The interview

October 26, 2007
Senator Sheila KuehlCalifornia State Senator Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles) has long been in the spotlight, first as a child actress best known for her irrepressible Zelda Gilroy character in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. The popular show’s four year run began in 1959 and starred Bob Denver, Warren Beatty and Tuesday Weld. That same year a partial nuclear meltdown occurred about 35 miles northwest of where the 20th Century Fox show was produced in Los Angeles and now Kuehl represents constituents who live around the meltdown site, the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

From child actress to first openly gay legislator elected to the California Assembly in 1994 to a twice-elected state senator to be termed out in 2008, Kuehl took on the largest private employer in the state, Boeing, and, along with Gov. Schwarzenegger, convinced the company that it was time to cut a deal that would clean up the 2,850-acre lab and leave it undeveloped as open space. covered this historic event last month in Pay Dirt – Gov. Schwarzenegger signs Kuehl bill to clean up Rocketdyne to Superfund standards; Boeing agrees to pay for remediation and donate lab to State for parkland and interviewed Kuehl October 26, 2007.

The October 12, 2007 signing into law of Senate Bill 990 came only after years proposing legislation to deal with the former Rocketdyne facility’s massive chemical and radiological contamination only to have it fail repeatedly. For Rocketdyne activists, the promise of the land being cleaned up to the strictest EPA levels and left untouched by developers building homes, seems like a dream come true. Rocketdyne watchdog Dan Hirsch, however, is skeptical that the deal Kuehl cut will really force a Superfund-level cleanup of the property. The state senator, who has repeatedly been voted the smartest in the California Legislature, is determined to not let the possibility of cleaning up Rocketdyne slip away.

EnviroReporter: You’ve attempted to pass legislation about the field lab for a long time. Why?

Sen. Sheila Kuehl: I’ve been in the legislature for thirteen years and in the past twelve years, I’ve tried to get legislation through to set a cleanup standard for the former Rocketdyne site that would be protective of anybody who might live on that site eventually and the surrounding neighborhood because there was evidence, all the way back twelve years ago, and it has just gotten worse, that the activities of the former Rocketdyne site, now owned by Boeing, were incredibly polluting, polluting the groundwater with TCE, millions and millions of gallons of TCE. Polluted the dirt with radioactive matter because there was a nuclear meltdown. They had nine different nuclear reactors, experimental reactors, up there. So I’ve just been trying since the State can’t force them to clean up while they own it, trying to set a standard so that they at least (complete) a cleanup before they sold it.

What’s different this time?

Well, I think that there are three things that are different. One is when you bring a bill every year, you find that you’ve started to educate people how are still in the legislature because the bill sounds familiar and because we heard more and more every year about what Boeing was going to say or the scientists that they would bring to testify. For instance, that you get more radiation off of a banana peel than you get off of, you know, Rocketdyne. It began to sound more and more and more ridiculous. The second thing that happened was that we were much better prepared because there is a much larger movement behind getting a cleanup standard for the site. People who were neighbors around the site organized in greater numbers and they bring information as well. The third thing I have to say is Julia Brownley’s election to the Assembly because she represents the district where I live, the west end of LA County, and she was critical in getting this bill through the Assembly because one of the problems with a bicameral legislature is that you know the people in your house. For instance, I know the people in the Senate very well – I have access to them – but when your bill goes over to the other house, often you have trouble convincing, especially new people who have never heard of this before, that this is a problem and the proposed solution is the right one. Julia was key to getting the bill through on her side.

How do you feel about the efforts of the citizens and the media over the years in this battle in terms of leading to the signing 990?

There were only a few newspapers locally that were really interested in the issue. And, really, just a few reporters. I think we talked all the way back in ’99 about this. It didn’t really catch on as a problem. It seemed like a local thing, it seemed like a federal thing. It seemed like every time a claim was made, you know, Boeing would very ‘reasonably’ refute whatever the claim was. Over the years, I think, the organization of the citizens who were most affected by the site, along with a more sympathetic press ear, especially in the Valley; as they became convinced that what the people around the site were saying was irrefutable; that there was contamination and a great deal of it, that it did affect the neighborhoods around. We also got the water board interested because of the contamination of the groundwater that was offsite and we also got the Department of Toxic Substances Control interested because I had to bring a bill to switch the agency that was overseeing the cleanup from the Department of Health Services, who had been too lax, to the Department of Toxic Substances Control which has been better.

I think it’s important to say that when you say the bill got signed, that it really got signed, more or less, under a condition that we engage in these discussions about the ability of Boeing to donate the property.

You mentioned that there would be a public process when the new bill is introduced next year. Dan Hirsch, at the last SSFL Work Group meeting, complained about the public being frozen out of the process. How would the public be involved in that process?

I’m not sure because it’s not my process. The discussions will be between the Cal-EPA and the Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is under Cal-EPA, and Boeing. But in order to change the standard, they need me to carry an amendment so the amendment has conditions in it that the standard can be developed in a different way but only if the agreement, as I’ve said, comports with the Letter of Intent that Boeing signed – there are a number of conditions in it – and the amendment that was drafted and shown to the Governor that I am going to introduce also says that the Secretary has to find that there had been a public process.

