace, nuclear and defense industry operations, Rocketdyne isn’t even remotely the same as it was before the first Nazi rocket test stand was carved out of the once pristine hills. Von Braun’s playground, laced with invisible poisons, exudes a dark Outer Limits aura not easily erased by exuberant birders or archaeologists looking for arrowheads.

However, cleaning the lab’s contamination to background levels would be an essential step in restoring the ‘sacredness’ of the site, if such a thing can be done. And the AOCs carry an explicit provision for protecting Native American artifacts on the site.

The major impediment to the Santa Ynez Chumash getting total control of SSFL is that Clinton’s order was about giving Native Americans access to sacred sites, not ownership of a massive former lab with severe radiation and chemical contamination.

“Nothing in this order shall be construed to require a taking of vested property interests,” the document reads. “This order is intended only to improve the internal management of the executive branch and is not intended to, nor does it, create any right, benefit, or trust responsibility, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or equity by any party against the United States, its agencies, officers, or any person.”

That hasn’t dissuaded the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. The tribe’s designs are clear as Cohen’s biography for the community advisory group which says, by way of description, “Tribe as potential owner in whole or in part.”

Ranting and Raving

John C Luker III at DTSC Simi Valley meeting Dec 14 2013A similar DTSC scoping meeting took place in Simi Valley December 14, attracting more improbable anti-cleanup tales along with insults. “Most of the people talking here today are just ranting and raving,” said John C. Luker III.

That certainly did not describe people such as Arline Matthews, who lost a son to a radiation-related cancer she thinks could have been caused by manmade radiation at Rocketdyne.

“Bobby was a champion runner from Chatsworth High and every organ of his body was perfect,” Matthews said after Luker was admonished by the DTSC moderator to keep his language respectful. “A perfect specimen. Bobby died of brain cancer and his son developed leukemia. There have been studies that genes can be injured so that the next generation can get cancer. That’s not conclusive but science thinks it’s a good possibility. We never had cancer in our family before for many generations. But Bobby’s gone.”

DTSC personnel at the dais sat stone faced. Years ago, when this reporter first started covering Rocketdyne in 1998, there was a handful of Department of Toxic Substances Control personnel working the SSFL site that actually seemed to care, people like the late Steve Cain. But compassion for and comprehension of the real-life impacts of toxics on people’s lives no longer seems apparent at DTSC.

That impression was not lost on Liza Tucker of the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog who has skewered DTSC with revelations of corruption, incompetence and antagonism towards the communities the state EPA department is supposed to be serving.

“Already at the outset, DTSC is really violating the Agreements on Consent in the way that it is formatting the scoping,” Tucker said at the December 14 meeting. “There is no legal obligation to look at alternatives that are not feasible. The only feasible alternatives are clean this land up to background and keep Boeing to the rural agricultural standard that it is zoned for. Clean up to the agricultural and rural residential standard.

“The only other thing that needs to be looked at is no action at all which you know is not feasible,” Tucker continued. “So to me it’s clear that this is a process to overturn the Agreements on Consent and to give Boeing what it wants and what Boeing wants is to do a very minimal cleanup of land where you did have a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959.”

That would suit San Fernando Valley Audubon Society community outreach chairperson Sharon Ford just fine. “Cleanup to background is unsuitable,” Ford said at the same meeting. “It will not allow the parks. It will not allow the land to be suitable for parkland and it will be more suitable for development.”

Ford didn’t explain how or why ridding Rocketdyne of decades of radioactive and chemical contamination would somehow make the polluted land less suitable for a park.

Boeing is pushing the idea though, because open-space cleanup standards are based on people visiting a future park for too short of a time to get a real nuking – meaning they wouldn’t have to clean up most of the contamination.

Cleanup advocates emphasize that the end use of the property shouldn’t inform the cleanup levels. Until the radiation and chemicals are hauled off, SSFL will remain a public health threat for generations to come. And a powerful polluter will have saved a fortune.

Archeologist Nancy Kidd did not have a problem with leaving the contamination in place. Rather inventively, she flipped the cleanup on its head, equating it with airborne disease.

“If you move any dirt in this part of the country you are going to have a problem with Valley Fever,” Kidd said. “That’s a very serious condition and any archeologist in this state will tell you that there is a high risk of that. If you start removing two feet of soil from that enormous area, you imperil the entire tri-county region.”

Are California’s archeologists coming down with Valley Fever? Do backyard gardeners across the state have to be afraid of their own dirt? Doesn’t the remediation of contaminated land take abundant precaution against dust, being that the soil is, well, contaminated? It’s done all the time like at Aerojet Chino Hills in 2001.

It seems every meeting brings new reasons not to clean up the site, and the excuses are getting more outlandish. Many of them are based on the counterintuitive arguments that fixing fouled land somehow injures the land, and that huge levels of radiation and chemicals are preferable to normal levels.

Holly Huff at DTSC Simi Valley meeting Dec 14 2013Holly Huff, a member of the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition, wasn’t buying it. “I love nature, the trees, everything,” said Huff at the DTSC meeting December 14. “I wouldn’t live in my neighborhood if I didn’t. But I also have cancer and from what I read in 2007 about the people living within the two-mile radius [around the lab], a lot of people have cancer. What I want done is I want it cleaned up.”

