State, federal laws and agreements don’t deter Dept. of Energy attempt to leave 98% of toxins at Santa Susana Field Lab Area IV, prompting community outrage and political pushback
NEWS & COMMENTARY
Los Angeles joined California February 8 in demanding that the Trump Administration back off its illegal scheme to destroy cleanup plans for one of the most contaminated Cold War era sites in the nation, the Boeing-owned Santa Susana Field Laboratory, aka Rocketdyne. The City and State are contesting Trump’s Department of Energy (DOE) decision not to clean up nuclear Area IV of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) in its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).
“I, therefore move, that the City Council directs the City Attorney to initiate litigation in the event that either the federal Department of Energy or the California Department of Toxic Substance Control takes action to approve their respective final environmental documents relative to clean up of Santa Susana Field Lab that is inconsistent with City Council’s previously expressed desire that the site be cleaned consistent with the 2010 Administrative Order on Consent [AOC], which required the site to be cleaned to background levels,” motioned Councilmember, 12th District, Greig Smith. The City has long supported a full cleanup at SSFL – in 2004 it successfully sued the DOE, and in 2017 weighed in strongly on both DOE’s Draft EIS (resolution here and comments here) and DTSC’s Draft EIR for the cleanup (comments here.)
Two weeks earlier, on January 28, the Dept. of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), now under the Newsom Administration, issued a letter to DOE stating that DOE’S Final EIS “…ignores that its preferred alternative is inconsistent with the Administrative Order on Consent for Remedial Action (AOC) negotiated and executed by DTSC and DOE in 2010. DOE’s assumption that DTSC would be open to renegotiating the AOC requirements regarding soils cleanup to accommodate DOE’s preferred alternative is erroneous.”
Strong statements from the State and City come none too soon for the thousands of Southern Californians who want SSFL finally cleaned up as was agreed to in 2010 by DOE and DTSC.
The Trump Administration’s DOE used the holidays before the Trump Shutdown to try and sneak by its FEIS ruse to leave in place 98 percent of the radiation and chemicals at its infamously contaminated Area IV site. The abandonment of cleanup also includes the contaminated Northern Buffer Zone (NBZ) which is uphill of Brandeis-Bardin which also has tested positive for Area IV radionuclides.
To be left in place are approximately 1,577,800 cubic yards of dirt contaminated with cesium-137, strontium-90, tritium and plutonium 239/240. DOE justifies some of these shenanigans on a false invocation of a biological exemption of vast swaths of poisoned land to supposedly save plants which are not, in fact, inalterably affected by cleanup. DOE has spent decades as a recalcitrant polluter opposed to meaningful cleanup, so its attempt to evade cleanup by feigning concern for the environment is transparently disingenuous.
The biological exemptions aren’t the only shenanigans pulled by Trump’s DOE. Breaking its AOC agreement with California has far reaching implications and has generated region-wide fury by community members and elected officials who refuse to be betrayed by the federal government. They expect the new California Governor Gavin Newsom to do the same.
DOE has blatantly followed the chief executive’s example of promising one thing only to deliver something so far off the mark as to be illegal. With Trumpian aplomb, DOE has floated leaving nearly all of its poisoned, leased land in place even when DOE SSFL federal project director John Jones told the community for years that DOE would do the “right thing” and cleanup Rocketdyne to background levels of goo.
“Let’s clean up to background, let’s get this site closed,” Jones said in Simi Valley at a crowded meeting of the SSFL Work Group February 5, 2014. “The bottom line is, yes things happened, yes they were unfortunate, and we’ve made a commitment to clean it up. That’s what all this is for. To meet the Administrative Order on Consent, to meet the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement], and at the end of the day, because it’s the right thing to do. The right thing to how we get to a full and complete cleanup.”
