By Michael Collins
Ventura County Reporter January 17, 2013
Aerospace giant Boeing plans to declare the former Rocketdyne site in the Simi Hills clean enough for public open space, even with recent findings of high radiation in the soil and continued chemical releases headed toward the Los Angeles River.
A new public relations campaign targeting local and national media outlets will recast the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) in a more positive light, according to documents revealed online and obtained by the Ventura County Reporter.
The plan seeks to erase SSFL’s infamously polluted past, which includes at least three partial meltdowns, countless spills and mishaps involving radiation and chemicals, and open burn pits where some of the most lethal toxins ever made were set ablaze. Now the soil and groundwater are highly contaminated.
The VCReporter is one of the media outlets targeted by the propaganda, as is the Ventura County Star. The online Northridge-Chatsworth Patch published one of the first of these pollution puff pieces (http://tinyurl.com/avqz3o3) on Jan. 2 placed by Boeing’s “greenwashing” public relations firm, Burbank-based Make Over Earth Inc., according to information obtained by the VCReporter.
The PR campaign, created by a company run by former Pulitzer prize-winning Los Angeles Times environmental reporter Gary Polakovic, aims to greenwash the pollution at the site, declaring SSFL an asset to the community. No longer will SSFL be the decades-old polluter that has spewed uncontrolled radiation, chemicals, heavy metals, PCBs and dioxins off its huge hillside site between the Simi and San Fernando valleys. It will be glorious open space and prime property for a park.
The Draft Media Campaign for the Santa Susana Field Laboratory” (read the full copy here: http://tinyurl.com/a7b7kcg) was created by Burbank-based Make Over Earth Inc. (http://www.makeoverearth.com) for Boeing and is dated Aug. 3, according to an image of the document obtained by the VCReporter. The plan begins:
“To help change public opinion about the SSFL site, we need to reach a diverse array of news media, ranging from journalists at local, state and national organizations who may reasonably be expected to have interest in the SSFL cleanup or Boeing’s corporate environmental initiatives, to environmental and industry trade publications. In addition, we need to reach new audiences via websites, social media and blogs.”
The targeted local press includes the Los Angeles Daily News, which broke the Rocketdyne meltdown story in 1989, as well as the Los Angeles Times, Simi Valley Acorn, Ventura County Star, Los Angeles Business Journal, Los Angeles magazine and the Ventura County Reporter.
The last two publications are curious choices as the magazine’s June 1998 cover story “Hot Zone” was the first article this reporter wrote about the lab’s pollution problems.
More curious still is targeting the Ventura County Reporter (http://tinyurl.com/bx9rb7z), which has provided extensive coverage in Ventura County of Rocketdyne and neighboring Runkle Canyon, where KB Homes aims to build hundreds of homes downhill from radiation-impacted Area IV, where the partial nuclear reactor meltdowns occurred in 1959, 1964 and 1969.
Dozens of radio shows, national newspapers and news services are marked for the ooze schmooze, as are popular and influential websites like LA Observed, Environmental Health News and, not surprisingly, Ron Kaye L.A., the former Daily News editor who distinguished himself in 2009 by publishing a screed by a self-professed Rocketdyne meltdown denier (http://tinyurl.com/b2kdtmz) who assumed the identity of 20 former workers to debunk the 1959 partial meltdown of the sodium reactor experiment as proof that the polluted property posed no public health menace.
“These media were targeted by their proximity to the SSFL site, past and potential interest in the SSFL cleanup or proximity to other Boeing facilities or spheres of influence,” the campaign brochure says. “Note: Media targets will evolve, contingent on outreach progress, personal relationships with journalists and developments at the SSFL site or with Boeing’s environmental initiatives.”
The program includes multiplying allies by “growing their stature” if they “endorse Boeing’s vision for open space at the SSFL site.” That is precisely what Boeing has been doing since 2009, when it offered to a cleanup obstructionist the money to fund a CAG that was ultimately approved by the Department of Toxic Substance Control on Sept. 21, over the outrage and protest of hundreds of people around SSFL.
“Third parties who endorse Boeing’s vision for open space at the SSFL site will be key to the media relations campaign,” the plan reads. “Third parties add credibility and authenticity, and blunt allegations of green-washing.”
