Runkle Canyon radiation report spells trouble

by Michael Collins

Ventura County Reporter – February 19, 2009

Nearly 50 people filled Simi Valley City Hall chambers late last month in a much-anticipated Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) meeting about environmental conditions in Runkle Canyon. The 1,595-acre property is where KB Home hopes to build 461 homes. The project, approved in 2004 by the city, has been stalled for four years by revelations that radiological, chemical and heavy metal contamination may have made this picturesque place too polluted to develop.

The gathering included a local residents group called the Radiation Rangers that opposes the development. The meeting was to discuss a “response plan” prepared by the developer to address, in part, Runkle Canyon radiation contamination first exposed by the Reporter (See cover story, “Which Way the Wind Blows,” March 17, 2005.) The response plan is part of a “voluntary cleanup agreement” signed between KB Home and DTSC in April 2008.

Runkle Canyon abuts the Boeing-owned Santa Susana Field Laboratory. Commonly known as Rocketdyne, the astronomically polluted 2,850-acre lab is undergoing a multi-million-dollar cleanup under the direction of DTSC scheduled for completion in 2017.

Concerns over the development include worries over radiation-impacted dust that would be made airborne by construction, heavy metals flowing down Runkle Canyon Creek through the heart of the development, and radiological contamination from Rocketdyne that may have fallen out on the property.

The prevailing southeasterly winds in Simi Valley usually blow seven to 11 miles per hour, according to September 2008 Weather Channel data. The Reporter previously estimated that more than 100 tons of strontium-90-impacted dust would be generated during construction and possibly drift and fall out over the San Fernando Valley and beyond into Los Angeles County.

Residents and activists had hoped that the response plan would address their concerns. However, the 37-page plan and public meeting did little of the sort. Indeed, just one city official, assistant city manager Laura Behjan, attended the meeting, and no representative from KB Home lab contractor nor the author of the response plan, Dade Moeller & Associates, was present. Telephone and e-mail messages to Dade Moeller regarding their absence were not answered by deadline.

Questions about the response plan were addressed by residents, this reporter and Dan Hirsch, president of the Santa Cruz-based nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap. Hirsch first discovered high radiation readings in Runkle Canyon in late 2004. Thirty years ago, Hirsch broke the news that Rocketdyne suffered a partial meltdown in 1959, which released hundreds of times more radiation than Three Mile Island did in 1979.

“I don’t know whether [Runkle Canyon] poses a danger, and I also don’t know if it’s safe,” Hirsch said, addressing the DTSC project manager for the site, Norm Riley. “I simply don’t believe that the plan put forward by the developer’s contractor will get that answered. It is not a piece of science; it is a piece of, essentially, propaganda designed to help the developer and the contractor to get this project approved.”

Hirsch cited numerous problems with the response plan that includes removing from the canyon an oozing toxic tar-like substance that contains benzene. Another of the developer’s contractor’s, GeoCon, had told the developer about the toxic goo in the summer of 2005 — more than a year after the city of Simi Valley had signed off on the Runkle Canyon Environmental Impact Report — yet did not inform the city of it or clean it up.

Hirsch contends that the city was snookered by the developer’s EIR. Simi Valley based its EIR approval on a 2003 summary report by Impact Sciences that read, “Tritium and strontium-90 were not detected in any of [the] soil and groundwater samples at levels above normal background levels or at levels considered to pose a health risk.”

“I want to make clear, I’m not blaming the city for this,” Hirsch said while narrating a slide presentation for the DTSC and the audience. “It was told to them by the developer, by the applicant. But what it was told was false.

“Therefore, the statement in the EIR is completely false, and the decision that the city ended up having to make approving this development was therefore based on a false presumption.”

“‘Houston, we have a problem,’ which is what the city was told was not true,” Hirsch added. “The developer had not been candid and the entire project was approved based on false representation.”

Hirsch then zeroed in on Dade Moeller’s radiation plan and on the controversial company itself, whose namesake testified back in the 1990s that money spent on cleaning up Cold War-era nuclear facilities was being wasted since there would be a cure for cancer.

Hirsch also questioned the lab’s integrity and pointed out that it is a major Department of Energy (DOE) contractor. The area of Rocketdyne where most of the nuclear mishaps occurred was operated by the DOE, which is responsible for cleaning up the mess. It also borders Runkle Canyon, which leads Hirsch to believe that Dade Moeller shouldn’t be overseeing radiation sampling there.

“These concerns about a conflict of interest are without merit,” DTSC’s Riley was subsequently quoted as saying in the daily paper, which dismayed residents who demanded an explanation. Riley later said in an e-mail that “It is not an accurate quote.”

“It is up to the responsible party to select and pay for a consultant,” Riley continued. “The consultant selected by Runkle Canyon LLC is qualified to do the work. Our job as the oversight agency is to review the response plan, approve the plan when we are satisfied that it calls for the use of appropriate and objective, scientific procedures (we would not approve it otherwise), and oversee the performance of the work to make sure it is done correctly and in accordance with the approved plan. If those steps are followed there will be no bias in the data.”

Some of Hirsch’s harshest criticism was aimed at Dade Moeller’s plan to take a “tiny soil sample” every 19 acres based on the lab’s misconstruing of EPA standards regarding soil investigations of potentially polluted properties. The proximity of Runkle Canyon to Rocketdyne, and the fact that 58 soil samples in a previous test all read high for the leukemia-causing radionuclide strontium-90, were among several critical considerations that Dade Moeller ignored, according to Hirsch.

“If you want to hire someone to make your problem go away, you hire Dade Moeller,” Hirsch asserted. “That’s a generality, the reputation. If you read the actual report, I’m afraid it is completely reinforced. Every time you can manipulate an input, make a number go down, they do so.”

Dade Moeller was the go-to lab for a covert set of strontium-90 tests of Runkle Canyon’s soil in 2005, as this reporter previously uncovered. Those tests, which took just five soil samples, were later dismissed as useless by the California Department of Health Services, the very department that conducted the secret limited sampling with Dade Moeller.

Regardless, Riley estimates that KB Home will complete the response plan by late spring, and his department’s final assessment will be done by summer. If DTSC gives the nod, the city will probably tell KB Home that the coast is clear for development.

Even with so much on the line, the Simi Valley City Council absence from the meeting shouldn’t have rankled the residents, according to Behjan. “You can assure those concerned that I attended the meeting on Wednesday to represent the City Council’s interest in this issue, to hear what the commenters had to say, and to inform the City Council about the public’s concerns,” Behjan said. “We will be preparing a comment letter to DTSC to convey the City’s position that the issues raised at the public meeting [will] be considered and addressed.”

Extensive information on Runkle Canyon, including the response plan and how to comment on it, is available on Michael Collins’ Web site

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