There has been some confusion about what the final cleanup standards will be at the lab. This might be a function of the complexity of the deal and, certainly, the history of dealing with Boeing on the issue. How will this all work?

I think it is important to understand exactly what was agreed to and what has not yet been agreed to. 990 is now the law so, at the moment, the requirement is for Boeing to clean up to so-called Superfund standards although those standards are quite flexible if you really look at the law itself – they can be reduced by as much as 100% from the top level. So even that standard is not so clear.

The second thing is if the DTSC finds that Boeing has cleaned up to the 990 standards, they would be allowed to do anything they want with it and it would most likely to sell it for residences, schools, etcetera – you know, a big development. So Boeing, kind of seeing the handwriting on the wall and not wanting to clean up to that standard, came to the Governor’s office pretty early in the process and started really pushing this new idea of donating the land to the State but making certain it was never used for anything but open space. At that point they were willing to create a Letter of Intent to express all of the promises that they would make and later to be entered into agreements.

At that point, I think DTSC got involved and kind of pushed Boeing, which had the Letter of Intent, a little further than Boeing wanted to go at first so that the Letter of Intent says Boeing will clean up the entire site to residential standards – that’s all it says; it doesn’t say which residential standards – in a manner that would be so that the standard would be set under a risk-based analysis. That means not dosed-based (one) which is something that we pushed for early on in early legislation at the site. (So) in a way that took into account human health and environmental receptors, which is another
thing that DTSC insisted on.

Boeing also promised to deal with groundwater, not just surface and to clean it up so as to protect the surrounding communities. So I felt looking at the language in that Letter of Intent that there were a lot of hedges there in terms of how low they could go for their standard. The conversation was all between Boeing and the Governor’s staff. After (California EPA) Secretary (Linda) Adams called me for the 22nd time about this, insisting that this was something the Governor was interested in and that a lot of people had put a lot of time into talking about this, especially from her shop, I became convinced that the best thing to do was to agree to allow the State and Boeing to enter into agreements down the line for cleanup and transfer of the land. So far that’s it.

I think it is appropriate for Dan to raise the issue of what the standard will be. I think it is inappropriate, though, to conclude anything about what that standard will be because I think I have convinced Secretary Adams that it is in the State’s interest not to get chumped on this and therefore settle for too low a standard because if Boeing gets off with too low a standard, the State is left holding the bag for the rest. EPA is still evaluating the site as a Superfund possibility – the national EPA. Of course you know Boeing is under court order to meet a certain standard. And once I put in the amendment that I promised the Governor that I would put in, which essentially says that the State and Boeing may agree; where they agree after a public process, in ways that comport with the Letter of Intent, then the language of 990 doesn’t pertain.

So that amendment will not necessarily be enacted as I presented. I have simply promised to present the amendment as a new bill that it will go through as a new bill, through Sen. Simitian’s committee (Environmental Quality Committee), the Appropriations Committee, the floor of the Senate and then the Assembly Committee on Toxics, etcetera etcetera like any other bill. I don’t know if there will be questions from these committees about the standard, about what the Letter of Intent means, about what it means to clean up groundwater, about what it means to set a residential standard, what it means to say risk-based, etcetera. I’m taking it one step at a time. Right now, 990 is the law.

What would you like to see be the end result with that land? Would you like to see it as a park, cleaned up enough so that folks can go and use it as a park? As I recall, the EPA at one point said that it was only safe in Area IV, the radiological area, for a family of four to come for 15 minutes twice a year. Or would you rather see it open space because it isn’t cleaned up quite to that standard?

I think that’s what the importance of the agreements will be. My own personal feeling is that I’d be very happy to see it as parkland but that requires a level of safety that the State itself, before it accepts it as parkland, would be assured of. Even as open space, because people have the ability to hike or do mountain biking or even picnicking in open space. I don’t imagine we would conserve it and then not allow anyone to go there. In a way, it’s also an historic site. There’s even been some talk of leaving up some of the weapons structures so that people can see during the Cold War the kind of crazy research, you know, that was being done right in their backyard. My hope would be that it is cleaned up to a higher standard than Boeing has to clean it up to now. That it’s cleaned up so that safety is absolutely guaranteed for anyone walking on the site using it for parkland or recreation. I would be very very happy to have it in the State’s hands. That means it won’t be residential property, it won’t be schools and it won’t be even light industrial which I think would be, potentially, more dangerous for the people there.

What about the surrounding communities and proposed development of places like Simi Valley’s Runkle Canyon and Dayton Canyon in the San Fernando Valley that are adjacent Rocketdyne and show signs of gross radiological and chemical contamination?

I think that the admission by Boeing that there was contamination on the property, which is contained in their Letter of Intent, and that in their Letter of Intent they also said that it had to be cleaned up to a standard that is protective of the surrounding neighborhoods, which means that they’ve also said there was some connection with what was done onsite and pollution in the surrounding neighborhoods, I think would tell any developers nearby that they need to pay attention to the level of pollution. Now, that said, there’s nothing that requires them to do that. We’ve seen movies and TV shows and novels and all kinds of things about uncaring developers who hid the dangers on the lands that they’ve developed and just sort of ‘homeowner beware.’ So, of course, I would like to see them act well and make certain that they don’t build on polluted property. At the very least they need to be required to reveal the level of pollution.

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