LA County Rec and Parks quietly plans hiking trails to contaminated Santa Susana Field Lab, ignoring toxins while honoring anti-cleanup gadfly
News & Analysis
Plans to build miles-long hiking trails leading to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) in west San Fernando Valley without full environmental review are quietly progressing, a month-long EnviroReporter.com investigation has found. This vetting failure ignores SSFL’s gross chemical and radioactive pollution.
The County of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks’ plan, which involves two large parcels in unincorporated parts of the county, will come before the Board of Supervisors for final approval this spring. The area of concern is called “Phase II.b” which borders the lab, site of three partial nuclear reactor meltdowns which remains astronomically polluted.
Analysis of the scheme finds that it disregards toxic threats from the 2,850-acre former Rocketdyne site and contamination that has also been found in the proposed trails area. It also memorializes a longtime SSFL anti-cleanup gadfly with a new trail named in his honor and undermines Los Angeles County’s official position of demanding a full cleanup of SSFL.
The county’s Santa Susana Mountains Trails Master Plan – Phase II calls for carving new walking, biking and horse riding paths into the hills downslope and bordering SSFL in Phase II.b’s 2-square-mile area. Bathrooms, staging areas, signage and a new 4.5 mile long trail adjacent SSFL are all part of the plan.
The unapproved proposal violates protocols of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by not disclosing potential environmental impacts of Phase II.b bordering SSFL which would connect new trails to ones already at the polluted site owned by Boeing. “The information collected informed the proposed trail network developed as part of the SSMTMP and CEQA process,” the report states, admitting its requirement to adhere to environmental laws.
Yet instead of making sure that possibly significant harmful impacts of building trails up to SSFL have been “avoided, reduced or minimized” to below significance, the county plan downplays the issue without analyzing it. The report, which totals hundreds of pages, sloughs off the lab’s toxins in just two sentences.
“Immediately to the west of Phase II.b, the newly announced conservation area on the Santa Susana Field Laboratory implies future opportunities to connect with that open space following a major cleanup,” the plan appendices say. “The Laboratory’s ongoing efforts to dedicate portions of their property to land conservation could present an opportunity for future trail easements.” The plan also presents an opportunity to rain down toxic dust on new trail users where the winds usually blow downhill from SSFL all over the Phase II.b area.
Comments on the plan submitted by this reporter advised that the proposed new trails should not be opened until completion of a full cleanup of SSFL. “All Dayton Canyon, Bell Canyon and Woolsey Canyon trail heads and staging areas should have warning signs to alert trail users of the potential dangers of chemicals in the soil, dust and water, much like the real estate warning given to nearby residents of the dangers of SSFL when property is purchased in the area.”
“No major cleanup has yet occurred though SSFL-owner Boeing has torn down some buildings as noted following,” this reporter wrote. “No ‘major cleanup’ will begin for at least two years in 2019, that is if there is any major cleanup at all as the lead state agency overseeing SSFL remediation is sabotaging its own cleanup as I reported recently in Toxics agency buries Santa Susana Field Laboratory cleanup – Fuzzy environmental impact report proposes leaving lab contamination in place as Boeing produces new greenwashing website against cleanup.”
The Trails Master Plan’s reference to Boeing’s controversial easement is perplexing given that representatives of LA County, Ventura County, and the LA City Council immediately objected to Boeing’s August 2017 announcement that the easement relieved it of its previous cleanup commitments, stating in a September 2017 letter that “Boeing’s attempt to reduce the level of clean-up to a much weaker standard will leave some of these toxicants in place, risking people’s health long into the future.” LA County Supervisor and Board Chair Sheila Kuehl has been a longtime advocate for full cleanup, weighing in as recently as December 6, 2017 with a letter to the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) urging full cleanup.
DTSC also objected to Boeing’s claims regarding the easement in its recent rejection of Boeing’s Draft SRAM3 (Standardized Risk Assessment Methodology Work Plan Revision 3.) In a January 16, 2018 letter to Boeing, DTSC enumerated many reasons for its decision, including that Boeing’s proposal violates the 2007 consent order for corrective action which states that “no change in ownership or corporate or partnership status relating to the Facility shall in any way alter Respondents’ responsibility under this Order. No conveyance of title, easement, or other interest in the Facility, or a portion of the Facility, shall affect Respondent’s [sic] obligations under this Order.”
