“I am not a tree hugger, an environmental activist, or an Erin Brockovich wannabe,” said Patricia Coryell before an August 21 meeting of the Simi Valley City Council. Coryell and about two dozen other concerned citizens were there to address the impending construction of hundreds of homes in Runkle Canyon, which is less than a mile from the aerospace and defense labs generally known as Rocketdyne, the site of intense nuclear and chemical pollution. Coryell added, “When I moved to Simi Valley four and a half years ago, I didn’t know anything about Rocketdyne and I had never heard of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory [SSFL].”
Coryell sure knows now. In 1959, the worst nuclear disaster in American history occurred at Rocketdyne where a partial meltdown of an experimental reactor released more radioactive poisons than the more infamous Three Mile Island meltdown in 1978. Numerous nuclear accidents and deliberate dumping and burning of radioactive and chemical waste has so contaminated the lab that it is in the midst of a quarter-billion dollar federal cleanup with no guarantee of success.
“The last time I appeared before this council was in April of 2004, when I asked you to require independent testing for soil and water contamination before approving the proposal,” Coryell continued. “Despite my concerns and the concerns of other citizens, the project was approved.”
After public statements from 10 residents, the council seemed surprised and concerned. Sort of. “As our friends from that area are leaving, I just want you to know that this is obviously important to all of us on the dais – I’m your neighbor,” said Councilmember Michelle Foster. “I live in your neighborhood, literally, and I know every single person sitting up here and this is something that will be looked into. So now you can go.”
The Simi residents, many of them development-friendly Republicans, are alarmed at new block-out fencing at the mouth of Runkle Canyon, which is now guarded by around-the-clock sentries. The beefed-up security measures come courtesy of Los Angeles-based construction giant KB Home and also Lennar, headquartered in Miami. The partnership began purchasing Runkle in parcels in mid-2005 and plans to start construction by the end of the year on 140 acres of the 1,595-acre former ranch, building 461 homes, single-family estates, and apartments.
With construction imminent, concern is growing over Runkle Canyon’s proximity to the nuclear test area of SSFL, part of which empties into an 11-acre drainage that flows into the broad picturesque gorge. Runkle Canyon has repeatedly tested high for the leukemia-causing radionuclide strontium-90 (Sr-90), which residents contend came from Rocketdyne. In 1999, a lab hired by a former developer sampled Runkle dirt and found that it averaged six times the Environmental Protection Agency’s “preliminary remediation goal” for Sr-90, a level that is presumed safe for residential development, and nearly 46 times above the typical EPA background level for strontium-90 in the area. The highest Sr-90 reading of the 58 samples taken was over 411 times higher than normal background.
In the grading and construction process, over 100 tons of potentially Sr-90-impacted dust would be launched into the atmosphere and fall out over the Simi and San Fernando valleys, as reported previously by CityBeat and ValleyBeat (“Neighborhood Threat,” March 10, 2005). The California Department of Health Services re-tested five soil samples from Runkle Canyon on June 7, 2005, and once again found that, despite testing irregularities, the land was still reading high for Sr-90 (see our story “Hot Property,” January 19, 2006).
KB Home quietly bought rights to the development last summer. The Simi Valley City Council approved the transition on August 15, 2005 with nary a word about Sr-90 pollution concerns. Though the project has been green-lighted, the developers have not yet pulled the necessary permits for encroachment or the architectural planning of the development’s homes, recreation center, and public and senior parks. “Rest assured, there will be no home construction or grading until this matter is cleared up, per the council’s direction,” a City Hall source told this newspaper on September 8.
That assurance seems suspect considering that the KB Home executive vice president in charge of the development, Scott Ouellette, has long been in consultation with city officials. “We discussed it with the city manager and every member of the City Council,” Ouellette said last week. “We’ve had an ongoing dialogue with the city from the very beginning. We were aware of the issues and we conducted a thorough review of the EIR and found that the property is safe for development and poses no public health risk.”
As CityBeat and ValleyBeat have reported, that detailed information about the Sr-90 levels is in there, however, buried in the developer’s lab reports. This infuriates Coryell, who was portrayed by city councilmembers in April 2004 as “alarmist” by using Rocketdyne-related “scare tactics” to try to derail the project as it was being approved unanimously by the City Council. Coryell, a Republican and a vice president of Calabasas Hills-based Countrywide Financial Corp., considers herself pro-development and knows that the Runkle Canyon project, minus the radiation problems, would actually increase the value of her home, which is three doors down from the property.
“Isn’t it just a little bit disingenuous for the council to expect the developer, who stands to lose so much money, to be an honest, disinterested, unbiased third party?,” said Coryell, who has started a website called StopRunkledyne.com that details the controversy. “The City Council and Planning Department have had [the two L.A. CityBeat/ValleyBeat articles] at least since when Reverend Southwick and I gave it to them in August. I am shocked, I really am.”
Rev. John Southwick, a longtime Simi resident, informed this newspaper of the new fencing in August. He says the old days of neighbors walking and biking through the oak-studded canyon are over. “Two gentlemen were waiting at the entrance so I just hung out for a while,” Southwick said of an August 24 incident. “An SUV pulled up, two gentlemen inside, and they picked up the two others waiting. Inside the gate, they started taking pictures, and then they drove up the fire road to the east in a cloud of dust. I took out my camera and started to snap the license plate and the rent-a-cop ran out and said, ‘No pictures – the owner said no pictures or I will call the police.’ I said, ‘Go ahead.'”
It won’t be easy keeping locals from watching the developers’ every move in Runkle. In late August, longtime aerospace vet Terry Matheney started launching a 15-foot long blimp over the canyon equipped with a rotating high-resolution camera designed and supplied by Simi-based Cheap Shots Aerial Photography. In one afternoon, Matheney’s crew shot over 700 crisp photos of the proposed construction site, many of which are available, along with extensive Runkle Canyon radiation documentation, on EnviroReporter.com. “We can get the shocked look on the KB Homes supervisor’s face when he realizes we’re hovering over the top of them,” says Matheney. “They don’t own that airspace – we’re allowed to be up there. We can rise above and see exactly what’s going on and they can’t stop us.”
But can concerned residents stop the Runkle Canyon development? They will try to again at the next Simi Valley City Council meeting September 25.