Roll up, roll up for the military toxicity tour

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – August 3, 2006

Southern California is seasonally inundated with tour buses plying the streets of Hollywood and the homes of entertainment stars. But a new tour, begun this summer, takes the curious to places far hotter and more significant: the Military Tour of Southern California, sponsored by the L.A. chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). It’s a chance for locals to get in touch with the amazing amount of military toxins in our environment, by boarding a bus to military-related sites that ooze that Outer Limits Cold War essence.

The Department of Defense is the world’s largest polluter, producing more toxic waste than the five biggest U.S. chemical companies combined. There are 27,000 contaminated hot spots on 8,500 military properties nationwide. One out of every 10 Americans lives within 10 miles of a military location that’s been listed as a U.S. EPA Superfund priority cleanup site. Southern California has 16 military-related Superfund sites, including the entire San Gabriel Valley and the eastern half of the San Fernando Valley. Superfund cleanups are happening at places such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Pasadena, El Toro Marine Base, and Camp Pendleton, as well as numerous military bases in the inland deserts.

The Military Tour was inaugurated on June 10, when two plush buses departed from Westwood and Pasadena and headed for Boeing’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) in the hills above the western San Fernando Valley. En route, an archival film played, detailing the 1959 partial meltdown of the Sodium Reactor Experiment at the lab, in which substantially more radiation was released into the environment than the more infamous 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, as CityBeat has previously reported in its ongoing investigation of SSFL. Two other partial meltdowns occurred at SSFL in 1964 and 1969.

“This was just the kind of place for nuclear and rocket cowboys to test their stuff without compliance of the environmental laws of the country, and it has left the entire area terribly contaminated,” said Dan Hirsch, PSR tour expert and SSFL watchdog, to the two groups standing on a mountaintop overlooking the massive lab complex. “The contamination doesn’t stay on the mountaintop. It wants to get off the mountain. When the wind blows, it carries with it [the dust] that is toxic. When the rain comes, it carries off with it the radioactive and chemical contamination in the storm water.”

Hirsch invited attendees to mill about the place after assuring them that a brief visit didn’t pose, uh, too much risk. “But, just to be safe, I would suggest that when you get home from this tour you wash your clothes and wash yourselves,” he cautioned. “There is stuff you can pick up, and there’s no reason not to be careful.”

Being careful was a Cold War mantra. As the tour buses headed east to JPL, they passed Brown’s Canyon Road above Chatsworth, which led up to an old Nike missile base. Beginning in 1954 around greater L.A., the Army deployed Nike-Ajax supersonic antiaircraft nuke-tipped defense rockets to shoot down incoming Soviet planes before they could H-bomb Southern California. By 1958, 16 Nike-Ajax launch sites were established in such places as Angeles National Forest, the Santa Monica Mountains, El Monte, Puente Hills, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Palos Verdes, Torrance, Playa del Rey, Malibu, Newhall, Van Nuys, and Saugus.

The 41-foot long, five-ton missiles – which could destroy entire formations of enemy planes with an atomic blast – were never used, but crews were trained to get the hell out of bed and launch them in 15 minutes. The military air-defense system, operational until 1974, created a protective buffer that guaranteed, Nike officials claimed in 1962, that “Whatever tomorrow brings … Nike will be watching, always ready.”

Today, anyone can do the watching at one of the most spectacular Nike sites in Los Angeles, on top of 10.2-acre San Vicente Mountain Park, less than three miles west of the San Diego Freeway on an unpaved stretch of Mulholland. Numerous self-guided interpretive displays around the grounds explain the roles of the various towers and buildings during their 1956-1968 mission. The mountaintop site encompassed ground-based radar and computer systems designed to detect and track hostile bombers, and to guide the antiaircraft rockets that would be launched from nearby Sepulveda Basin. San Vicente Mountain now offers visitors spectacular views of the Santa Monica Mountains, the San Fernando Valley, and the Los Angeles basin.

One of the bright spots on the tour was a guided exploration of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is in the midst of a $114 million Superfund cleanup effort by NASA to rid its groundwater of dangerous chemicals. Neighboring Pasadena has shut down nine of its drinking wells due to toxic perchlorate contamination emanating from the 176-acre space lab.

Ammonium perchlorate’s use as a rocket-fuel booster has its origins at JPL, which is now known primarily for its NASA space work. A young scientist named Jack Parsons developed this exotic fuel in the Arroyo Seco and led a short life just as explosive. Parsons dabbled in the occult as a follower of Aleister Crowley, held sex- and drug-drenched orgies at his Pasadena mansion, and lost his wife and money to a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard. At the young age of 37, Parsons blew himself to pieces in his kitchen during an experiment with fulminate of mercury, a gray crystalline powder that, when dry, explodes under percussion or heat and is used in detonators. ˝44 According to various reports, an “odd, bizarre, fairly big box decorated with snakes and dragons” was found in a trailer at the Parsons’s residence after the blast. In it were home films of Parsons and his mother having sex, not only with each other, but also with the mother’s “big dog.” Ruth Parsons committed suicide after hearing of her son’s death.

Things aren’t nearly so dirty nowadays at JPL, though the groundwater is filthy. NASA Remedial Project Manager Steve Slaten gave the group a tour of the agency’s groundwater treatment system, called the OU-1, which removes perchlorate, nitrate, and volatile organic compounds from the groundwater, treating 230,000 gallons every day. The crowd seemed to appreciate NASA’s determination to clean up the site, as well as their host’s amiable attitude.

“I’ve worked for the EPA and the Department of Energy, and NASA has the happiest nerds,” Slaten wisecracked. “They do good, fun things. We’re not building nuclear weapons.”

The last stop on the tour was not so friendly. The 5,000-acre Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station contains 127 active earthen munitions storage magazines. The base “will not confirm nor deny” whether its stockpile includes nuclear and/or chemical weapons. Regardless, this is the only port on the West Coast in which destroyers, cruisers, frigates, and amphibious assault ships are loaded with missiles, torpedoes, bombs, shells, and bullets at the facility’s 1,000-foot-long wharf.

It was a fitting end to an engrossing tour of Southern California’s military might – and mistakes. Wanna go on one? Get a free comprehensive tour book from PSR, as well as information on the next outing, by visiting or calling (213) 689-9170, ext. 107.