PSR-LA President Dr. Bob Dodge with SSFL community members Jeni Knack and her daughter Cora, Melissa and Chad Bumstead with their children Luke and Grace, and the three filmmakers, Nicholas Mihm, Derek Smith and Brandon Smith at the Ojai Film Festival where “In the Dark of the Valley” won another Best Documentary award November 7, 2021.

Award-winning documentary showcases mothers’ fight to clean up contaminated lab

Long are the shadows that creep over the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) on a late November afternoon. Not long are the memories of suffering associated with SSFL’s 2,850 acres straddling the hills overlooking the Simi and San Fernando valleys.

The place is lousy with environmental catastrophes like the partial nuclear meltdown in 1959, or in 1994 when those two scientists were blown up disposing of rocket fuel so explosive, they only left petroglyph-like outlines of their bodies in the boulders, or in 2018 when the Woolsey Fire started in nuclear Area IV and set aloft 43,272 tons of smoke and ash to drift and land on rich manses from Calabasas to Malibu.

The site was supposed to be fully cleaned up by 2017 but responsible parties Boeing, Department of Energy, and NASA have yet to begin. The California Dept. of Toxic Substances Control, which has oversight over the cleanup, has not enforced the cleanup agreements and is currently in secret negotiations with Boeing to cut a deal that activists contend will weaken the cleanup.

The entire nation will soon learn more about the SSFL saga thanks to a stunning new documentary called In the Dark of the Valley by director Nicholas Mihm which captures the stories of families deeply impacted by SSFL and their fight to get the site cleaned up.

The film has scooped up a raft of awards in a number of prestigious film festivals, winning Best Documentary at the Phoenix, Catalina, and Ojai Film Festivals as well as at the Angeles Documentaries. So successful has the film’s reception been that MSNBC Films acquired it and will premiere the documentary Sunday, November 14th at 10 p.m. ET, 7 p.m. PT. The In the Dark of the Valley trailer shows why this is a must-see event.

Produced by Mihm and brothers Brandon and Derek Smith, the 101-minute film is hands-down the finest work of its kind ever done on the place that used to be called Rocketdyne. The film follows the story of Melissa Bumstead, a West Hills resident whose daughter Grace was diagnosed with a rare leukemia in 2014. When Melissa met other mothers at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles whose children also had rare cancers – and lived nearby – she began a search for answers that led her to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

Grace’s courage in facing childhood leukemia is inspiring to watch. Seeing this amazing girl’s face light up as she gazes upon a Christmas tree is one of the most powerful quiet moments in the documentary.

Denise Duffield, Associate Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR-LA), is also featured in the film. Denise just happens to be my wife, editor and webmaster of, and I couldn’t be prouder of her.

In her role at PSR-LA, the filmmakers catch this radiant force of nature doing what she does so well – fight for the community and brook no nonsense from the powers of darkness that are determined to leave SSFL contaminated. Denise’s affection for the local community and her command of the issues are moving and impressive.

Melissa Bumstead’s activism has helped issue in a new era of fighting for cleaning up what has contaminated the valleys below. The stakes couldn’t be higher, as poignantly illustrated in the film by Simi Valley resident Lauren Hammersley. Hammersly’s daughter Hazel, 7, passed in 2018 from neuroblastoma which she strongly suspects may have been caused by the galaxy of toxic and radioactive contamination at SSFL.

Filmmakers Mihm and brothers Smith have not just created a masterpiece in their debut documentary, they have given voice to so many who have been affected by SSFL, to those who have fought for cleanup for years, and to generations to come that need to know what’s in the dark of the valley. There is Grace in this, literally, metaphorically and forever.


In the Dark of the Valley

Sunday, November 14th at 10 p.m. ET, 7 p.m. PT


25 Years of Award-Winning SSFL/Rocketdyne Reporting




    Due to the senseless tragedy that took place in Waukesha, Wisconsin this past Sunday,
    MSNBC has rescheduled its airing of In the Dark of the Valley. The film will re-air on:

    Friday, November 26th at 10pm ET / 7pm PT

    The documentary is also available on-demand on the MSNBC app, NBC app, and Hulu Plus.
    In the Dark of the Valley follows a group of Southern California mothers who discover that the nearby Santa Susana Field Laboratory is one of the most radioactive and chemically contaminated sites in the world – and neglect from the property owners may have exposed the community to decades worth of cancer-causing hazardous waste.

    In the Dark of the Valley - MSNBC Films

  2. My mom would have been so happy to see this story get this kind of attention. Bravo Denise! And Bravo to Lisa Rudin for working on this! Heck, bravo to everyone who’s kept this in the public eye!

    [Michael Collins responds: Julie Bien’s mother was (and is) Joan Trossman Bien, the only writing partner I’ve ever had. More accurately, I was her writing partner. Joan picked me to help her write our co-bylined Miller-McCune piece 50 Years After America’s Worst Nuclear Meltdown. Joan went on to create so many cool articles that collected them and has the honor of housing the Joan Trossman Bien Articles archive. Like her mother, Julie Bien is a whip smart writer who has a heart of gold, as does her dad and Joan’s husband, Steve. Thank you so much for this, Julie.]

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