Community, elected officials beat Boeing-backed plot to block full radiation & chemical cleanup
News & Analysis
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) announced Monday that it will back away from any involvement at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL).
The federal agency’s decision to disentangle itself from the former nuclear and rocket engine testing site comes after months of opposition from community members, elected officials, authors of past independent SSFL health studies, and cleanup advocates who cried foul after the agency accepted a petition asking it to refute previous health studies and advocate against full cleanup.
As EnviroReporter.com reported in “Santa Susana Field Lab Health Hoax Stumbles Forward” and “Feds Conspire to Gut Santa Susana Field Lab Cleanup.” the petition was submitted by Abraham Weitzberg, a former SSFL employee and current consultant to the Department of Energy (DOE), one of the polluters at SSFL that is responsible for cleanup in Area IV of the lab where three partial nuclear meltdowns happened in 1959, 1964 and 1969.
The resulting firestorm over the polluter’s proxy petition saw a spirited community protest, a flurry of letters, op-eds and letters to the editor, and a petition signed by over 500 community members urging ATSDR to stay out. As expected, Boeing’s astroturfers did their best to muddy the waters, lobbying local neighborhood councils to petition ATSDR and serving up tell-tale tall tales in the process.
But in the end, it wasn’t to be. A December 7 ATSDR press release sent to EnviroReporter.com stated:
“Our ATSDR environmental health scientists and leadership have evaluated information shared during recent community meetings and new data available since our previous involvement at Santa Susana,” said ATSDR Director Dr. Patrick Breysse.
“Following this evaluation, we have concluded that a thoughtful process has been used to evaluate threats to public health and to develop plans to address those health threats. Therefore, ATSDR will not conduct new public health investigations of the Santa Susan Field Laboratory Site as a result of the recent petitions.
“This decision was made after I had the opportunity to meet with numerous private citizens and public servants at the local, state, and federal levels. I have developed a much better understanding of the nature and scope of the investigations conducted and decisions made about remediation of the site, as well as the diverse viewpoints about the efforts to evaluate the public health impact and to develop cleanup plans for the site. As I have stated previously, the clean-up should move forward without delay.”
The statement indicates ATSDR’s support for prior health studies, especially the recent independent ones that it funded, and for the current cleanup agreements.
FIGHTING TO FOIL THE HEALTH STUDY HOAX
Breysse had been head of ATSDR for only three months when the agency first accepted Weitzberg’s phony petition in March 2015. It was part of a storied history of fierce polluter resistance to cleanup, government corruption, and in recent years, a major push by site-owner Boeing to greenwash the environmental contamination and astroturf the community.
It is not clear who made the decision to accept the petition, and whether or not those ATSDR staff were aware that the agency was being used to further polluter interests. One subsequent hint might have been the arms-wide-open welcome given to the agency by Boeing, which boasted of ATSDR’s involvement in a September 21 statement that denied SSFL contamination had caused any health impacts.
It was clear however that the community would have to mount a mighty effort to push back the against ATSDR’s decision. As reported by EnviroReporter.com, one of the powerful messages to ATSDR came from authors of the independent SSFL studies who had been targeted by Weitzberg. In a September 8 letter to ATSDR, Hal Morgenstern, PhD at the University of Michigan, Adrienne Katner, PhD now with Louisiana State University and Yoram Cohan, PhD at UCLA, said, “Representations made in the petition about our research and positions were misleading and disingenuous” and “This petitioner does not hide his true intention very well, which is to discredit past research and relax current cleanup agreements. In addition, the petitioner’s conflicts of interest appear questionable. We respectfully urge ATSDR to reverse its decision.”
The SSFL Epidemiological Oversight Panel, Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, and Core Advocacy also appealed to ATSDR to reverse course. A September 8 meeting of the Department of Toxic Substances Control that featured a presentation by ATSDR was met with a protest by community members who demonstrated with colorful signs saying “ATSDR We Don’t Trust You” and “No to Boeing Astroturfing and Greenwashing.”
In October, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors weighed in against ATSDR involvement, noting that “The federal government contaminated this site in our county; ATSDR reviewed and accepted independent health risk assessments; and the federal government signed binding agreements to clean up all the contamination. ATSDR should not act to breach the independence of the studies or engage in efforts that could lead to the federal government’s reversal of its cleanup commitments.”
