‘CityBeat’ contributor Michael Collins wins a 2003 Los Angeles Press Club award for coverage of toxics issues that lead to a new state park at Ahmanson Ranch.

By Dean Kuipers

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – December 31, 2003

A little over 18 months ago, freelance journalist Michael Collins published a story in the LA Weekly about toxics at the Rocketdyne defense plant possibly migrating through the groundwater into a proposed 3,050-home mega-development on the Ahmanson Ranch on the L.A.-Ventura county border. Collins had been covering the slow revelation of massive pollution problems at Rocketdyne’s sprawling Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) since 1998, also writing in Los Angeles magazine. But, after Ahmanson had been in development for over 10 years, Collins began looking closer at some test-well pollution data that developers had insisted they could easily “mitigate.” Thus began a 2003 showdown that would eventually vindicate years of independent reporting on exactly how and why the ranch was polluted.

In December 2002, Collins wrote an extensive cover story called “Rocketdyne Ranch” for the Ventura County Reporter, a sister paper of L.A. CityBeat and ValleyBeat, on pollution migration into Ahmanson Ranch.

“The Ahmanson Ranch endgame saga began June 19 when Dennis Hawkins, senior planner for Ventura County, told a planning board meeting that he would instruct sub-contractors to check for pollutants in the groundwater under Ahmanson Ranch possibly emanating from SSFL,” Collins wrote in the Reporter. “The test results were shocking. The rocket fuel oxidizer, perchlorate, was found to be 14 times over what California currently considers safe for drinking water.”

Activists and area residents had demanded this test while holding copies of Collins’s Weekly story. Hawkins later admitted the piece had forced him to test the water, and thus began the slow grinding halt of the entire project.

After “Rocketdyne Ranch” went to press, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors rubber-stamped the Ahmanson development, and a scientific tussle ensued that went almost uncovered in the mainstream press. Though the Los Angeles Daily News covered toxic issues about the cleaning up of Rocketdyne itself, the News, the Ventura County Star, and the Los Angeles Times regarded the controversy over Ahmanson as an open space issue pushed by celebrities like director Rob Reiner, and largely deferred to Washington Mutual (WaMu) as a responsible corporate client.

Collins, however, honed in on the disturbing minutia of chemicals, radionuclides, testing methodologies, and geography that led increasing numbers of scientists and activists to insist Ahmanson was also likely to be heavily polluted. Collins brought the pieces to CityBeat and ValleyBeat in time for the papers’ launch in June 2003.

In a two-part series in CityBeat, Collins and former Reporter editor Sharon McKenna reported on scores of lawsuits brought against Rocketdyne parent Boeing by victims of cancers and other serious ailments which they believe were caused by migrating SSFL pollution in nearby Simi Valley. In late 2002, 18 wells in Simi Valley were found to also be loaded with perchlorate.

The cities of Los Angeles, Calabasas, Agoura Hills, and Malibu joined the environmentalist-open space group Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch in six different lawsuits to stop the development, partly due to unknown groundwater contamination and plans to simply destroy and forget this contaminated well. On June 21, Collins won first place at the 45th Southern California Journalism Awards for “Investigative/Series” for “Rocketdyne Ranch” and his other 2002 pieces. In August, Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, a staunch opponent of Ahmanson development, awarded Collins an official commendation from the county board of supervisors, recognizing his contribution to protecting public safety and challenging Ahmanson development.

Washington Mutual and its spokesman Tim McGarry had insisted that Collins’s reporting was flawed and the whole toxics issue was blown out of proportion right to the end. But suddenly, in the middle of recall election politicking that shook the state in August, then-Gov. Gray Davis set his sights on Ahmanson as a good spot for a big green victory to up his eco-quotient for the election, and the state made an offer to buy the property. WaMu quickly and quietly took the deal, losing out on the vast fortunes to be made off the development. On December 1, 2003, the ranch opened as a state park administered by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

“The acquisition of Ahmanson Ranch as parkland is a milestone in the history of California,” says Collins. “I just went up there to mountain bike about the place and there were so many wide-eyed people enjoying the Ranch as the new playground for millions of Californians. The wonderful activists, editors, and public officials who fought for this should also be commended. They did a hell of a job.”