Runkle Canyon is poised to be Simi Valley’s newest neighborhood. But did the city misinterpret the risk of radioactive material in the ground?
By Michael Collins
Cattle graze on verdant hills as winter winds whip through the branches of centuries-old oaks on Runkle Canyon. Shrubby mulefat and willow scrub sway in the breeze. An old corral lies partially submerged in rainwater as a foreboding sky promises another deluge in the otherwise dry and dusty dale. Finally, quacking mallards alight from a vernal pool, breaking the silence in this picturesque ravine on the southern border of Simi Valley.
In 1904, the Runkle family moved into this canyon to grow grain and walnuts, run a blacksmith shop, and manage a mule train running between the San Fernando and Simi valleys, all the while raising six kids. The ranch eventually became popular as a location for film and television Westerns. By the mid-1980s, a sand and gravel operation finally closed, leaving the canyon to joggers, hikers, and local troupes of hang gliders.
This Southern California version of paradise is exactly what drew Peter Kiesecker and the euphemistically named GreenPark Runkle Canyon, LLC, his Seal Beach-based development firm, to Runkle Canyon in the late 1990s. It’s a nice chunk of secluded green desert. And it’s empty.
Perfect, he thought, for a new Simi Valley neighborhood.
Of the original 1,595-acre Runkle Canyon spread, 140 acres are now slated to become home to 461 residences – nearly three hundred homes, 25 single-family estates, and 138 apartments for seniors, 62 of which would be set aside for affordable housing. Wrapped into the middle of the plan, GreenPark has left open the option of also building a 230-acre, 18-hole golf course. It’s the SoCal plan all over: a mix of residential options, a neighborhood park, and a plethora of outdoor pursuits. A move-in lifestyle. Runkle Canyon’s website crows that the development is eco-friendly, saying it “provides additional public recreational opportunities for the residents of Simi Valley.”
But Runkle Ranch has a problem, and it’s one that Kiesecker hopes he’s put behind him. This would-be paradise lies only a mile from aerospace giant Boeing’s heavily polluted Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), formerly known as Rocketdyne. During a battery of tests performed on Runkle property in 2003 as part of the required Environmental Impact Report, the toxic rocket fuel oxidizer perchlorate was found in groundwater/silt samples at approximately double the levels found in the groundwater under nearby Ahmanson Ranch, which is farther away from SSFL. Perchlorate findings were partly responsible for the sale of the Ahmanson property, which had also been slated for development, to become state park land. Critics maintain that this contamination must have come from the Boeing lab.
But they also found something even more disturbing: a radioactive substance called strontium-90 (Sr-90). In December 1998, when GreenPark began its environmental investigation of the property, the developer hired Phoenix-based QST Environmental to do preliminary soil sampling of the canyon to see if the former Rocketdyne lab “had impacted on-site soils, based on surface run-off carrying radionuclides to the site.” The results “indicated the presence of Strontium in all samples collected … that exceeded the EPA average local background concentration.” Indeed, the four soil samples contained up to 17 times the amount of the radionuclide that the EPA says is naturally occurring in the area. “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 report said.
Yet GreenPark’s subsequent environmental reports sailed past government agencies with no trouble at all. Despite the fact that, in the process of constructing the housing development, over three million cubic yards of soil will be graded and nearly a hundred tons of dust will be made airborne during construction of the homes.
Development critics now claim that the controversial developers of the already-approved project, and the city of Simi Valley, may have deliberately or inadvertently neglected to adequately address a potential radioactive dust-storm.
Peter Kiesecker is confident that his Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is accurate and that the development will proceed without a hitch. “When you do an EIR, it goes through the city, it goes through the county, it goes through the state and anyone can comment on an FEIR (Final EIR) at the public comment period,” says Kiesecker. “You go through extensive public analysis.”
Kiesecker, 43, is a soft-spoken, dark-haired, and bespectacled family man with a thin runner’s build. He knows what it’s like to go the long haul both at work and at play. A marathoner, the Newport Beach resident finished P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Arizona last year in 263rd place in his division with a respectable time of just under four hours. Kiesecker and his wife Belinda, a former nursing home consultant, are active in civic affairs and are contributors to the Torrance Jaycees/Mervyn’s Child Super Spree and the J.F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center in San Juan Capistrano.
