Officials & media dismiss catastrophic release of chemicals and radiation from Rocketdyne
“Shocked & furious to learn smoke from the #WoolseyFire started at former nuclear testing site, Santa Susana Field Lab, & is potentially radioactive,” tweeted mega-celebrity Kim Kardashian to her 58 million followers Nov. 14, six days after the devastating fire ignited. “Sign now to demand that incoming governor @GavinNewsom gets this site cleaned up: [No more kids with cancer: clean up the Santa Susana Field Lab]”
Kardashian has plenty of reason to be horrified. The Woolsey Fire started about 2:24 pm Nov. 8 on one of the most contaminated places in the state, the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), commonly known as Rocketdyne, site of the nation’s worst partial nuclear reactor meltdown in 1959. The sprawling facility once housed 10 nuclear reactors, several of which also had serious accidents, and was the site of over 30,000 rocket-engine tests. These activities along with other accidents and poor environmental practices left the place severely contaminated. The site is still not cleaned up and toxins have been found offsite in every direction.
Over 2,404 acres of brush that covered 2,849-acre Rocketdyne burned in the Woolsey Fire, brush that sucks up radiation, trichloroethylene, dioxins, PCBs, and a cauldron of chemicals amongst a galaxy of ‘goo’ in the soil and groundwater, according to government reports obtained by EnviroReporter.com. Then it went up in smoke, 18 tons of it per acre. That’s over 43,272 tons of smoke particulate settling on thousands of properties in the shadow of SSFL. The toxic smoke and ash landed all over Southern California, where it is available to be re-suspended, landing again and bringing its molecular misery to unsuspecting masses for a long time to come.
A figurative smoke screen blocking the truth about the Woolsey Fire immediately kicked in. At 1:33 am the following morning, the state EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) sent out an urgent community update on the Woolsey Fire and SSFL. “The Woolsey Fire burned through a portion of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) yesterday,” the DTSC email read. “Our scientists and toxicologists have reviewed information about the fire’s location and do not believe the fire has caused any releases of hazardous materials that would pose a risk to people exposed to the smoke.”
That statement, and subsequent statements issued by DTSC as to the harmlessness of the smoke and ash, are unsubstantiated and at odds with the truth. DTSC also claimed that its “scientists and toxicologists have reviewed information about the fire’s location” yet see no danger. These ‘experts’ are well aware of the contamination in Rocketdyne’s soil and vegetation, and surely aware of what EnviroReporter.com found – government studies detailing a suite of dangerous substances sucked up by the brush and grasses at SSFL.
But instead of leveling with the public about the seriousness of this massive toxic release, DTSC claims – without disclosing any measurements or methods – that what’s left behind doesn’t test toxic. If past experience is any indicator, the agency will eventually release some of that data for the public to examine, and there will be all manner of problems with it.
Meanwhile area residents are left in the dark. After all, the real questions the public wants answered are 1) Was my family exposed to harmful radiation and chemicals from SSFL? 2) How could this have happened? and 3) What can I do about it now to mitigate it and so this doesn’t happen again?
Rocketdyne fire findings
EnviroReporter.com has found that DTSC and NASA misled the public about the fire’s potential consequences. EnviroReporter.com has also uncovered what may have been the cause of the massive blaze, how much Rocketdyne brush was incinerated, what was in that brush and where most of it landed.
Unfortunately many media outlets were willing to accept DTSC’s pronouncements that nothing toxic from SSFL was in the smoke and ash. Even Los Angeles magazine, which published this reporter’s very first Rocketdyne exposé in 1998, came out with a word salad trying to deny any problems with the hot smoke.
What EnviroReporter.com has found in the last twelve days and explores in depth:
● The Woolsey Fire was named after a reported fire-origin address 1.9 miles away and in another county. It should have been called the Rocketdyne Fire to be accurate and to warn the public about the smoke coming their way.
● The fire may have started when electrical lines, perhaps frayed, interacted with the tops of oaks during winds of 40 mph in NASA’s Area II. The treetops could have smoldered until sparks or embers ignited grasses and three small out buildings before really taking off towards the southwest and spreading out.
● At least 84 percent of SSFL burned launching approximately 43,272 tons of radioactive and chemically-impacted ash and smoke into the air.
● Department of Energy (DOE) reports from 2014 document the high levels of chlorinated dioxins/furans, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), silver, cadmium and lead in its vegetation.
