Most chemical contamination allowed to remain in deal excluding public and forbidding lawsuits against Boeing ensuring SSFL will never be remediated
News & Analysis
[UPDATED JUNE 8]
CalEPA and Boeing cut a secret backroom deal last month that will allow the majority of toxic contamination to remain in place at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), breaking their legally binding 2007 Consent Order agreement to clean up the site.
Limits on some of the deadliest chemicals have been increased by hundreds to thousands of times and vast areas of the lab, which suffered at least three partial nuclear meltdowns in its decades of operation, are now left to be undisturbed even though riven with hazardous chemicals and radiation.
After promising the public for years that it would hold Boeing to the 2007 Consent Order and not conduct any clandestine talks to gut the cleanup, CalEPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) did just that.
“We don’t have a lot of tolerance for having a negotiation,” CalEPA’s secretary for environmental protection Jared Blumenfeld told a Simi Valley audience in February 2020 when he was still claiming to represent the community’s interests. “All the meetings that I go to like, ‘are we opening up the Consent Order?’ The answer is no.”
The answer was actually yes. DTSC opened negotiations with Boeing and ripped up the 2007 Consent Order, sabotaging the cleanup demands of hundreds of thousands of residents living near SSFL and beyond as well as elected officials who represent the area.
Blumenfeld’s lies gave the hyper-vigilant SSFL cleanup community some hope that the cleanup agreements would be upheld and enforced, and who could blame them? Blumenfeld laid the assurances on thick.
“What we have in front of us, which I’ll describe, is agreements,” Blumenfeld said at the 2020 meeting. “And we’re really not here to negotiate; this is not a negotiation, this is about implementation.”
The result now is a complete gutting of the remediation of the 2,850-acre former aerospace and experimental nuclear reactor complex that is grossly polluted with chemical and radioactive contaminants.
Not only are limits increased on cancer-causing chemicals by thousands of times, the State has also agreed to never sue Boeing over its galaxy of goo ever again, all of which was never put to public comment.
Instead, the community was treated to a barrage of PR spin May 9 celebrating the cleanup death-blow despite it being phony, non-existent victory. Even this reporter, who has covered SSFL’s toxic goo since 1998, was congratulated by a well-wisher on the supposed triumph after California Gov. Gavin Newsom trumpeted the news.
“Santa Susana Field Lab is one of our nation’s most high-profile and contentious toxic cleanup sites,” Newsom said in a statement May 9. “For decades, there have been too many disputes and not enough cleanup. Today’s settlement prioritizes human health and the environment and holds Boeing to account for its cleanup.”
The DTSC director echoed the governor’s comments. “This Santa Susana cleanup framework avoids further delays and cost of litigation and resolves ongoing disputes that have historically bogged down progress, while clearing the path for strong protections for people and the environment,” said Dr. Meredith Williams. “As we move forward, DTSC will hold Boeing and the other responsible parties – NASA and DOE – accountable to ensure this cleanup is completed on a tight timeline and based on the best available science.”
What Williams didn’t explain was that the delays were entirely DTSC’s and Boeing’s fault and that the “best available science” weakened SSFL standards by thousands of times. This Orwellian tactic – saying the exact opposite of what the truth is – has been DTSC pro forma for years but Williams has brought it to new lows.
DTSC did not respond to an EnviroReporter.com request for comment on this story. Indeed, while content to bombard this online news organization with its notices, DTSC has repeatedly ignored media queries from us about SSFL for years.
Blumenfeld, never explaining his fabrications in 2020 to the community, also doubled down on what a great deal this cleanup-killing agreement really is in the same DTSC press release.
“No community should have to worry that their soil and water are contaminated with toxic chemicals and radioactive waste,” Blumenfeld opined. “Boeing, as well as NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy, are now under binding agreements that compel a science-based, stringent cleanup of the soil and water at Santa Susana.”
That, too, was a lie, and especially painful one as Blumenfeld had been trusted by the cleanup community, a trust he apparently used to tamp down any suspicions he was double dealing with Boeing. The numbers, however, don’t lie. Blumenfeld dealt and everyone but Boeing lost.