“I don’t want trees to be destroyed but they’re not going to be,” the Santa Susan Knolls resident said. “This word out there that there’s going to be a moonscape and everything’s dead because we destroyed them is not true. I just want the cleanup to move on to the cleanup. Like the gentleman said here, I’d trade my cancer for any truck any day.”

Huff and her neighbor Dawn Kowalski have fought to remediate Rocketdyne since 1989. “We want cleanup to background so we have safety in our lives,” Kowalski said. “I also live in the Santa Susana Knolls and I’m a cancer survivor. I don’t know if it’s from the lab or not. There are a lot of breast cancers on the east end of Simi and the west end of the San Fernando Valley.”

“Let’s not let DTSC use CEQA to wiggle out of the AOCs,” Kowalski continued. “The AOCs are legal obligations. Clean up to background.”

In the end, Mark Malinowski, SSFL Project Manager for DTSC, was not able to confirm that DTSC’s EIR would comply with the AOC.

“Mark, we have the AOCs and we have CEQA and you’re looking at alternatives in CEQA,” this reporter asked. “With what you come up with the alternatives, in situ cleaning in place, moving stuff from here to there; will all these alternatives be able to adhere to the AOCs and to cleaning to background. Or not?”

“Michael, I think that’s what we’re trying to evaluate,” Malinowski answered. “We don’t know yet. That’s what we are trying to get to is what can get us where we need to be.”

“So that means that the AOC agreement is not written in stone, that you guys might come to the conclusion ‘we cannot fulfill the AOC’ or ‘we will not fulfill the AOC’?” this reporter pressured. “My question is, whatever you do with CEQA, will it be able to conform to the AOCs signed intent?”

Deanna Hansen-Mark Malinowski at DTSC Simi Valley meeting Dec 14 2013Deanna Hansen, of Environmental Science Associates, fielded that question and answered in an opaqueness that has become one of the trademarks of DTSC and its contractors. “The CEQA document is a disclosure document, that’s all,” answered Hansen. “How the CEQA document is used by decision-makers we don’t know, has not been determined.”

The department in charge of the SSFL cleanup has its work cut out for it. To appease Boeing lobbyists and save the top aerospace giant a whole lot of money, DTSC might choose to gloss over the nuclear and chemical contamination in the glittery and glowing City of Angels where China Syndrome was made. The Oscar-winning film was, after all, based on a fictitious SSFL nuclear reactor called “Ventana,” a name made up from Ventura and Santa Susana. Once a real park or casino opens at the lab, people might forget the deadly toxins under their feet.

Or, DTSC can do what it is charged to do, uphold and enforce the cleanup agreements as it committed to do, call out non-sense espoused by cleanup opponents, and ensure protective mitigation measures that work for everyone. Current and future generations near the site may not have Boeing’s money or power, but they deserve the protection of their government, and a fighting chance for a healthy future.


China Syndrome Town

25 Years of Award-Winning SSFL/Rocketdyne Reporting

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  1. I gotta laugh at the [REDACTED], Sharon Ford – She’s got an anti Keystone post on her Facebook wall. Guess Koch’s didn’t pay her enough to support the desecration…


  2. What is wrong with the Audubon Society?

    Every time I read about them they’re advocating killing cats with poison and now [REDACTED] humans with radiation poison.

    I bet almost every one of the contesters are paid under the table with the exception of that weirdo, Osokow, who just wants to be paid in pictures of birds and get credited by Boeing.


  3. SF Valley birder

    Does this Osokow speak for the San Fernando Valley Audubon? I sure hope not because not only is he insulting to those who got sick and died from exposure up at SSFL, he doesn’t know about birds and radiation. If he did, he’d demand cleanup to the background because a 2011 study “Chernobyl Birds Have Smaller Brains” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3033907/:

    “Species differed significantly in reduction in brain size with increasing background radiation, and brain size was the only morphological character that showed a negative relationship with radiation. Brain size was significantly smaller in yearlings than in older individuals.


    Low dose radiation can have significant effects on normal brain development as reflected by brain size and therefore potentially cognitive ability. The fact that brain size was smaller in yearlings than in older individuals implies that there was significant directional selection on brain size with individuals with larger brains experiencing a viability advantage.”

    I wish these people against cleaning up the place wouldn’t use birds and animals as some kind of excuse. They suffer more because they live there.

  4. Another Simi Mom

    Michael, again a wonderful, lucid article.

    If DTSC’s decision making ever gets before a judge in the L.A. Superior Court who is assigned to CEQA cases, they will certainly laugh at the comments of the deniers. The deniers comments are not evidence. They are hot air.

    And again, the Chumash’s Mr. Cohen is not a lawyer licensed to practice law in California. He’s just a one man P.R. department and deal maker for the tribe.

  5. Michael, WOW, you did a great job on this story. You said it all and covered the issues perfectly. The trickery that the deniers use is laughable. The birder said that healthy birds mean healthy people. Birds have a very short life span and cannot be compared to the complex human–basic. I pray that we have a happy ending to this long, long story.

  6. Excellent reporting. Thanks Michael.

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