The GreenPark CEO and president joined the company in July 2001 after a successful stint as California president of Lennar Homes, where he had overseen eight development ventures, representing over 50 projects with revenues of $1.2 billion. Previously, Kiesecker was the president and a founder of Greystone Homes, which grew from a startup company of three employees in 1991 to over 400 employees by 1996 in five divisions throughout California, Nevada and Arizona. A June 2001 Real Estate Weekly article waxed on about Kiesecker’s winning ways with his current company, saying, “The company will continue to seek new investment opportunities nationwide, employing its unrivaled environmental cleanup expertise.”
“To be real honest with you, GreenPark abandoned that strategy in 2002 and did not proceed with the environmentally impaired properties,” says Kiesecker. “What was left for the company is what we call the ‘green fields,’ properties that don’t have any environmental contamination, including Runkle Canyon.”
Kiesecker also knows what it means to lose and to lose big. Last year, GreenPark ran into a buzz saw of opposition over its plan to build over 500 houses, a hotel, offices, and stores in the Contra Costa County town of Hercules, which would have required the removal of 3,000 ancient oaks in Franklin Canyon. Furious residents managed to get Measure M on the November 2004 ballot to prevent the development and require that the pristine land be protected as agricultural land.
A nasty campaign ensued, with pro-development forces sending out brochures with pigs pictured suggesting that passage of Measure M would mean the property would become a massive pig farm. Another pamphlet had a frightening image of a gas-masked person on it with the text “He’s required to wear a special suit. We’ll have to use umbrellas,” suggesting that farmers would spray harmful pesticides.
The measure passed despite these tactics, but not before GreenPark Franklin Canyon, LLC, went bankrupt and filed for Chapter 11 protection on May 17, 2004. In July of that year, GreenPark sued Hercules for $38 million and accused city officials of deliberately stalling on the project’s EIR as part of an “illegal scheme” to force the company to stop its development plans and hand over the property. That lawsuit was tossed out on December 14.
Steve Kirby, a Hercules resident, third grade schoolteacher, and one of the prime proponents of the measure, says, “Though the developers spent almost $300,000 to our $28,000, no amount of slick and misleading flyers could sway the voters and GreenPark was sent packing. We still have to contend with their lawsuit saying the measure was an unconstitutional seizure of their property, but we will prevail.”
So when Kiesecker took his company full-steam ahead into Runkle Ranch, he’d been through this pressure cooker before. When he talks about the charges levied by activist doctors like Physicians for Social Responsibility, he seems to know his stuff.
“What we said is none of our studies found any pollutants above EPA standards,” continues Kiesecker. “We’ve done over 70 different borings to test for radionuclides, volatile organic compounds, for perchlorates and everything, and none of the tests that we’ve found pose any action level above EPA standards.”
When an EIR becomes final, there’s a strict 30-day window for activists to file a lawsuit challenging the final EIR based on the information contained in it.
Nobody did. And it could be that simply no one at the City of Simi Valley knew what to look for.
When GreenPark subcontractor QST Environmental concluded the developer’s preliminary soil sampling of Runkle Canyon in February 1999, it apparently had planned to do more work. “QST is currently preparing a scope of work to conduct the next phase of the investigation at Runkle Ranch,” QST wrote at the conclusion of its report. But it was not to be.
GreenPark evidently didn’t like something about QST’s findings – possibly all this talk about strontium-90. The company then hired Costa Mesa-based Foster Wheeler Environmental Corporation to do additional soil sampling. From June 28 to July 2, 1999, the subcontractor tested for the radionuclides strontium-90, cesium-137, and tritium. Using an “approach developed collectively by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy,” Foster Wheeler collected 58 soil samples in a grid pattern.
Reservations have emerged about the accuracy of this and subsequent soil testing by GreenPark subcontractors, and their glowing interpretation by the developer. These concerns were seemingly not considered as the city of Simi Valley evaluated the Runkle development EIR, which was approved April 24, 2004, for the simple reason that nobody ever brought them up.