Los Angeles Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, a longtime leader in efforts to cleanup SSFL, also asked ATSDR to reject the petition, stating, “During my time in the Legislature, I introduced several bills addressing the SSFL contamination. I also played a major role in assuring the studies of SSFL health impacts and insisting these studies be conducted independently of the federal government. I was concerned about potential conflicts of interest were the federal government to be involved in studying whether its own environmental failures had caused harm and how much it might be required to pay in order to clean up contamination it had created.”
Over 500 community members signed a petition to ATSDR Director Dr. Patrick Breysse that said, “ATSDR’s involvement can only interfere with and slow down the already long-delayed cleanup of that contaminated site.” The Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition, which circulated the petition, laid bare a major piece of misinformation propagated by Weitzberg, who taunted cleanup advocates by asking why they were “afraid of a new health study.” In fact, no new health study was asked for or planned. Instead, ATSDR was asked to revisit past reports and data, much of which had been collected by Boeing. “ATSDR is not planning to do any new testing for contamination or new research on health problems in the community.” the group’s website states.
Many of those who signed the petition included strong comments with their signatures. Longtime cleanup advocate Dawn Kowalksi said, “For everyone who has been harmed by the contamination from the SSFL, for all of us who have fretted for 26 years that we have harmed our children by living below the SSFL, to the DTSC in charge of the clean up, you have a moral and ethical duty to clean up the site. ATSDR you do not need to get involved with SSFL at the bidding of a sole contractor to the RP’s. ATSDR needs to encourage not impede the clean up.” Another petition signer, Evangeline Lafey, cautioned Breysse, “Don’t tarnish your professional reputation by authorizing the construction of a study designed to perpetrate a lie. The lie that people in these communities are not sick and dying from SSFL’s contaminated dust, which covers a hundred square miles or more.”
Yuri Stavitsky, who identified himself as a medical professional with experience in mitigating radiation at Chernobyl, stated, “There is no need for any new health risk studies or for a revision of the previous ones. The text book science is that any radiation in excess of the background levels is bad and needs to be eliminated. Tests conducted at the site showed very significantly elevated radioactivity levels as well as a dangerous radionuclide/emitter composition. They, in combination with the close proximity to the high density residential areas of Simi Valley and San Fernando Valley, leave no other options or choices but to clean the site up thoroughly and carefully and all the way down to the background levels, which were present before any radioactive or toxic materials were brought there. There is simply no other way. Any calls for a revision of the previous health risk studies as well as for new studies of the common or rare cancers incidence in the surrounding areas, and efforts to change the very concept of the background levels by any entity or agency, can only be viewed as efforts to further stall or prevent the cleanup.”
A BRIDGE TO SELL
Response to the community push back from Weitzberg and the Boeing-allied SSFL Community Advisory Group he represents was fast and furious. Weitzberg slung out dozens of letters to the editor of local papers with his trademark venom, in one case, resorting to name-calling a teenager who had written about the ATSDR controversy as a “Toxic Teen.” Weitzberg also managed a guest column in the Ventura County Star, repeating his by then well debunked claim that the author of the 2006 study on offsite contamination, Dr. Yoram Cohen, had urged him to petition ATSDR.
But it was a bridge too far to sell. Weitzberg’s claim was soundly debunked in an October 3 response published in the Ventura County Star by Cohen and Morgenstern, which stated:
“Perhaps the most astonishing claim Weitzberg makes is that the petition to ATSDR was a joint idea of Weitzberg and one of us, Professor Cohen. The facts are just the opposite. Professor Cohen strongly and repeatedly rebuffed Weitzberg’s overtures. In fact, we (Professors Cohen and Morgenstern), plus Dr. Adrienne Katner, a co-investigator on the offsite exposure study, wrote to ATSDR in early September strenuously opposing Weitzberg’s petition and urging ATSDR to reverse its decision to grant it.”
In his petition, Weitzberg (who concedes he is a former SSFL official and current consultant to the Department of Energy, one of the parties responsible for the contamination at the site) asked ATSDR to repudiate our studies, which it had paid for and had the chance to review a decade ago, and requested ATSDR urge the breaching of the cleanup agreements between the state and federal government for a full cleanup of the site. This is completely inappropriate, and we have told ATSDR so.