● Fire swept through Area I Burn Pit with high levels of 17 radionuclides and the most deadly form of dioxin, 2,3,7,8-TCDD, at 2,684.4 times its normal background.
● DTSC has these reports and knows full well about the possibility of radiation and chemicals in SSFL’s vegetation, yet still told the public the smoke was harmless.
● Toxic ash may impact properties not torched by the fire but in the fire’s impact zone.
● A 2005 fire burned 75% of Rocketdyne, illustrating that these recurring infernos will continue to release SSFL radiation and chemical contamination every time it catches fire, further contaminating the environment and exposing huge numbers of people and animals.
● DTSC, DOE, NASA and Boeing all have resisted full cleanup of SSFL.
● Save for KNBC Channel 4, most media discount the toxic stew released from Rocketdyne and refuse to acknowledge that the fire started on the site, not “near” it.
● Activists say Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom is key to a full cleanup of SSFL.
Reported fire origin location 2 miles from real start on Rocketdyne
The Woolsey Fire was strange from the moment it started, including how it got its name. Some early announcements listed 25000 Woolsey Canyon Rd. as the fire’s location. Cal Fire however tweeted the location at 4 pm as E Street and Alpha Road, which is clearly located on the Rocketdyne/Santa Susana Field Laboratory site itself. The name “Woolsey Fire” was immediately designated to the blaze, though the real fire origin at E Street and Alpha Road was about two miles away in another county from Rocketdyne.
It’s no mystery where the fire did start – in Ventura County in SSFL’s Area II owned by NASA. The photo of its origins was taken by KTLA News Channel 5 Stu Mundel’s helicopter on the afternoon of Nov. 8. On Nov. 12, a longtime SSFL cleanup advocate, Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles, issued a press release that called out the fire’s origin.
“The tremendously destructive Woolsey Fire has been widely reported as beginning “near” the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL or Rocketdyne), but it appears that the fire began on the Rocketdyne property itself,” the press release said. “A photograph posted on Twitter from KCAL9’s Stu Mundel shows the fire starting Thursday afternoon near the same location, which is only about 1,000 yards away from the site of the 1959 partial nuclear meltdown of the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) reactor.”
The photo went viral. So did PSR-LA’s strong criticism of DTSC. “The Woolsey Fire likely released and spread radiological and chemical contamination that was in SSFL’s soil and vegetation via smoke and ash,” said Dr. Bob Dodge, president of the two-time Nobel Peace Prizing winning group. “All wildfire smoke can be hazardous to health, but if SSFL had been cleaned up long ago as DTSC promised, we’d at least not have to worry about exposure to dangerous radionuclides and chemicals as well.”
Dodge is right, and DTSC did more than promise – in 2010, it signed legally binding agreements (Administrative Orders on Consent or AOCs) with the Department of Energy and NASA that required them to cleanup their areas of the site to background levels of contamination by 2017. DTSC also said in 2010 that even though Boeing would not sign an AOC agreement, it would require Boeing to cleanup according to Ventura County land use and zoning plans, which for Rocketdyne include agricultural and rural residential uses.
But community celebrations were short-lived. DOE and NASA began a series of actions that violated the AOC agreement, and Boeing fought back with a massive greenwashing campaign and in August 2017, announced it would clean up next to nothing by using weak recreational standards. Any hopes of DTSC enforcing the agreements were dashed last fall when the agency released a Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Report that proposed leaving as much of 98% of the contamination on site.
Community response to the Woolsey Fire reflected anger and mistrust of DTSC. “We’ve learned not to trust anything DTSC says, so we’re demanding independent testing and air monitoring for radiation and chemicals from SSFL,” said Melissa Bumstead, a West Hills resident whose daughter has twice survived leukemia that she believes was caused by Rocketdyne.
Bumstead’s Change.org petition urging that SSFL cleanup commitments be maintained has been signed by over 500,000 people. “DTSC has made one broken promise after another, and it wasn’t truthful about SSFL’s contamination long before the fire started.” said Bumstead. “Why would we believe DTSC’s statement that the fire caused no additional risk, when they know they’re the ones responsible for SSFL still being contaminated in the first place?”
Fire’s origins and apparent cause
While no official explanation for Rocketdyne fire’s origin has been given, EnviroReporter.com analyzed Stu Mundel’s photo and utilizing Google Earth, ended up finding what may have been the start of the fire: an apparently frayed electric line whipping around in the top of an oak grove.