Community groups have decried Boeing’s easement as a thinly veiled attempt to get out of the cleanup, claiming that even if the site becomes open space, using recreational cleanup standards would leave most of the contamination on site where it will continue to migrate and threaten nearby communities. Comments from community members, elected officials, environmental and community organizations submitted on DTSC’s recent SSFL draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) instead demand that the agency uphold its previous cleanup commitments to clean up all of the contamination at SSFL.
An August 2017 DTSC monthly update released October 3, 2017 tacked on an additional 17 years to the cleanup which was supposed to be completed this year. “Project cleanup schedules will be further defined in the remediation planning documents and associated designs, however if soil cleanup begins in early 2019, remediation of all chemically and radiologically impacted soils is anticipated to be completed by the end 2034,” said DTSC in the notice.
Trail of Jeers
EnviroReporter.com wasn’t the only SSFL watcher astonished at the incomplete CEQA for Phase II.b. Concerned environmental and nuclear policy groups weighed in also with little more than three days to analyze the trails master plan and comment. They included the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition, Committee to Bridge the Gap, Southern California Federation of Scientists and Physicians for Social Responsibility–Los Angeles, the latter of which is part of a coalition that won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for its nuclear policy work.
“We therefore are very troubled by the proposal for trails leading up to SSFL, in areas that may be contaminated and may in the future experience migration from SSFL,” said the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition (RCC) in its comments to county planners in December. “We believe that any consideration of the trails proposed for Phase II.B should be put on hold until the full cleanup of SSFL has happened. As local residents, we have been deeply burdened by the offsite migration of contaminants, and we want to prevent the health impacts one could have if exposed to any of the further offsite migration until SSFL is cleaned up.”
“CBG believes it would be imprudent to consider any trails in the areas near SSFL until the promised to background is complete,” commented SSFL watchdog Committee to Bridge the Gap. “Additionally, the County has been a vocal supporter of the promised cleanup to background. The parks department should be careful that it does nothing that can be used by the Responsible Parties (RPs) in support of their efforts to break out of their cleanup commitments, at variance with the County’s efforts to get full cleanup.”
Further infuriating SSFL cleanup proponents are county plans to name much of this trail system after a vocal opponent of the remediation, John Luker. Luker was first exposed as an SSFL polluter tool in 2012’s Boeing’s Meltdown Makeover series in Operation Astroturf and has reappeared as recently as 2017’s Brandeis-Bardin’s Toxic Denial.
“Additionally, we must candidly say that the proposal to name the trail leading up to SSFL the “John Luker Trail” is offensive to those of us who have worked for decades to get SSFL cleaned up, and we urge that it be reconsidered,” further commented RCC. “Mr. Luker is part of a group that was funded by one of the polluters of SSFL (which insisted that its funding be kept secret, leading to the resignation of at least one other member of the group). He has pushed for years the position of the parties responsible for the contamination, which is that the cleanup agreements the County and we have supported be abrogated and that large amounts of the contamination never be cleaned up. It is inappropriate to name a trail after such a person.”
Sleight of Land
A new comprehensive analysis by EnviroReporter.com has discovered that the Phase II.b plan reveals a comprehensive effort to mislead decision makers and the public about the proximity and potential hazards of SSFL to the bordering Phase II.b.
Looking closer at the Phase II.b maps, the Santa Susana Field Laboratory seems strangely absent. Indeed, since the project lies on the border with Ventura County but is located fully in LA County, planners didn’t see fit to include anything from Ventura County. Lopping off the study area at the county line, especially when the project borders SSFL, appears an especially abnormal decision and seems to defeat the very purpose of a CEQA, protecting people and the environment.