Thousands of pages of new DOE material about its long-delayed cleanup of Area IV analyzed by EnviroReporter.com reveal that the department has no intention of remediating its soil or groundwater to background levels of chemicals and radiation. This voluminous data was sprung on the public with less than a working month for anyone to closely analyze, underestimating the dedication of organizations like Committee to Bridge the Gap(CBG), National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Physicians for Social Responsiblity-Los Angeles (PSR-LA), Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition (RCC), and Southern California Federation of Scientists (SCSF) to do just that.
“The FEIS no longer even makes a pretense of complying with the AOC,” CBG and NRDC wrote to Jones, and his deputy Stephanie Jennings, January 27. “The Trump Administration DOE admits in the FEIS that the proposed action would breach the AOC. It says merely it will “discuss” the matter with DTSC. This is unacceptable. The AOC is a legally binding agreement. DOE does not have the authority to ignore it.”
Trump’s DOE dagger to the heart of Southern California may be thwarted by Gov. Newsom. However, those efforts will fail if the State doesn’t admit that its own environmental impact report (EIR) also violated the AOC agreements, exposed by EnviroReporter.com in late 2017’s Toxics agency buries Santa Susana Field Laboratory cleanup, and rid itself of the DTSC personnel who cooked up the flawed report as part of a years-long effort to undermine the cleanup they are supposed to be enforcing.
The hot potato is now in Newsom’s hands. And that potato is hot.
Hijinks in the Hot Zone
Nuclear research Area IV used to have a reactor rod-handling “hot lab” which took in incredibly radioactive spent fuel rods from reactors all over the country. These rods were then cut apart and processed with robotic arms behind lead walls and glass because the ionization of the rods was so intense.
Area IV, which also had an outdoor radiation burn pit, was where three partial nuclear meltdowns occurred. One infamous melt in 1959 of the Sodium Reactor Experiment released outside into the environment hundreds of times more radionuclides than did the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania twenty years later.
A $41.5 million study of Area IV released in 2012 revealed just how radioactive DOE’s hot zone is. EnviroReporter.com exposed the astronomical levels of radiation found in Radiation Readings Soar at Rocketdyne. Lethal cesium-137 clocked in at 9,328 times its background. Cancer-causing stronium-90 tested at 284 times normal for Area IV soil. Plutonium 239/240, one of the most fearsome radionuclides on the planet, ionized at over 92 times background 24 beneath the soil surface.
California Highway Patrol hazardous materials handling protocol dictates that Haz-Mat precautions are taken with radioactive materials that register just three times background or above. Yet at SSFL, Trump’s DOE is now trying to peddle the unlikely notion that Area IV is already ready for its open space park future despite knowing that massive amounts trichloroethylene, dioxins, heavy metals, PCBs, exotic chemicals and radiation are sucked up by plants that repeatedly go up in smoke in wildfires according to a 2014 DOE study DOE buried and ignores.
Agreements with the state of California in 2007 and 2010 spelled out just how the cleanup of the 2,849-acre SSFL was to proceed, including Area IV. The massive remediation, which could cost the polluters DOE, NASA and landowner Boeing hundreds of millions of dollars in addition to the fortune already spent, was supposed to be completed by 2017. Delaying it and gutting it would save the polluters this money as exposed in late 2012’s Boeing’s Meltdown Makeover.
Yet the cleanup hasn’t even begun. Then in December 2018, SSFL burned in the Rocketdyne-Woolsey fire that started in NASA Area II, releasing over 43,272 tons of ash loaded with radiation and chemicals into the air and landing on a huge area.
Fury in Southern California
The DOE subterfuge, designed to avoid public scrutiny, boomeranged and was greeted with disbelief and anger by citizens and public health organizations alike. Longtime cleanup activists, newly galvanized parents with sick children and area political leaders have weighed in vigorously.
“The new proposal to only clean up the site to a supposed “open space” standard, so that thousands of times higher concentrations of contaminants should be allowed to remain because people would supposedly only be on the property a few hours at a time for hiking, is indefensible,” wrote Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition to Jones January 27. “It isn’t “open space” where we live and work nearby. If the site isn’t cleaned up, contamination will continue to migrate to where people like us live, 24/7. We are especially at risk when SSFL burns in wildfires, as it did in November during the Woolsey Fire that started and burned most of SSFL.”