NASA was more than happy to talk about this oak grove in an April 2011 edition of its FieldNOTES, its “Newsletter on NASA’s Cleanup Efforts at Santa Susana Field Laboratory.” In it, NASA describes how well it has gone sucking up all the contamination around the trees from the Ash Pile debris area.
Unfortunately this small bit of remediation didn’t put a dent in the amount of contamination that needs to be cleaned up at Rocketdyne, allowing 18 tons of burnable brush per acre in California according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which calls it “estimated average fuel loading.”
NASA released its own statement on November 13, stating “Initial observations confirm significant fire damage across the NASA SSFL site. Fire swept through all three historic districts. The Alfa and Bravo test stands are scorched but intact. The Coca and Burro Flats cultural areas have not been safe to access.”
NASA joined in with DTSC in discounting any dangers from the fire using conditional phraseology that a top-notch lawyer could envy. “NASA recognizes all wildfires can present threats to the public, however we do not anticipate any specific risks from the fire associated with contamination at the site” it said, adding that “the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) is actively monitoring the fire, and DTSC emergency response staff, scientists and toxicologists have reviewed information about the fire’s location and do not believe the fire has caused any releases of hazardous materials that would pose a risk to people exposed to the smoke.”
Not to be outdone, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health claimed it didn’t find any radiation on a trip to SSFL after the fire, which is impossible as there is discernible background radiation everywhere on Earth except in a thickly shielded lead box.
“Public Health officials traveled to the facility and performed nuclide identification, collected air samples, and operated multiple radiation detection units,” a Nov. 13 Public Health news release read. “There was no discernible level of radiation in the tested area. Public Health has discussed with the California Department of Toxic Substances and partner agencies their preliminary findings, and all found no evidence of discernible radiation in areas they tested around the facility.” [Our emphasis]
If this impossibility were true, then Rocketdyne would be the only place in the Universe with no “discernible radiation.” This inept statement shows either total stupidity or contempt for the truth or a combination of the two.
Chemicals in the smoke and ash
Both NASA and DTSC have also not been forthwith about what was in the smoke of burning Rocketdyne brush. Instead of sharing what they know about the contents of the plants that burned, they were apparently content to wave around Geiger counters and declare the place normal.
An extensive 2014 DOE report on SSFL “phytoremediation”, the study of flora sucking up contamination as a means of remediating land, provides an in-depth look at how SSFL contaminants are taken up by plants.
“The contaminants of interest (COI) for this study are a subset of the soil contaminants observed in Area IV and reflect the chemicals most amenable to phytoremediation,” the report said. “The COIs to be investigated for potential phytoremediation in this study are polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (dioxins), and metals.”
The DOE report also showed that radionuclides and the carcinogenic rocket engine solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) “accumulation in plant tissues” in a colorful illustration. Nevertheless, the nuclear agency didn’t test radiation and TCE so abundant at Area IV but illustrated their presence in an educative illustration of a plant imbibing this noxious cocktail.
What DOE did test for came in with shocking results. They are even more shocking if one considers that these same plants were later incinerated in an out-of-control brushfire that started near to Area IV.
“PAH uptake by roots of several species was observed, with the highest PAH concentrations observed in the roots of Blue Elderberry (1,740 milligrams per kilogram [μg/kg]), Purple Needlegrass (700 μg/kg), and Yerba Santa (200 μg/kg) (note μg/kg is also parts per billion (ppb) by weight),” said the report called “Phytoremediation Study for the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Final Report 4/16/2015.”
“Chlorinated dioxins/furans were observed in the roots and foliage of several species, with the highest concentrations in the roots of Purple Needlegrass (2.2 μg/kg), Blue Elderberry (1.03 μg/kg), Palmer’s Goldenbush (0.43 μg/kg), and Yerba Santa (0.42 μg/kg), and the highest concentrations in the foliage of Yerba Santa (0.90 μg/kg), Palmer’s Goldenbush (0.76 μg/kg), and Purple Needlegrass (0.69 μg/kg).”
Finally, the study found “Silver uptake was observed in the roots of Laurel Sumac (7,300 μg/kg) and in the foliage of Summer Mustard (410 μg/kg).”
This is what burned at Rocketdyne and nearly all of it has vaporized and set sail upon the smoky winds. TCE and a rainbow of deadly radionuclides also went up in flames and spread.
