Hot PropertyRunkle Canyon developers claim mysterious new state tests have erased previously high levels of Radioactive contamination

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles ValleyBeat – January 19, 2006

Much like Ahmanson Ranch, the huge housing development planned near the Los Angeles County border with Ventura that was instead turned into a park, proposed construction at Runkle Canyon faces its own troubles with toxins. This gorgeous parcel of craggy hills, golden grasslands, and majestic oaks lays next to the highly polluted Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) – otherwise known as Rocketdyne. In 2005, ValleyBeat reported that elevated levels of the radioactive isotope strontium-90 (Sr-90) were found across Runkle, possibly making it unsafe for housing development.

But now, California officials and developers are apparently claiming the strontium has mysteriously disappeared.

At a November 15 meeting of the U.S. Department of Energy, Phil Rutherford, SSFL’s manager of radiation safety, casually told this reporter that the California Department of Health Service (CDHS) had retested the Runkle property and that the levels of Sr-90 were all within background. “The strontium on Runkle Ranch, if it was there, is not there anymore,” Rutherford said.

This was a shocking pronouncement, considering the last known reports from Runkle Ranch. In 1998, developer GreenPark Runkle Canyon hired Phoenix-based QST Environmental to characterize the property. “Based on the analytical results of the soil samples, it would appear that there may have been some impact of radionuclides to the site from the Rocketdyne facility,” the QST report concluded.

The half-life of Sr-90 is over 28 years, meaning that it takes that long for the substance to decay to half its original amount. After the 1998 findings, subsequent sampling and testing of Runkle Canyon found leukemia-causing strontium-90 in amounts exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s average local background for Sr-90 by up to 237 times and 54 times the agency’s “preliminary remediation goal” (PRG) for the substance. The PRG is the level that the EPA calculates to be the presumably safe level for individual radionuclides.

Runkle Canyon’s 1,595 acres, which have already been approved for 461 upscale residences, sits on the southern border of Simi Valley, hot on the haunches of the radiological area of SSFL. Previous testing of the Runkle property showed the highest levels of Sr-90 in the areas closest to SSFL.

The 2,850-acre SSFL facility is the site of a partial nuclear reactor meltdown in 1959, serious reactor accidents in 1964 and 1969, and countless chemical and radiation mishaps and spills. The lab is undergoing a multi-million-dollar cleanup and corporate parent Boeing hopes to have the property one day released for unrestricted development. Spreading chemical and radiological contamination has impacted home building in the picturesque hills around the facility, including the failed Ahmanson Ranch project that tanked over toxic troubles revealed in ValleyBeat and sister publications since 2003.

But even after Ahmanson was secured as state parkland, a questionable and discredited retesting of that ranch’s polluted groundwater took place and detected none of the toxic rocket fuel oxidizer perchlorate that had sunk the development. Similarly, these new testing results at Runkle, which discount the danger of a deadly radionuclide, present a highly improbable set of results and conclusions. If these current testing results at Runkle become part of the permitting process, it could open the door to the creation of a sprawling new neighborhood of luxury homes. But questions remain about the tests.

Also surprising was that the Department of Health Services had not told of its new findings to other members of the SSFL Work Group, of which it is a member. The Work Group is a federal EPA-sponsored assemblage of government and community representatives charged with monitoring the cleanup of the Boeing lab. “To my knowledge there are no new developments on the Runkle development,” said Work Group member Jonathan Parfrey of Physicians for Social Responsibility in a January 10 e-mail.

“CDHS agreed during the Work Group public meeting to collect and analyze some soil samples,” said Lea Brooks, the CDHS chief public information officer in a January 11 e-mail. This agreement was the result of a meeting in Simi Valley last year where concerned residents expressed fear and frustration in reaction to the findings in Runkle Canyon. “(CDHS) collected five soil samples at the Runkle Canyon property on June 7, 2005. The soil samples were collected from locations approximating the five highest Sr-90 locations from previous soil sampling.”

The CDHS split these samples with Dade Moeller & Associates of Richland, Washington, a laboratory hired by the developer. “We only did those samples that the state was interested in because the state was the driver on this, of course,” said the lab’s point person on the sampling, Tracy Ikenberry. “They were the ones who wanted to do it.”

The results of the 2005 sampling were obtained by ValleyBeat through a Public Records Act request. They show the readings from Dade Moeller and from the CDHS state lab in Richmond. The retested locations were all radically lower in Sr-90 than in the previous tests conducted by GreenPark Runkle. In one spot tested, the state lab’s results were 490 times lower for Sr-90 than when it was tested in a 1999 survey. Oddly, the CDHS results for Sr-90 were from two-to-19 times less than the exact same split samples analyzed by Dade Moeller.

In July 1995, the U.S. EPA estimated that the average local background concentration for Sr-90 in the Santa Susana hills area was 0.052 picocuries per gram (pCi/g) for soil, which is a measurement of the normal presence of the radionuclide. Documents supplied in December 2005 by CDHS suggest that the average background for Sr-90 in “Western Area” soil, which includes Runkle Canyon, is 0.030 pCi/g. Each one of Dade Moeller’s readings is above Sr-90’s natural background at Runkle Canyon and even though that lab’s reading for the previously known hottest spot on the property is lower by nearly 30 times, it is still over eight times the background and nearly twice the EPA’s preliminary remediation goal for Sr-90.

This would seem to indicate that the strontium-90 problem in Runkle Canyon soil hasn’t been retested away. And, even though CDHS has strikingly lower results than even Dade Moeller, let alone the comprehensive sampling done from 1998 through 2003, the agency still claims not to have made any determinations regarding the area’s safety, even if it told Boeing’s Rutherford otherwise.

“CDHS is still evaluating why the June 7, 2005 sampling results were significantly lower than previous results for the five sampled locations. No conclusion has been reached at this time,” said Brooks.

That hasn’t stopped the developer from claiming otherwise, either. Though GreenPark Runkle didn’t return ValleyBeat requests for comment, it had plenty to say to a concerned Simi Valley resident via e-mail. “As to your question regarding environmental concerns at the site, according to stringent EPA safety standards, we are well below what is safe for residential development, which are the highest level of environmental standards for any type of development,” wrote Marlo Naber, GreenPark Runkle’s project representative, to a Simi resident on December 6. “These findings are the result of exhaustive studies for specified organic and inorganic chemicals conducted on the property over the past few years.”

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