How many cancer deaths are too many? The City of Los Angeles finally sues feds over inadequate cleanup of Rocketdyne

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – November 4, 2004


Toxic Odds - City of Los Angeles joins in SSFL fight

Last week, the City of Los Angeles launched an historic lawsuit against the Department of Energy (DOE) over its cleanup of Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), an 11-square kilometer military contractor complex that straddles the bluffs above the Simi and San Fernando valleys. The city wants to force the federal department to clean up the 290-acre nuclear testing area of the lab to the strictest levels mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund standards.

Joining the lawsuit are the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the environmental nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap, who contend that DOE violated a 1995 DOE-EPA agreement that mandates that all DOE sites across the nation be cleaned up to these EPA standards and that DOE backed out of the plan in March 2003.

“What’s left today is a toxic sword of Damocles hanging over the lives of innocent Southern California residents,” said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the NRDC, at a Los Angeles City Hall press conference October 21. “But rather than clean up the mess it created, the U.S. Department of Energy last year decided to leave 99 percent of the radioactive soil in place. DOE has decided to do only a minimal cleanup and, when that is done, to release the site for unrestricted uses, including the development of family homes.”

While the lawsuit has nationwide implications for the cleanup of over 100 DOE sites, it has special significance for Los Angeles – the pollution-racked Rocketdyne lab is just over a mile from the city’s western edge in the neighborhood of Chatsworth, and two nearby creeks carry Rocketdyne poisons into the headwaters of the Los Angeles River. “I don’t know what I’m more offended by: the Bush administration reneging on a promise, or the Bush administration turning its back on the community,” said L.A. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. “We are going to fight the administration and fight for the people working and living in this area.”

Over 69,000 people live within five miles of the infamous Rocketdyne facility, and 1,400 within two miles. The lawsuit contends that “[m]igration of contamination, including contaminated groundwater and surface water, into City limits will also cause the City and its citizens financial and economic harm due to costs of remediation, devaluation of property values, loss of tax revenues, and physical harm to citizens.”

One of the core issues in the dispute is the wide discrepancy between DOE and EPA cleanup standards. DOE aims for a goal of no more than one in 10,000 cancer fatalities due to any individual residual radionuclide. The EPA, however, sets the bar at one in a million deaths. Despite this exponential difference in cleanup criteria, DOE has sought to portray the difference in goals for SSFL as “two processes, one goal,” according to Mike Lopez, DOE project manager for the cleanup of Rocketdyne.

According to Lopez, the EPA’s maximum allowable contamination ranges upward to one in ten thousand cancer deaths, on the high end of the agency’s scale. While he says DOE’s methodology will get them down below this mark, and “actually toward the bottom end in the risk range,” the department won’t meet the one-in-a-million EPA goal that keeps cancer to a minimum.

Not by a longshot. The lawsuit contends that once the DOE cleanup is finished in 2007, one part of the field lab called Area IV will remain a “radioactive and toxic wasteland,” and that “hot soil” left in place would have as much as 19,000 times more contamination than if EPA standards were applied. “EPA has in fact said that the cancer risk from DOE’s cleanup standards for several specific radionuclides produces a 1 in 50 cancer risk,” said Daniel Hirsch, president of Committee to Bridge the Gap. “Indeed, EPA’s most recent preliminary remediation goals show an astounding cancer risk of up to 8 in 10 for some radionuclides.”

“EPA disagrees with DOE’s conclusion that the selected remedy is consistent with CERCLA,” the agency wrote in a Dec. 5, 2003 letter to DOE, referring to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 that mandates the one-in-a-million fatal cancer threshold. CityBeat has obtained information showing that, regarding the deadly radionuclide Iron-55, for example, the EPA risk estimate of DOE cleanup standards is a mind boggling 7.86 cancers per 10 people exposed over 30 years. For the radionuclide tritium, two cancers per ten people exposed could be expected should DOE standards be applied.

In the 1990s, DOE continually agreed to have EPA perform a radiological characterization of Area IV, which the department would fund, and as late as May 2001, Bush’s EPA honcho Christine Todd Whitman said her agency was prepared to undertake this survey. It never happened. DOE never funded the EPA evaluation. In January 2002, DOE released a Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) “For Cleanup and Closure of the Energy Technology Engineering Center,” covering approximately, 200 Area IV buildings. These included the Radioactive Material Handling Facility, along with a structure used for nuclear power testing, and a building that housed some of Rocketdyne’s nuclear test reactors.

Besides considering a “no-action” option, the Draft EA focused on DOE’s preference, Alternative One, which calls for removal of contaminated buildings and 5,500 cubic meters of polluted soil after which time the “future use of the property for residential purposes is probable,” according to the DOE document. The department rejected Alternative Two, which would have removed more than 400,000 cubic meters of radioactive soil throughout Area IV, even though it would have achieved a cleanup level of .05 millirem per year of radiation exposure that would result in a “residual lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 1,000,000,” according to the lawsuit.

The complaint zeroes in on the DOE/EPA agreement in 1995 called the “Joint Policy on Decommissioning Department of Energy Facilities under CERCLA.” That guiding principle dictated that “regardless of whether or not a release or threatened release” of pollution “is from a site listed on the (National Priorities List),” DOE will nevertheless conduct a cleanup “in a manner consistent with CERCLA.” In 1999 and 2000, DOE listed all of its sites around the nation subject to CERCLA and SSFL made the list both times. Under CERCLA, the federal agency undertaking remediation of a polluted federal facility must obey a certain set of procedures, including: where there are “multiple contaminants at a site or multiple pathways of exposure,” a “[one in a million] risk level shall be used as the point of departure for determining remediation goals.”

This has not happened at Rocketdyne. “If DOE can ignore the law at this site, in our community, it can and will make the same mistake at over a hundred DOE sites around the country,” NRDC’s Reynolds said at the press conference. “We simply can’t stand by and let this irresponsible and illegal government conduct go unchallenged. And, working together with the City Attorney of Los Angeles, we won’t.”


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