Area I Burn Pit went up in flames
One of the most contaminated places at SSFL is the Area I Burn Pit, or more accurately, burn pits. Like the land around it, the burn pits must have been torched in the inferno night of Nov. 8 through Nov. 9 according to Cal Fire maps. EnviroReporter.com wrote about radiological and chemical contamination in these burn pits in 2016’s Critics question safety of Boeing’s Santa Susana Field Lab hikes:
Even as Boeing’s greenwashing guides lead unsuspecting hikers near the Burn Pit CC 1, the company itself said in this December 2013 report that to judge the extent of surface water migration of the burn pit, “It is recommended that soil samples be collected to characterize dioxins and furans, cyanide, metals, PCBs, pesticides, Perchlorate, and SVOCs in the drainage channels down gradient of the western side of Area I Burn Pit RFI [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Facility Investigation] Site. Similarly, it is recommended that soil sample be collected to characterize mercury, dioxins and furans, cyanide, metals, PCBs, pesticides, energetics, and SVOCs in the drainage channels down gradient of the eastern side of Area I Burn Pit RFI Site.”
EnviroReporter.com also revealed in the exposé that “radium-226 was actually as high as 144.2 times background according to Boeing’s own numbers.” Boeing had already admitted that it had found the radionuclide, with a half-life of 1,600 years, radiating in the Burn Pit chemical cluster in nine areas with measurements of 1.7 to 9.6 times background.
In July 2006, DTSC ordered Boeing to remove an estimated 3,800 to 6,500 cubic yards of soil from the 3 to 5 acre-sized Area I Burn Pit. Yet it never happened and the place sat covered in thick rubberish tarps to keep the dust down, tarps that either melted or went up in flames nearly two weeks ago.
What went up with it, and which billowed and precipitated from the skies on Bell Canyon Estates, Ahmanson Ranch, Calabasas, Malibu and beyond could be Area I Burn Pit contagions that tested in the pits at huge levels.
The most potent form of carcinogenic dioxin 2,3,7,8-TCDD in the burn pit was 2,684.4 times its “background threshold value” (BTV) or normal background. Radioisotope bismuth-214 came in at 67.5 times its BTV with lead-214 topping off at 65.5 times its background. Perhaps the most potent radioactive substance man has ever created, plutonium 239/240, glowed at 5.7 times its BTV.
In all, EnviroReporter.com found 17 dangerous radionuclides tipping the beam over their respective backgrounds including carcinogens cesium-137 and strontium-90. Boeing would be doing itself and the public a big favor assessing and reporting on the Area I Burn Pit immediately with readings and photographs. But then again, if Boeing and DTSC were that concerned about the public, Rocketydne would have been cleaned up long ago.
Misled media misleads public
Instead of taking a cautious, pragmatic approach to the fiery apocalypse, most media outlets took DTSC’s word and dismissed toxic warnings without, apparently, asking for proof. The worst coverage sneered at contamination worries.
The Los Angeles Times, while rescued by a billionaire from oblivion, continued its long history of tepid Rocketdyne reporting with the Nov. 12 article “No health risk from Woolsey fire that burned nuclear cleanup site, state officials say.” The piece intimated that SSFL cleanup activists were needlessly alarmist: “State regulators and outside experts are tamping down concerns from advocacy groups about the Woolsey fire, which burned part of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory nuclear cleanup site, saying it likely posed no risk to the public beyond what is normal for wildfire smoke.”
Therefore the smoke is normal and the activists need to have their fires put out? The Times quoted a professor of nuclear engineering who said that “the risk for health effects due to radiation is expected to be small.” Expected by whom, exactly, and based on what? The National Academy of Sciences’ Report on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation found that there is no safe level of exposure to radiation. Children are more vulnerable to the impacts of radiation than adults, and girls more than boys. Implying otherwise gives a grave disservice to the community, literally.
The most surprising, and boldly bad, Rocketdyne fire reporting came from none other than Los Angeles magazine which, in 1998, published this reporter’s first SSFL exposé Hot Zone splashing “Special Investigation – A Nuclear Nightmare in Our Backyard” on the cover.
The piece caused a sensation but the 2018 version of Los Angeles sniffed at the fire’s contamination potential in its Nov. 9 post “Experts Say Rumors of “Radioactive Ash” from the Woolsey Fire Are Unsubstantiated.”
