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Cleanup of Former Nuke Lab Site Near LA Runs into Hurdles

Proprietor Boeing Co and wealthy homeowners oppose removing radioactive waste to background levels

Ever hear of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory? In the 1940s, the federal government chose a hilly site near, but not too near, the city of Los Angeles for testing dangerous rockets and nuclear reactors. The site is just south of Simi Valley, low-density cattle-grazing land in the 1940s, and north of Bell Canyon, likewise cattle-grazing land. In July 1959, something happened with an experimental nuclear reactor known as the Sodium Reactor Experiment. The reactor destabilized but was kept running for two weeks while fuel within 13 of the reactor’s 43 fuel rods melted and unleashed unknown quantities of radioactive materials into the land and atmosphere. As an experimental design, the reactor never had a containment dome.

Santa Susana Field LabPhoto: Wikimedia Commons The Santa Susana Field Lab was developed in the late 1940s for rocket-engine tests and nuclear energy research by private-sector and government scientists.The laboratory grounds are now contaminated with a toxic stew of both radioactive and chemical material.

More than half-a-century after the event, clean up of the site, most of which is now owned by Boeing Co, might finally begin in earnest. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) is taking public comments on a CEQA process thorough today, (February 10). Yet the question of just how deep a cleaning is required has become so politically polarizing that a group of people opposed to a full cleanup regularly insist that the partial nuclear meltdown didn't happen.

Back in 1959, too, the seriousness of the meltdown was downplayed. The Atomic Energy Commission put out a reassuring press release five weeks after the incident stating only that “a parted fuel element had been observed.” in 1979, UCLA students began asking questions, but it wasn’t until another decade had passed that  the site started getting some serious media attention.

Apart from the 1959 accident, the lab site — which was home to 10 nuclear reactors, a plutonium fuel fabrication facility and a “hot lab” for disassembling irradiated nuclear fuel sent over from other parts of the country — had witnessed many mishaps, leaks, and spills. And it’s now known that during the heyday of the hot lab, hazardous chemicals were disposed of first by dumping into the Pacific Ocean, then into nearby parkland ravines and/or simply set afire in an open-air burn pit. The field laboratory grounds are now contaminated with a toxic stew of both radioactive and chemical material, including trichloroethylene (TCE), perchlorate, PCBs, dioxins, and many other chemicals with eyes-glaze-over names.

Dan Hirsch, then a UCLA lecturer whose students began the investigation, has estimated that 500,000 gallons of TCE have migrated into the local groundwater, and a TCE plume is migrating offsite into Simi Valley drinking water. Annual surface water monitoring reports show rain continues to carry high levels of toxic materials offsite — levels exceeding health-based limits. Several studies, including one by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, have found elevated cancer rates in populations living near the site. 

Meanwhile, the areas near the lab have transformed from open space and cattle ranches into bedroom communities. Chatsworth and West Hills comprise parts of the middle-class post-war sprawl of the city of Los Angeles. Simi Valley, north of the lab, is now a mostly middle-class commuter city of 100,000, and Bell Canyon is a guard-gated equestrian community of 2,000 where the average home, set on a large lot with a well-manicured lawn, lists for $1.2 million. Approximately half a million people live within ten miles of SSFL.

In 2010, the California government, NASA, and the US Department of Energy agreed to clean up their portions of the site (NASA owns 451 acres there and the DOE conducted nuclear research on 290 acres) and remove all pollutants that exceed background levels — that is, levels at with the chemicals and radioactive substances may have occurred in the area naturally. But Boeing, which bought the land from prior site occupants Rocketdyne (rocket testing) and Atomics International (nuclear) in 1996, wants to clean up its portion of the site to a much lower standard — just enough to preserve the area as open space. The company is currently embroiled in a legal battle with the State of California over who has the authority to oversee the cleanup. At a February 5 meeting with Hirsch and community members, NASA, DTSC, and the federal EPA all publicly reaffirmed their commitments to clean up to background levels; conspicuous by its absence was Boeing.

warning sign near lab grounds Photo by RL MillerBoeing Co., the primary owner of the site is currently embroiled in a legal battle
with the State of California over who has the authority to oversee the cleanup.

Now Boeing, Bell Canyon homeowners, and allies have been making their way through the regulatory thicket to have the site cleaned only to recreational levels.

Wait, what? People don’t want nuclear radiation and toxic chemicals cleaned up in full?

Bell Canyon folk are horrified by the idea of hundreds (or tens, depending on who you believe) of trucks per day rumbling near their gated homes. Dust and the possibility of valley fever are often cited as the main reason to leave most of the radioactive and chemical mess onsite.

"Bell Canyon will do whatever is necessary to protect the interests of our 2000 residents from either health risks related to what is present at the SSFL, or from potential unintended negative health or other consequences arising out of the extensive cleanup that is proposed,” Eric Wolf, Bell Canyon Homeowners Association president, said via email. Association executives stressed the importance of community attendance at a recent hearing. The residents here are clearly well-versed in the bureaucratic acronyms — CEQA, TCE, DTSC, AOC — that might daunt a less-educated crowd.

