Chaparral-choked lab roads remain uncut where fire started one year ago, generating over 43,000 tons of radioactively-impacted smoke that included extremely poisonous Polonium-210
By Michael Collins
The monstrous Woolsey Fire erupted exactly one year ago today at Boeing’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) and began its hellacious march to Malibu. EnviroReporter.com’s Nov. 20, 2018 exposé Smoke Screen – Woolsey Fire Contamination Cover-up determined that 43,272 tons of radiation-impacted smoke was generated by SSFL’s brush alone and sent skyward.
Now, EnviroReporter.com has discovered that some of SSFL’s most wildfire vulnerable roads appear to violate fire code due to excessive grass and brush growing up to, and in some cases through, fire roads in the southern 40 percent of the lab called the Southern Buffer Zone (SBZ). The Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD) signed off on Boeing’s brush clearance on July 4, when the SBZ was still possibly not up to code.
EnviroReporter.com has previously reported that Boeing itself found radionuclides in Woolsey Fire smoke on its property including the highly poisonous Polonium-210 (Po-210), a substance 250,000 times more lethal than hydrogen cyanide. The Po-210 was found in two separate sensors in the SBZ near where Boeing allows hikes.
Should brush clearance at SSFL be ignored or done poorly, Southern California could again face more uncontrollable flames and smoke impacted by radiation and toxic chemicals. The former Rocketdyne facility, until completely remediated, will remain a threat to all in its fire shadow, including the tony neighborhoods Bell Canyon, Brandeis-Bardin, Runkle Canyon, Calabasas and Malibu.
Nearly 97,000 acres were torched over the Woolsey Fire’s 13 day rampage that cost three lives. 1,643 structures burned down including 400 homes, adding to a staggering $6 billion worth of damage. Even though it started at 2,849-acre SSFL in eastern Ventura County, the Woolsey Fire became the largest and most destructive fire in Los Angeles County history.
[SEE RELATED GALLERY: Woolsey Fire One Year Anniversary]
EnviroReporter.com has uncovered evidence which shows that roads in SSFL’s 1,140 acre SBZ, where the Woolsey Fire roared through Nov. 8, 2018, are lined by combustible grasses and chaparral in violation of Ventura County Fire Code. “[R]equirements are 100-feet of vegetation clearance from structures and 10-feet for road access,” according to the Ventura County Fire Hazard Reduction Program (FHRP).
Failure to keep fire roads clear of vegetation in highly prone wildfire areas like SSFL and its especially flammable SBZ make it almost impossible for fire engines to maneuver if the sides of usually one lane fire roads are aflame. That concern seemed alleviated back in July. As EnviroReporter.com noted in its July 12 feature Radiation Requiem – 60 Years After America’s Worst Nuclear Meltdown, “Fire clearance documentation showing SSFL to be in compliance with the Fire Hazard Reduction Program was issued July 4, 2019, a mere 239 days after the Woolsey Fire had swept through 80 percent of the lab with Boeing’s firefighting response virtually invisible according to local firefighters on the scene, as noted in a January 2019 Los Angeles Times article.”
Photos found on various Facebook pages tell a different story – that the SBZ appears to have been mostly uncut with the areas that are shorn seeming to fall far short of the 10-foot cutback requirement. Indeed, photo comparisons from before and after the July 4 certification by VCFD indicate that much of the SBZ’s fire road system had not been cut back at all.
This presents a potentially grave danger to anyone living in the fire and smoke shadow of the former Rocketdyne facility where the country’s worst partial nuclear meltdown occurred in 1959, releasing more radiation offsite from an experimental reactor’s unfortified building than the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island did in 1979.
Smoke from SSFL brush in the Woolsey Fire contained multiple radionuclides of concern as EnviroReporter.com reported in July 2019:
Woolsey Fire smoke sampled by Boeing had radioactive Beryllium-7 at both stations like the Po-210 as well as the radioisotope Thorium-232. Sampling Station #5 also detected Thorium-230 in the air during the fire period. In nuclear Area IV, which borders the SBZ, there existed an Advanced Epithermal Thorium Reactor according to DOE which could explain the presence of radioactive thorium isotopes.
Polonium-210 was detected at least three times in SSFL groundwater and once in soil in 1989. It is amazing that this virulent radionuclide can be detected at all considering its short half-life of 138.4 days but sources for it existed at Area IV.
New information provided April 16 by California EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the state agency charged with overseeing the SSFL cleanup, indicates that there could be a toxic problem with SSFL ambient air without any smoke. One possible carcinogen, ethylbenzene, was found in lab air at levels 590 times the national median for the monocyclic aromatic hydrocarbon used to produce plastic. Ethylbenzene inhalation has caused kidney, testicular, lung and liver tumors in rats and mice.