The article was subsequently criticized by commenters for putting quotation marks around Rocketdyne descriptor “significantly contaminated” as if it were a bugaboo used by those panicky advocates who also like to banter about “Radioactive Ash.”
The Los Angeles piece also included this:
“The responding fire agencies from Ventura and Los Angeles Counties also consulted independent hazardous materials coordinators who agreed with the conclusion that toxic material from the site was unlikely to have been spread due to the fire.”
Where then did it go then since the site is likely burnt bare like a charred moonscape? Much of it is obviously no longer there. Much of what used to make Los Angeles magazine occasionally great is obviously no longer there either. To its credit, the magazine did print a correction and has not blocked the outraged comments to the reporter’s post on the magazine’s website.
CBS-LA also repeated agency denials in Officials: Santa Susana Nuclear Site Safe From Woolsey Fire, along with taking the extra step of showing buildings from Area IV with a caption that the buildings weren’t damaged in the fire – as if that meant there was nothing to worry about.
One exception to the media misinformation is KNBC Channel 4’s Joel Grover, who has been fearless in exposing the environmental fiasco that is the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. KNBC’s ongoing fire coverage has been a breath of fresh air compared to the smoke-screen SSFL information has to go through.
Out of the ashes can come a chance for expedited comprehensive cleanup
The contaminated ash may continue to expose people, but there are important precautions that can be taken. The home environment demands HEPA air filters and any chance of encountering fire-impacted dust or ash outside should be met with an N95 facemask and removing shoes when entering homes. Kids’ outdoor activities in the impacted zones need to be reassessed on an individual basis with the default actions being very protective (i.e. restrictive).
Because of the prevailing direction of the wind, the Rocketdyne fire ash settled in great amounts on and around the Malibu Canyon corridor to the beach. Rains will soon start washing that contamination down into Malibu Creek and the runoff will eventually make its way to the Pacific Ocean.
Beyond that, with no action by the public to force the full cleanup of SSFL to background levels of contamination, these kinds of massive radioactive and chemically-infused fires will happen again and again.
But a newly informed public outraged by the Rocketdyne fire may find in itself the power to demand that Governor-elect Newsom replace the leadership of DTSC and its entire SSFL team. A little celebrity firepower just might make that happen.
Community groups like Parents vs SSFL and the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition are helping many of the people new to this vast and complex issue understand it and join the fight to make sure it can never happen again. Perhaps more powerful celebrities, like the ones burned out of their mansions, might also make that leap.
After all, the community has had its share of victories. Washington Mutual’s Ahmanson Ranch project, which would have built 3,050 homes in the fire’s path in what is now called the Upper Las Virgenes Open Space Preserve, was stopped by environmental reporting hence thousands of new homes weren’t burnt down in the fire and human lives possibly lost.
The community also stopped an ill-intended scheme by cleanup opponents to get the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to dismiss independent studies that show increased cancers near Rocketdyne and declare the cleanup unnecessary.
More recently, the community succeeding in stopping plans to build hiking trails near Rocketdyne. That part of the Los Angeles County Santa Susana Mountain Trails Master Plan to build Toxic Trails was nixed, due to concerns about “trail planning efforts near the facility, where the level of cleanup is yet to be determined.”
Now it will be up to California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, to make sure Rocketdyne is finally and fully cleaned up. DTSC, NASA, DOE and Boeing all know exactly what contamination is where and how much of it is there. The new governor should demand that DTSC direct these polluters to get cracking and bulldoze the polluted dirt out of the place before new brush covers it up again.
“Our family lives ONLY 20 miles from a nuclear disaster site, Santa Susana Field Lab, and we didn’t even know it – the #WoolseyFire started there, and smoke could be carrying radioactive chemicals,” Kourtney Kardashian tweeted Nov. 14. “We need @GavinNewsom to do something – sign the petition. https://www.change.org/p/no-more-kids-with-cancer-clean-up-the-santa-susana-field-lab …”
Another generation of sick kids may result because of this Rocketdyne fire. Perhaps mothers and their allies, some rich and some not so much, will finally force DTSC and the polluters to do what they already promised to do years ago before the Boeing greenwashers arrived.
It would be the one spark from the Rocketdyne fire that would make some of the heartbreak not suffered in vain. With the stars aligning and the truth laid bare here, there has never been a better chance to clean up Rocketdyne completely and without any more delay.