Greenwashing is PR spin to make places like the old 2,850-acre Rocketdyne lab not look so bad, maybe even look good despite its history of multiple nuclear meltdowns, gross radiological and chemical pollution of the soil as well as so much TCE (trichloroethylene) in the groundwater that it would take tens of thousands of years to clean up.
Boeing turned off, in 2006, a trichloroethylene remediation system, capable of extracting just 10 gallons of TCE a year by venting it into the air, and now maintains that groundwater remediation decisions should be tempered with the ironic fact that no one in his or her right mind would use Rocketdyne’s groundwater anyway so why spend the money to remediate it?
“Journalists will look to third parties to truth-check the company’s message,” the campaign says. “The media outreach campaign will benefit by prominently including third-party allies as much as possible.”
Incredibly, given the grimy cornucopia of goo impacting the site, including recently revealed high strontium-90 detections on lab land on the border with Runkle Canyon (http://tinyurl.com/azxma8f) and Ahmanson Ranch (http://tinyurl.com/aqxj2py), the “Key Messages” part of the Make Over Earth brochure says:
“• The site poses no significant risk to human health today.
• Cleanup far exceeds what’s needed to restore beneficial use and protect public health.
• It’s time to move the SSFL cleanup to its conclusion.
• Boeing is building an impressive track record of environmental gains on many fronts.”
It seems like a tall order, selling this spin to the media, which has reported for decades on the accidents, spills, dumping, meltdowns and all the attendant contamination that comes from a site that saw more than 30,000 rocket tests. The campaign compensates for that:
“Overcome negative perceptions using a countervailing narrative of environmental values, safety and corporate responsibility. Show another side of SSFL: We propose pitching diverse story ideas about people, nature, history, business and technology at SSFL to reduce the secrecy and perceived dangers at the site. Showing a human side of SSFL can help build empathy and connect people for a common purpose for open space.”
There certainly is common purpose for using the site as open space. Boeing’s idea of safe open space is much different than the community’s or even government standards, should the company continue to refuse to clean up its huge area of responsibility to restore normal background levels of goo. Cleanup activists say that Boeing’s refusal to clean up completely would leave 98 percent of the contaminated soil in place.
“Given the long history of negative publicity at the SSFL site, it will take time for the press, stakeholders, elected officials and the public to conceive of the property in new ways,” the Make Over Earth plan opines positively. “Expectations for the news media campaign need to account for that reality and overcome it with a sustained effort and strategic focus. By telling the SSFL story in new and compelling ways, we will be in a better position to communicate key messages and shift discussions from a site with a sordid past to one with potential.”
“There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy,” famed journalist Joseph Pulitzer once said.
But Boeing’s meltdown makeover plan is secret no more.
MELTDOWN MAKEOVER MAN
The publication of this campaign on the Internet turns Boeing’s secret plan on its ear.
Make Over Earth Inc.’s Draft Media Campaign for Santa Susan Field Laboratory under its president, Polakovic, includes a timeline that incudes “Incorporate Make Over Earth team into Boeing’s ongoing outreach and remediation efforts – 3rd Qtr/2012.” It also states, “Identify third parties who may be willing to publicly support the open-space vision at SSFL – 4th Qtr/2012” and “Consider commissioning a blue-ribbon study on SSFL health risks today and in the future – 1st Qtr/2013.”
The idea of commissioning a Boeing study on health risks at Boeing’s lab follows a classic polluter pattern. In this case, replace the science, which has shown in repeated studies that the contamination at the site can cause serious health impacts, with a media-friendly fairytale of how wonderful the lab already is.
Now that Make Over Earth’s campaign is public, only time will tell if Boeing still rolls with these recommendations. One thing is for sure — Boeing has had this campaign in the works long before Polakovic became involved.
Polakovic, who considers himself an “expert authority on some of the biggest environmental controversies of our time,” has just stepped into one with gusto. Boeing’s meltdown makeover has brought greenwashing to Southern California, and with it, shame upon the company and upon environmental journalism.
Those most hurt by this greenwashing are the communities near SSFL and downstream along Calleguas Creek in Ventura County and the Los Angeles River.