The planning team, headed by project manager Zachary Likins who began his new job as “park planner” for LA County in July 2017 according to Linked in, seemed to go even further than merely leaving information off of the Phase II.b maps. A figure on page 97 of Phase II.b’s mitigated negative declaration is called “Hazardous Sites within One-Eighth Mile of SSMTMP-PII Area” (see inset).
The map figure shows a light blue line surrounding Phase II.b’s perimeter delineating what the legend says is the “Study Area 1/8-Mile Buffer.” The so-called “buffer” extends 1/8 mile into SSFL, a hazardous site if there ever was one, yet still shows it to be A-okay according to the buffer. The map is false and helps erase SSFL from Phase II.b’s environmental report. It is hard to fathom how Los Angeles County planners could make such a mistake, if it was, indeed, a mistake.
The very next page of the report does list SSFL twice in a hazardous sites table and called “Rockwell” as well as “Rockwell/Santa Susana Field Lb” [sic]. Both entries list the facilities’ “status” as “Open – inactive.” While the table’s designations are out of date (Rockwell sold SSFL to Boeing in 1996) and the status mystifying and false, it is clear the planners were aware of the place but chose to not include it in maps or any environmental assessment.
Ignoring the Goo
The decision to ignore SSFL’s looming presence over the Phase II.b area also ignores decades worth of contamination and health studies, news reporting, and an aware community the great majority of which demand that the site be cleaned up to strict standards agreed to in 2007 and 2010. In addition to the strong outpouring of support for full cleanup generated in response to DTSC’s EIR for the cleanup, over 130,000 people have signed a cleanup petition launched by families of pediatric cancer near SSFL. Beyond blowing off this information, county planners have failed to fulfill the project’s CEQA analysis, content to issue the following statement instead:
“The proposed project would result in no impact regarding having environmental effects which will cause substantial adverse effects which will cause substantial adverse effects [sic] on human beings, either directly or indirectly,” concluded county trail planners. “Potential environmental impacts associated with the proposed project in regard to human health and safety during construction, operations, and maintenance would be less than significant.”
Yet the contamination that has come down from SSFL through the Phase II.b area has been staggering. It also has been reported on extensively yet none of this information was included in the report.
In 2003, Los Angeles CityBeat reported that “a reading of 17ppb [of perchlorate] draining from Rocketdyne into Happy Valley, a drainage outlet that leads down into the San Fernando Valley through Dayton Creek.” The center of Phase II.b is Dayton Canyon, which includes the creek.
The Los Angeles Daily News exposed that even more of the toxic rocket fuel oxidizer was found in Dayton Canyon. “A Centex consultant detected the rocket-fuel ingredient at levels as high as 62,000 parts per million in the sediment along Dayton Canyon Creek, about 1 1/2 miles from the lab,” the paper wrote. “That is 850 times more potent than perchlorate samples taken at Rocketdyne’s laboratory, where rocket fuel was spilled onto the soil, and it is nearly 8,000 times the level allowed for residential neighborhoods.”
The 2004 newspaper story Two Mile Island reported that “69 million gallons of discharges, from SSFL rocket engine tests alone, go down Dayton and an adjacent creek every year.” Two years later, a UCLA study said that “there is potential for offsite chronic exposures within 1-2 miles of SSFL which includes, but is not limited to TCE emissions from SSFL-activities via inhalation in West Hills, Bell Canyon, Dayton Canyon, and Simi Valley,” as well as “hydrazine (and oxidation product NDMA) via inhalation of emissions from SSFL in Bell Canyon and West Hills.”
“Around 118 million gallons of Rocketdyne runoff pour into the Los Angeles River every year through Bell and Dayton canyons in Canoga Park,” EnviroReporter.com wrote in 2012. “The gushing goo prompted a $471,000 fine from the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board in 2007 for 79 pollution violations of it slushing into the river.”
If there was one exposé that demonstrated the absolute necessity of a proper CEQA being done for the Phase II.b project, it would be 2012’s Dirty Deeds. That story featured video showing how huge clouds of possibly toxic dust were floating down towards the project area where the paths are proposed, paths that county planners say would be perfectly safe without actually knowing.
