Simi Valley city and citizens are still looking for answers about Runkle Canyon radiation
By Michael Collins
Last fall, spurred on by citizens alarmed at the impending development of picturesque Runkle Canyon and the cloud of strontium-90-laden dust it could launch over the Simi and San Fernando valleys, the Simi Valley City Council did something quite extraordinary – it asked for help.
City letters went out to three government agencies seeking answers about the high levels of the radionuclide Sr-90 in the soil of the broad canyon. The appeals to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), and California Department of Health Services (CDHS) requested “an independent review of data and reports related to potential or actual presence of strontium 90 in Runkle Canyon and to advise whether development of the sites poses a public health risk.”
Though the U.S. EPA and DTSC begged off, citing budgetary and expertise problems respectively, CDHS did tackle analyzing the Runkle Canyon environmental impact report (EIR) which was approved by the municipality in 2004. The CDHS conclusions were astonishing. The content in the city’s EIR regarding Sr-90, which had seemed to clear the site for development, was based on an earlier, 2003 report; upon review, Health Services found it “not considered useful.” CDHS then did its own analysis of testing data and declared the site safe, well under allowable regulatory levels. That is, according to one kind of state standard. Using EPA methodology, however, the numbers the department provided showed that levels of the leukemia-causing radionuclide in the dust generated by the project would result in a cancer risk 18 times higher than the developers claim.
These developments are pretty heady stuff for Rev. John Southwick, a minister who performs weddings at WeMarryYou.com and who has been battling this development since last July, when he wrote in an e-mail to CityBeat: “I am a Simi Valley resident, and a concerned citizen. What can we do?”
Southwick, along with neighbors Frank Serafine, Terry Matheney, and Patricia Coryell went into action and galvanized their neighbors into challenging City Hall. Coryell and Matheney created a website called StopRunkledyne.com which soon garnered mainstream media attention. Most impressively, these newly minted, mostly Republican activists convinced the city to take a fresh look at the Runkle Canyon EIR that they say ignores the obvious: the adjacent Rocketdyne facility may have polluted the place with radiation. The residents contend that more comprehensive tests of the soil must be done before construction commences.
Home building giants KB Home and Lennar plan to construct hundreds of homes about one-and-a-half miles away from the infamously polluted Santa Susana Field Laboratory, commonly known as Rocketdyne, site of the worst nuclear meltdown in American history. Beginning in the late 1940s, the lab conducted over 30,000 rocket engine tests and developed experimental nuclear reactors, one of which partially melted down in 1959 releasing hundreds of times more radiation than Three Mile Island did in 1979. Rocketdyne’s legacy has been grave chemical and radiological contamination.
Runkle Canyon sits beneath an 11-acre drainage that descends directly off the nuclear reactor area of the massive Rocketdyne complex. Fresh evidence that chemicals may have fouled the water in the canyon was discovered last Thanksgiving by hikers who espied an oily sheen in a gooey surface seep downhill from the Boeing-owned lab.
CDHS wrote the city November 8 that the “strontium-90 concentrations off-site will be less than 1/100,000 of the allowable regulatory airborne effluent concentrations,” for dust, yet based its numbers on guidelines meant for facilities licensed to handle radioactive material and not a residential development. With no explanation, the department declared that “while the Runkle Canyon site is not a ‘licensee,’ it is appropriate for purposes of determining health and safety to use the CDHS regulatory criteria.”
The “dose-based” methodology used by CDHS isn’t the actual way that the EPA determines the cancer risk associated with radiation. The EPA calculates the presumably safe levels of radionuclides by using “preliminary remediation goals,” or PRGs, which are calculated so that optimally no radionuclide will cause a fatal cancer in more than one in a million people.
Even though U.S. EPA declined to get involved in a comprehensive look at Runkle, it did supply the city a breakdown of all the testing of the canyon’s soil from 1999 to 2003. In a November 15 agency memorandum that included a list of 126 soil samples measured for Sr-90 concentrations, only nine of these samples were lower than the “one-in-a-million cancers” goal of the agency, while 117 others were higher than the PRG. The agency did note, however, that none of the samples exceeded the “one-in-10,000 fatal cancers” upper limit.
KB Home had claimed that it was satisfied that the Sr-90 numbers from previous soil samplings were “the highest level of environmental standards for any type of development.” Indeed, the developer informed the city that the .77-in-a-million fatal cancer risk due to strontium-90 exposure at Runkle, a number touted in the EIR, was incorrect due to a “typo” and was actually even lower at .26-in-a-million mortalities.
That low number doesn’t seem to jibe with the Sr-90 figure that CDHS calculated would be in the airborne dust, which is nearly five times the PRG. That would result in a mortality risk over 18 times what the corrected EIR states, according to CityBeat calculations based on EPA numbers. Asked for comment, KB Home could not explain this incongruity before this publication’s deadline.
“I’m not a scientist,” explained KB Home spokesman Keith Jajko, “but we’ll look into it.”
But even these CDHS figures didn’t satisfy the city’s demand for more solid information from the department. “We note that your response does not specifically address the question posted in our September 27 letter, wherein it was requested that your agency review the environmental impact documents and data referenced by concerned citizens that is found on the website EnviroReporter.com,” Simi Valley city manager Mike Sedell wrote to the department November 21. He was referring to this reporter’s website, which has covered the issue in conjunction with CityBeat. “As such, I am again requesting your agency to assist us by performing this review.”
CDHS declined to address the vast amount of data and documents on EnviroReporter.com, according to Sedell and Simi Valley Mayor Paul Miller, but stated that it would respond to specific questions derived from it. In January, Miller and Sedell invited Southwick and Serafine to come up with a list of questions for CDHS. After many consultations, the pair delivered a seven-page paper to Miller and Sedell February 28.
“We did receive the letter from the city of Simi Valley requesting us to respond to some questions and that’s what we will do,” said Lea Brooks, chief of the CDHS information section.
This pleases Southwick, who believes potential public health threats make Runkle Canyon a moral and spiritual issue. He noted that some of the most conservative clergy are now including environmental concerns in their Sunday sermons. “God made us stewards of this world and I am sure that he intended to have us take care of it,” he said.
“I told Mayor Miller that this may be the last very important thing I do in my lifetime,” added Southwick, who is 70. “He just looked at me and smiled and shook my hand.”