Also found in the ambient air in the second quarter of 2018 in Area IV of the lab was carbon disulfide. The industrial and chemical solvent, linked to chronic and acute forms of carbon disulfide poisoning, was detected in 7 of 59 air samples.
Even with EnviroReporter.com’s July 2019 coverage of fire prevention problems at SSFL, which included extensive evidence of apparent violations of Ventura County Fire Code, subsequent photos of the SBZ show that the vegetation threat remains.
The Woolsey Fire demonstrated why safety rules at SSFL are so critical. Yet one of the only SSFL safety plans publicly available, a November 2008 SSFL Area IV Emergency Readiness Assurance Plan, tended to downplay any threats.
“Emergency preparedness and readiness at Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) is maintained at a level commensurate with the hazards,” the nine page plan said. “Funding remains adequate in view of the low hazards associated with the SSFL.”
This amazing statement was made three years after the 2005 Topanga Fire roared through the former Rocketdyne facility on its way to scorching 23,396 acres. “Low hazards,” indeed.
At least a June 2011 safety plan offered some practical advice especially important in areas where dirt lanes don’t have 10 feet of brush clearance off the side of the road. “Vehicles and equipment will not idle or park in areas where catalytic converters may ignite vegetation,” the 211 page plan read. “Workers will be aware that that the buildup of brush or grass on the catalytic converter poses a significant fire hazard.”
Not cutting back brush 10 feet on either side of the SBZ’s roads could have had tragic consequences June 27. One photograph shows a pickup truck that has been parked off a SBZ fire road on top of unshorn tinder dry grass next to a group of people clueless to the danger. Luckily, the truck’s hot engine, muffler or catalytic converter didn’t catch the grass on fire and set off Woolsey Fire II.
[SEE RELATED GALLERY: 2019 SSFL Continued Apparent Fire Code Violations]
Luck is not a sustainable wildfire policy but that’s what it will take if there’s no adequate brush clearance at SSFL. Before and after photos of SBZ roads since VCFD’s approval show the same unshorn plants only larger and drier. The same SBZ access road had the same weeds and plants bordering it June 27 as it did after the July 4 fire department approval as evidenced by Facebook images from August 23 and September 3.
October 16 photos document what appears to be called a “Sunset & Sip” hike through the Southern Buffer Zone with libations awaiting participants at the end of the stroll. Instead of scything golden grasses hard on the SBZ road, Boeing served golden lagers to hikers, yet another attempt by the company to sell SSFL’s contaminated land as safe.
In places where brush cutting along the road does appear to have taken place, it seems that each side of the SBZ road was trimmed out to five feet on each side, not the required ten.
Further photographic evidence of SSFL’s overgrown brush violating fire code includes a Halloween shot of people on a road bordered on each side by five feet high chaparral with a rocket test stand visible in the distance. Any firefighting apparatus or strike team attempting to use this road fighting a wildfire in the SBZ could be trapped and killed.
This is why fire codes exist in the first place. Protecting lives, especially those of first responders, is the first priority of fire and safety rules and flouting the very basics of brush clearance defeats them entirely.
Despite the billions Boeing has lost on its grounded 737 Max planes that were involved in two fatal 2019 crashes, it still has enough money to cut brush back so firefighters have half a chance defending its contaminated property. No amount of crocodile tears and bonus cuts to overpaid executives can excuse gross and imminent endangerment of people, property and the environment.
A November 5 Facebook photo entry showed a new greenhouse-type structure recently built near the entrance of SSFL in Area I to germinate oaks for planting in the SBZ. Chaparral and golden grasses grew nearly up to the structure even though fire code dictates 100 feet minimum clearance. Apparently the Ventura County Fire Department missed this violation too.
No one wants to criticize the incredibly brave men and women of any fire department, let alone one as gallant and effective as the invaluable VCFD. More than likely the fault of this potential flaming fiasco lies with Boeing since the company, and not the fire department, is responsible for following the fire code and cutting that brush.
Enforcing strict adherence to the fire code could, however, save firefighter lives and resources. That way the next fire at SSFL will at least not force firefighters to forge roads blocked by flames in order to do their heroic jobs. Failing that, the public is on its own and wouldn’t be unwise in getting powerful home HEPA filter air cleaning machines and breathing facemasks rated N95 and above. And staying out of Boeing 737 Max planes.
GALLERY: Woolsey Fire One Year Anniversary