The Rocketdyne-Woolsey fire reinforced the outrage young mother Melissa Bumstead feels about DOE’s self-given absolution when it comes to leaving its toxins in SSFL dirt and groundwater. The passionate parent, who minces no words, has inspired over 582,000 people to sign her Change.org petition No more kids with cancer: clean up the Santa Susana Field Lab.
“The Department of Energy has no objections for our community to drink partial well water, as some do in Simi Valley,” Bumstead wrote in an open letter to DOE on her Parents vs. SSFL Facebook page January 27. “Your actions say that it’s safe for our children to play in the dust, blown off an environmental disaster, at parks. That our pregnant women have no risk to their developing babies as they hike in the hills below the site. That the smoke and ash from the Woolsey Fire, a fire that began at the Santa Susana Field Lab, posed no additional risks of exposing our community to chemical and radioactive contamination.”
Bumstead’s eight year old daughter Grace has bravely battled, and beaten, childhood leukemia repeatedly that her mother blames on SSFL. Parents with similar experiences have gelled into a force heretofore not seen in the battle of Rocketdyne that this reporter has covered for 21 years.
“Do you truly tend to finalize your current EIS, despite ALL of this?” Bumstead continued in her open letter. “Because if you do, you will find out how truly strong our community is. We refuse to have our basic human rights violated. We refuse to allow you to continue to cause avoidable cancers by contamination within your capacity to clean. We refuse to have to bury parents, children, or any of our people any more. We refuse your EIS.”
Strong words. It appears they are being heard in halls of power.
Hot Zone of Power
“I am deeply disappointed with the Department of Energy’s proposed clean-up decision, which breaks the department’s prior commitments under the Administrative Orders on Consent (AOCs),” said Congresswoman Julia Brownley in a January 20 press release. ”Clean-up of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory is a high public health and safety priority, and my involvement with the clean-up goes back to my time in the California Assembly as a principal co-author of SB990, state legislation to require the full clean-up. I urge the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to ensure that the AOCs are upheld.”
Congressmember Brad Sherman also released a statement saying, “The AOC is a binding agreement between the federal government and the state of CA. Under the AOC, those who live near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory are entitled to a full cleanup of the contaminated site. It is unacceptable that the U.S. Department of Energy would propose anything less and walk away from previously agreed upon standards. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control should require the full cleanup called for in the AOC.”
Brownley and Sherman were wise to address DTSC in their statements, as the agency has long been exposed as a Toxic Department and tool of the polluters at SSFL. But the only way DTSC will stand up to Trump’s DOE is for Newsom to make the heads of DTSC’s SSFL site stand down and be rotated out of their positions immediately. And even more importantly, install a DTSC Director that can really fix the broken agency. DTSC Director Barbara Lee was removed earlier this year, with Safer Consumer Products Deputy Director Meredith Williams now serving as Acting Director.
What won’t bode well is if the new governor dismisses these demands for SSFL’s cleanup to background once Boeing and its lobbyists try to get his ear, which they so successfully did with former governor and Boeing lap dog Jerry Brown.
Decades of DOE Dirty Deeds
President Trump is a piker at prevarication when compared to DOE’s history of malfeasance at SSFL. One of many examples includes the energy department deliberately trying to undermine its own agreed-to cleanup by funding a rump anti-remediation “astroturf” faction to the tune of $34,100 as EnviroReporter.com exposed in 2016 in Dept. of Energy secretly funding front group to sabotage its own Santa Susana Field Lab cleanup. DOE retained an option to pay $68,200 of taxpayer funds more to this “greenwashing” group.