Take It to the Limits
Buried in the 850-page report that accompanied this decision after 15-months of surreptitious negotiations are unsound science sleights of hand that are designed to gut the cleanup in several crucial ways. They are clever tricks that weren’t completed by accident or by government dopes.
The allowed levels of contamination are called Risk Based-Screening Levels (RSBL) which are limits that would allow a suburban residential garden with a person eating its produce. These limits are supposed to keep the fatal cancer risk to a theoretical resident on SSFL land to one in a million.
The standard, for example, of deadly polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), called the PCB TEQ (toxic equivalency factor), has been weakened by a factor of 21 times. That means it is less than 5 percent as protective as the standard agreed to in the legally-binding 2007 Consent Order.
PCBs are highly carcinogenic chemical compounds, now outlawed, and have extensively contaminated SSFL.
Dioxin is also a carcinogen and a developmental toxicant. The most potent form of this colorless solid with no discernible smell is 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). The secret DTSC agreement with Boeing allows it to leave 21 times as much TCDD in the soil, dirt that the company sells as future parkland safe for recreators.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs) plague SSFL. Animal studies link PAHs to bladder, skin, liver, stomach and lung cancers. The PAH benzo(k)fluoranthene RSBL standard has been gutted by a factor of 2,361 times.
“Benzo[k]fluoranthene produced tumors after lung implantation in mice and when administered with a promoting agent in skin-painting studies,” says the USEPA. “Equivocal results have been found in a lung adenoma assay in mice. Benzo[k]fluoranthene is mutagenic in bacteria.”
CalEPA’s DTSC went above and beyond to make sure that Boeing would only have to clean up just a fraction of their flora and fauna-impacting goo. Just in case the eviscerated RSBLs aren’t enough, the secret agreement allows a “multiplier” of 5 (five) in the top two feet of SSFL’s dicey dirt. Meaning that any RSBL limit is multiplied five times making it five times less protective.
That would increase benzo(k)fluoranthene’s former RSBL, agreed to by the State and Boeing in 2007, by a factor of 11,805 times in the dirt that matters the most – the top layer where picnickers will lay down their blankets.
But if that weren’t enough, each and every poison identified with an RSBL at the infamous lab will have its former standard weakened by a factor of 100 (one hundred) if there is “moderate” biological significance, which pretty much covers the entirety of SSFL.
That means future picnickers, or any unsuspecting person, under an oak tree or sitting on anything even near a blade of grass, could be exposed to benzo(k)fluoranthene, for example, at 236,100 times its former RSBL or safe standard.
And that is just one of thousands of toxic chemicals of which Newsom’s CalEPA has disemboweled the standards while still having the temerity to declare victory for the community. Few in it were fooled.
Won’t Get Fooled Again
“You have done a deal that will hurt people,” said Dr. Daniel Hirsch, director of Committee to Bridge the Gap which has doggedly fought for cleanup of SSFL since 1989. Hirsch was given just two minutes to make his remarks at a DTSC Zoom meeting discussing the secret done-deal agreement June 2. “People will die because of this.”
“Unless people fight back, more and more people will be hurt close by,” Hirsch added. Hirsch, and a team of cleanup activists at Parents Against SSFL, crunched the numbers hidden in the hundreds of pages DTSC and Boeing agreed upon without public knowledge or input. Their powerful – and fact checked by this reporter – “Broken Promises” presentation is available here.
The new agreement does have one final step where the public can fight back. All that SSFL goo has to go somewhere and that means into the waterways of Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
And for that to work for the polluter means getting rid of contamination rules of a rain runoff permit at the Regional Water Quality Control Board – Los Angeles Region which will vote on the Boeing-CalEPA Memo of Understanding (MOU) at a meeting in Ventura at the government complex on South Victoria Avenue Thursday morning, June 9.
[JUNE 8 UPDATE – Parents Against SSFL was going hold a peaceful protest of these outrages and has encouraged people to show up at what could be one of the most important SSFL demonstrations in years if not ever on June 9 but that has been put on hold depending on when the water board next meets. The group’s updated press release regarding this delay, and actions the public can take right now, are at the end of this article. EnviroReporter.com will again update this article in comments as the new meeting date and any more relevant information crosses our virtual desks to keep the community and reader informed.]