He also asks ATSDR to essentially declare, based largely on Boeing’s reports, that there is no hazard from the site’s contamination and therefore no need for much cleanup. This would clearly be in the interests of the federal Responsible Parties, and their contractor Boeing, but again is not a legitimate request to grant.”
Weitzberg and the Boeing CAG were not the only ones wooing ATSDR. Chris Rowe, who proudly identifies herself as the “Meltdown Denier,” worked around the clock to get local neighborhood councils to submit their own petitions to ATSDR. One of these was the West Hills Neighborhood Council, a group that is largely under the influence of the Boeing CAG and its chair, Alec Uzemeck. Uzemeck, who lives in Simi Valley, is also the council’s chair of the Environmental Committee which had put forth a motion for support of an ATSDR petition.
At a November 5 meeting, Uzemeck tried to distance himself from Weitzberg’s petition, which Weitzberg had said was submitted on behalf of the SSFL CAG. Instead, Uzemeck stated that it had been submitted “by an individual,” loudly omitting the controversial CAG.
Board member Bonnie Klea, a former SSFL worker and cleanup advocate, implored the Council to reject the ATSDR petition, reminding them of the agency’s troubled past which was exposed in a 2009 Congressional report. Klea also noted that the agency produced a controversial report in October, stating that radiation buried in the Westlake Landfill in Missouri posed no threat to the public and should not be cleaned up, despite a subsurface fire moving toward the site. The local community was not pleased with the report, noting numerous problems with its content and methodology.
Anti-cleanup leader John Luker boasted from the audience that ATSDR was already moving forward. “I’m not too worried about ATSDR walking away,” Luker told the council. “I understand they are at work. They are working on the report right now. They are gathering information. They are studying data. They are interviewing people in the community.”
Luker, who proudly pronounces each time he introduces himself as a “troublemaker,” apparently had trouble with the facts that night. ATSDR was not proceeding with the proposed work – it was actually assessing whether it should at all. ATSDR decided not to go ahead after all despite Luker’s false insinuations that it already had.
Not to be outdone, anti-cleanup stalwart Ronald Ziman continued the charade in trying to get the council to pass the pro-ATSDR involvement with SSFL resolution. He claimed that since 2009, the ATSDR was under the umbrella of the federal Center for Disease Control, intimating that it was now more trustworthy under CDC oversight. That too was false. ATSDR has always been associated the CDC since its official inception in 1985 and has always operated independently under the auspices of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, as did and does the CDC.
No matter to the board members of the West Hills Neighborhood Council (WHNC). In order to pass the resolution, it needed to be emphasized that a ‘new and improved ATSDR now under the CDC’ had to be sold as true. “Yes, ATSDR came under criticism by the House of Representatives so many years ago when they were given the job to do and no financing and, at the time, they were not under the CDC,” claimed WHNC board member Steve Randall. “They are now under the CDC and it comes down to who are you going to trust? If you can’t trust the CDC, who are you going to trust?”
Trusting the facts would be a start. Again, the CDC does not oversee the ATSDR though it performs much of its administrative functions. Contrary to Randall’s assertion that it was given a “job to do and no financing,” ATSDR actually was budgeted $700,000 first time around commissioning the studies that Morgenstern and Cohen directed. This information has existed in many places, including on EnviroReporter.com since 2006.
The WHNC Board members, many of whom seemed to believe that ATSDR was in fact going to perform a new study, voted to approve the resolution. Prodded and swayed by false information, they became willing dupes of Boeing’s meltdown makeover. But for the astroturfers, it was a short-lived victory
ATSDR’s decision to back away from activity at SSFL is a wise one. Now, the community can return to the hard work of making sure that the 2010 cleanup agreements are upheld, and that Boeing cleans up all the contamination on its part of the property. That will be no easy task, as Boeing is pushing a for cleanup that would leave most of the contamination on site.
Groups who have fought for decades, like the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition and the SSFL Work Group, are sure to be invigorated by this victory, as are the hundreds of community members new to the effort who stood up and said enough is enough.
“This was the right decision,” said Klea in a press release by the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition. “We already have independent studies showing potential health risks from SSFL and we have binding cleanup agreements. Interference from ATSDR, especially at the request of someone who works for one of the polluters, would be wrong and potentially very harmful to the community.”
It is a well-deserved victory for the folks who have been fighting for a real cleanup of SSFL for all these years, clearly showing there is plenty of fight in them still.