Devious behavior and outright deception aren’t the only arrows in DOE’s quiver. It also has proven incompetent as well making it more like the present presidential executive. Back in 1999, this reporter had to point out to DOE where the hottest place in a soon-to-be-decommissioned Space Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP) reactor pit was during a multi-agency inspection with the press invited.
“Hey guys, check this out,” I called out above the clamor in the reactor vault during the inspection. “This plate [over the removed reactor core] is hotter than anything else in here. Why aren’t you folks testing this area?”
CBG’s Dan Hirsch, also on the inspection tour in his role of longtime community cleanup leader, looked grim. “What do you make of this, Dan?” I asked as Hirsch glowered at my monitor. “That we’ve been testing in all the wrong places,” he said softly.
DOE knew then, as DOE knows now, where all the goo is. Indeed, we all do ever since the Obama Administration’s EPA received $41.5 million to conduct a comprehensive background survey and test all of Area IV. The maps of the radiation are as colorful as they are horrifying, knowing that the plan for the place is a park, a profoundly bad idea.
Breaking the Law
Cleanup advocates claim that DOE’s FEIS is flat out illegal, violating the legally-binding AOC cleanup agreement and at least two other environmental laws.
“The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that the public be given a meaningful opportunity for formal review of and comment about a draft EIS, followed by detailed responses to those comments by the publishing agency,” points out PSR-LA. “This is to ensure that no actions be taken that were not first available for public scrutiny, and to engage surrounding communities in the decision making process…Instead, DOE has issued a virtually new EIS, in the guise of a FEIS, with no formal opportunity for review, comment, and agency response, in violation of the NEPA requirements.”
Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition adds that, “The alternative chosen in the FEIS, cleaning up to a supposed “open space” standard, was not even considered, identified, analyzed, or discussed in the draft EIS that was made available for public review and formal written comment and oral testimony at the EIS hearings. In fact, nearly 60% of the entire FEIS is new material that the public has never seen before and never had a chance to comment on in the DEIS process.”
DOE attempts to justify all the new material by saying that the Final EIS, “was revised to reflect the Grant Deeds of Conservation Easement and Agreement executed by Boeing and North American Land Trust, which restrict future land use of Boeing’s property to open space, including the property DOE is cleaning up.” However, DOE’s Draft EIS had in fact already noted Boeing’s declared intention, destroying DOE’s argument for the drastic revision of its EIS.
DOE’s FEIS violates the AOC, which requires a cleanup to background levels of contamination. DOE says it will only clean up two percent of its mess, which also violates the AOC provision that contamination may not be disposed of onsite. Another major AOC violation concerns the use of biological exemptions, with the groups noting that the Biological Opinion in DOE’s FEIS wasn’t included in its Draft EIS, so the public could not comment on it, which also violates NEPA.
PSR-LA’s letter states that DOE’s Biological Opinion violates the AOC. “DOE breached the AOC by failing to request consultation with the US Fish & Wildlife Service for cleaning up Area IV and the Northern Buffer Zone to the standards outlined in the AOC. Instead, they requested consultation for an action that would violate the AOC (leaving 98% of the contamination). Furthermore, the Biological Opinion makes no jeopardy determination, which is required for any AOC exception to kick in.”
The groups also state that DOE’s FEIS violates Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) because DOE does not have the authority to decide how much the contamination it created will be cleaned up and RCRA gives that authority to DTSC as the regulator.
Should Trump’s DOE succeed at sinking the SSFL cleanup and trump the city of Los Angeles, the state of California and concerned citizens, there is still one last line of defense against a future Glow in the Dark Park – investigative journalism. The kind of investigative that infuriates scoundrels like Trump and his Department of Energy which perfected the art of ‘fake news’ and foisted it upon a slumbering and apathetic America.
The end game for DOE and its polluting partners Boeing and NASA is finally being rid of the place having successfully greenwashed the dangerous site.
Once full public access is granted, investigative journalism will follow the clues left from years and reams of data generated by government reports and analyzed by EnviroReporter.com to further expose the dangers of SSFL with ever more compelling forms of investigation.