“One video shows heavy machinery in Area I of the lab roaring around destroying and grading the last of what once was the Instrument and Equipment Laboratories or IEL complex,” the EnviroReporter.com article said. “Huge clouds of dust are launched into the air landing on any SSFL subcontractors and full-time lab workers that may have been in the area as well as drifting towards the San Fernando Valley. Most of the contaminated dust falls out on hills that drain down Happy Valley above Chatsworth into Dayton Canyon Creek and finally the Los Angeles River.”
Has the untested Phase II.b area been impacted by this dust? And what exactly is in that dust?
“The IEL and the land around it are contaminated from decades of use of the toxins trichloroethylene, perchlorate, trichloroethane, hydrazine, perchloroethylene, hexavalent chromium, and heavy metals,” continued the article. “This dangerous dirt appears to have been blown all over the place by Boeing’s plainly sloppy procedures.”
(It is important note to that that proper use of water sprayer trucks has been found to be effective in remediating the dust threat at SSFL. This was seen in the 2007 cleanup of an Area I drainage into Brandeis-Bardin where DTSC oversaw sprays tamping any errant dust down as seen in the article Cleaning Up Rocketdyne.)
Contamination of SSFL is so severe “that the Congressional sponsors of the Rim of the Valley (ROV) legislation recently removed SSFL because of the contamination,” said Committee to Bridge the Gap in its comments. “The Phase IIb area proposal for trails and the associated Initial Study/Neg. Dec. completely ignore the contamination, as though it is not there. Ignoring it does not make it go away.”
Toasting the Trumping of Truth
The Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), which is responsible for Phase II.a and Phase II.b, held one meeting specific to each project area. The one devoted to Phase II.b attracted “approximately 10 attendees” in Woodland Hills April 18, 2017 according to the DPR trails master plan.
Not a single environmental group advocating for the cleanup of project-bordering Santa Susana Field Laboratory was contacted in any form that EnviroReporter.com could find. Most longtime neighborhood activists in both the San Fernando and Simi valleys were unaware of the project even though a few managed to comment on just three days’ notice.
John Luker’s name on a proposed new trail for Phase II.b may be the key to why the county’s planning department conveniently forgot about the SSFL’s menacing manifestation on the area’s western border. Luker is a director of the Santa Susana Mountain Park Association (SSMPA) and has spearheaded its anti-cleanup campaign of the lab. He has been part and parcel of Boeing’s greenwashing campaign, which absurdly claims that the cleanup will harm the environment when in fact the opposite is true – SSFL contaminants pose considerable risk to wildlife.
Likins presented the trail scheme at a SSMPA meeting October 16, 2017. “SSMPA board members, led by Dean Wageman and John Luker, are actively meeting and hiking with planners of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation to provide input on the Santa Susana Trails Master Plan,” the event notice read. “SSMPA is providing assistance in mapping new trails in western LA County. SSMPA also wants to help in coordinating trail signage in the Chatsworth Hills with that of neighboring trails that pass into Ventura County, to maintain a cohesive style and placement that will make trail usage seamless and intuitive.”
Luker’s background leading hikes through still-heavily polluted SSFL is well documented as was shown in the 2016 exposé Critics question safety of Boeing’s Santa Susana Field Lab hikes. The ersatz Glow in the Dark Park ranger admitted proudly that he had taken over a thousand waiver-signing hikers, including kids, through the Southern Buffer Zone (SBZ) of SSFL that has tested positive for radium-226, plutonium-239/240, trichloroethylene (TCE), dioxins, PCBs, and perchlorate pollution. The SBZ border with the Phase II.b project area is little more than a barbed wire fence in the hills, hardly an anti-contamination barrier.
Demonstrations protesting the hikes through what a Rocketdyne official once called “Love Canal” have not proven an obstacle to Luker. The 2016 feature news piece Dept. of Energy secretly funding front group to sabotage its own Santa Susana Field Lab cleanup quoted Luker bragging of his Boeing connections and lack of concern for the toxic waste:
“In any case, I talked to Kamara [Sams, Boeing representative] earlier yesterday and they’re going to publish a map that shows where contamination is in the Southern Buffer Zone and what levels so people can see what they’re walking through,” Luker said without a trace of irony.