When this reporter began writing about Rocketdyne in 1998, we called my first cover story “Hot Zone” at Los Angeles magazine. Now, 24 years later, we know much much more about the contamination in and around SSFL, with much of it uncovered by EnviroReporter.com. The title now would more accurately be “Killing Zone”.
The environmental outrage foisted upon Southern Californians, fronted by Blumenfeld and Williams and fueled by Boeing, is profound and devastating. The harshest sanctions should be the legal response to this complete betrayal of thousands of people who these inept and corrupt government entities have lied to for years.
There are, however, a new generation of people that have come to the fore protesting the terrible injuries – and death – being dealt them that they believe is because of the continuing escape of radiation and chemicals from SSFL. One of them is Melissa Bumstead.
“Do you remember in the documentary that I was part of, In the Dark of the Valley?” asked Bumstead in a June 6 YouTube video. “There’s a scene with the water board, the Los Angeles Water Quality Control Board, and it was after the Woolsey Fire. And they could not find any link between the radioactive and highly toxic contamination that was found in the rainwater runoff from the Santa Susana Field Lab – it was when we had those big rains after the Woolsey Fire – that expert panel thought it was because of (burnt) telephone poles.
“That’s why there was radioactive contamination, not because of the massive amounts of nuclear accidents on the site, not because of the 800,000 gallons of TCE that was ‘lost into the soil and into the groundwater.’ Not because of any of the carcinogenic chemicals that are probably the same type that caused my daughter’s leukemia, because it’s a chemical cancer. No, the water board’s ‘expert panel’, really it was Boeing’s expert panel, couldn’t find any link, because that water board will tell you, again if you watch the documentary, they say very clearly; they are paid by Boeing.”
Even with the best and heroic efforts by folks like Bumstead and Hirsch, fallout in the future from this butchery of the former Rocketdyne lab cleanup will be multi-generational. More kids will get sick from cancer and die. More fires will spread tons of radioactive ash all over Southern California when the unremediated SSFL goes up in flames again – and again and again – as it did in the 2018 Woolsey Fire.
Property values may be impacted in lab-adjacent Runkle Canyon, Bell Canyon and the Brandeis Bardin property through which much of SSFL drains. The majority of the lab empties down into the Los Angeles River making its contamination available to millions downstream from a watercourse at the heart of a metropolitan makeover.
And all the while the lab itself will be presented as a sanctuary of nature in a sea of concrete when actually it is the once-pristine sacred land of the Chumash violently and disrespectfully obliterated toxically save for one sacred cave. Now, the very last vestige of truth and justice has been extinguished by a government bold enough to tout its conspiracy of contamination as a finally reached goal.
[UPDATED JUNE 8 Press release from Parents Against SSFL – partially redacted]
UPDATED: PRESS RELEASE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: JUNE 8, 2022
RE: Local governments asked for the Board to postpone a vote on Boeing’s Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). They expressed serious concerns with the MOU and Settlement Settlement Agreement between Boeing and the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). The planned community protest before the Water Board hearing, organized by Parents Against Santa Susana Field Lab, will NOT take place on June 9.
Letters to Renee Purdy, executive officer of the Los Angles Regional Water Quality Control Board, were sent from the following. Copies of the letters can be found at www.parentsagainstssfl.com/june92022
Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks
Ventura County, Office of County Counsel
Los Angeles Supervisor Shiela Kuehl
Los Angeles City Councilmember John Lee
City of Los Angeles, City Attorney Office
The MOU would have allowed the Boeing Company to release unlimited and unregulated amounts of toxic chemicals from the Santa Susana Field Lab into the Los Angeles River and Ventura County’s Calleguas Creek Watershed, indefinitely. It would expose residents to dangerous contamination through drinking water, crop irrigation, and recreation- in addition to harming wildlife.
Organizations that oppose Boeing’s MOU include:
Physicians for Social Responsibility, Los Angeles
Parents Against Santa Susana Field Lab
The Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation
Friends of Fieldworkers, Inc.
Conejo Climate Coalition
California Environmental Justice Coalition
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
Environmental Justice Committee for Water
Coalition for Environmental Equity and Economics
Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice
Committee to Bridge the Gap