After decades of wrangling over the cleanup, the sides have become even more polarized. Dan Hirsch, who also runs the nuclear watchdog group, Committee to Bridge the Gap, is said to be “lying” about the amount of radioactive material found at the site, a community advisory group is accused of being part of Boeing's astroturf efforts, as is the San Fernando Valley Audobon Society’s board because one of the board members has a deal with Boeing to study birds onsite. Opponents of a full cleanup pack community meetings to accuse EPA, NASA, DOE, and DTSC of exaggerating their studies. Some of the accusations, however, are outright ridiculous. A cleanup opponent, for instance, tells the DTSC that “there are more toxic chemicals in a plastic water bottle than at the site,” apparently trusting her own words more than all the inches of studies preceding her.

Chris Rowe, opponent of cleanup to background levels who cherishes the label “meltdown-denier,” says that “the SSFL crowd makes the American people’s anger at Congress during the shutdown look like a picnic.”

In August 2012, Boeing hired a public relations firm to help promote its “vision for open space,” including the “substantial cleanup” that “would soon render the site safe for parkland.” While both proponents and opponents of the cleanup agree it would be better to save the area as parkland rather than putting up McMansions, Boeing’s heavy push for the park plan seems like a green-washing attempt to cleanup advocates. They point out that Boeing has influential allies. They say the company has hired former Cal-EPA officials as lobbyists to help water down cleanup standards.

John Luker, vice-president of the Santa Susana Mountain Park Association and an opponent of a full cleanup, states that that a cleanup to background levels will leave the property “moonscaped” and unsuitable for acquisition by the National Park Service. The California Native Plant Society opposes the removal of soil down to bedrock and thus the full cleanup.

However, the moonscaping claim seems wildly exaggerated. Soil removal will focus mostly on the original lab building footprints — 105 acres of the 2850-acre site.

Neal Desai, regional field director for National Parks Conservation Association, recognizes the unique value of the site but is far more noncommittal. It’s on the list for a proposed Rim of the Valley National Recreation Area and might ultimately be acquired by the National Park Service, perhaps in partnership with another land management agency or Chumash Indians (the site has Native American artifacts).

Desai acknowledges that the cleanup might affect some of the wildlife, habitats, and artifacts… then again, it may not. He’d like to see the National Park Service involved in the cleanup process so that NPS wildlife biologists and other experts can weigh in. However, he doesn’t claim that a full cleanup would necessarily leave the property moonscaped and thus unfit for park property, as Luker claims; rather, NPCA simply wants to see the park service have some input.

It could be worse. In nearby Santa Clarita, Whittaker Bermite, the site of an old munitions manufacturer, that is nearly as toxic as Santa Susana, is being wholly ignored. The City of Santa Clarita announced in 2011 that they’re considering purchase of the site within a year, but that hasn’t happened yet. City councilmembers haven’t even shown up to quarterly meeting in over a year, says local activist Rick Drew. Politics may be playing a role — unlike Santa Susana, where Democratic politicians have demanded a full cleanup to what Luker calls a “political standard,” the Santa Clarita politicians are all Republican and disengaged.

At the February 5 community meeting, a frustrated Simi Valley resident carped about the ridiculously slow pace of cleanup – “all you do is test and blather. When is the work going to start?”  The vast majority of residents and politicians want to clean up this toxic legacy of America’s nuclear age — a typical DTSC solicitation for public comments ran 3,000 in favor of cleanup and 40 comments in opposition. However, they may be stymied by off-camera machinations of Boeing and a small yet persistent minority group of homeowners stirring up fear, uncertainty, and doubt like so much dust on the process. Dangerous chemicals continue to migrate into the groundwater and radioactive materials’ half-lives run their course as money blocks progress in cleaning up this toxic site.

RL Miller
RL Miller (@RL_Miller on twitter) is a climate blogger, chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus, and founder of the Climate Hawks Vote SuperPac. The author’s opinions expressed in this piece do not represent the views of any of those organizations.

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My dad has ALS and lived in Bell Canyon.  Makes me wonder.  Will it hurt people more by exposing toxic waste?  Now I understand why that land was no trespassing. They were trying to cover up the mistake. Is there class action Lawsuits? How do we get in line. When will they pay for lives they messed up?

By Teri on Wed, July 15, 2015 at 8:37 pm

Those fighting a full cleanup seem to be saying, on the one hand, there is nothing dangerous up there, and, on the other hand, whatever you do, don’t bring that dangerous stuff past our houses. You can’t have it both ways.

We should do what we can to reduce truck traffic. That includes on-site processing to reduce or concentrate contaminants. That includes alternate routes and even new routes to haul the material. But it can’t mean leaving the stuff up there.

The area closest to the buildings is mainly where you find the toxic stuff. Even if there were no toxics, wouldn’t it be nice to remove all that concrete you see in the picture around the buildings and plant native vegetation?

By Richard M. Mathews on Mon, February 10, 2014 at 4:19 pm

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