This clue as to Luker’s disregard for the toxins radiating from SSFL indicates haphazard county research and lack of sound science. Another master plan faux pas is a serious insult to Native Americans.
“The Gabrieleno Band of Mission Indians – Kizh Nation indicated that the project study area has a high level of sensitivity to potential tribal cultural resources, and that numerous sites are known within the project study area,” the Phase II.b mitigated negative declarations says. “The Tribe wishes to provide input on the trail naming.”
It is unlikely that these Native Americans were aware or approved of the longest Phase II.b trail being named after John Luker. Indeed, there is no indication of any public input into the naming of the proposed “John Luker Trail,” because if there had been, Likins and crew may have thought the better of it.
As EnviroReporter.com widely reported in 2016:
When people listen to Luker, they never know what will come out of his mouth other than knowing it will be infused with braggadocio and inflammatory nonsense. “[I]f you get three Indians in a room you’re going to have a fight,” Luker said at a January 21, 2013 meeting about the proposed Rim of the Valley National Park with Gary Polakovic and Bill Bowling in the audience. “Pretty much I’ve seen that to be true.”
Luker’s unhinged attacks include harassing cancer victims, such as former SSFL worker Bonnie Klea, profiled in Atomic Avenger. Luker also chided parents of children with cancer who live near SSFL, telling distraught families at a February 21, 2017 Dept. of Energy hearing that their children’s cancer didn’t come from SSFL and to look into their back yards instead. (Nearly 50 cases of pediatric cancer have been identified near SSFL by West Hills resident Melissa Bumstead, whose daughter Grace has twice been diagnosed with a rare leukemia. Melissa and other parents believe their findings are consistent with federally funded studies that indicate increased cancers near the site.) Luker nevertheless regularly denies health impacts from SSFL while cheerleading for Boeing’s greenwashing plan on Facebook.
Luker even claimed that EnviroReporter.com actually wants to delay cleanup of SSFL for financial gain. “The two articles from the EnviroReporter are fake news!” Luker said in a November 28, 2016 Facebook comment. “They attack me personally so I have a good idea of their veracity… I’ve been attacked repeatedly by forces making money off of fear.”
In my Phase II.b comments, I made clear that it is Luker’s statements that lack veracity:
“The only danger John Luker is in is the possibility he’ll be sued for these kinds of libelous remarks. The real danger the community faces is if Luker’s anti-cleanup cabal succeeds in derailing the cleanup of the old Rocketdyne lab. Adding his name to a trail does not seem like wise policy and should be reversed.”
The County of Los Angeles’ trail planners know all of this information now formally. Much of this material was submitted in this reporter’s comments. When Likins and fellow planners release their adjusted Trails Master Plan, it will hopefully shelve the entire Phase II.b part of the proposal until SSFL is remediated to background. The larger Phase II.a part of the master plan near Santa Clarita doesn’t face these kinds of environmental threats and should be implemented.
Failing that, the public will have just one more chance this spring to address the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors to register their views. That is if they even know when the meeting will take place. [EnviroReporter.com will keep its readers informed of the date once it’s known.]
The Trails Master Plan says it will mail out a notice to property owners within a half mile of the project areas, a fraction of the folks that would be affected should Phase II.b come to pass. Countless hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians could be exposed to some of the planet’s most virulent poisons should the scheme succeed.
The plot to trail blaze a costly new path up to an unremediated SSFL is on track to become a permanent and potentially dangerous stain on the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. In the process, trail planners would have sabotaged county efforts to make the polluters of SSFL clean up their goo to background and restore the place to its original splendor before becoming a sprawling Nazi-origin rocket testing compound.
LA can do better to protect its citizens and honor its past. In this case, it can save its money and save face by simply stopping this bold attempt to build trails in toxic terrain with no environmental studies. That would be a prudent decision for the people in both Los Angeles and Ventura counties.