2006-10-13 / Front Page

Residents near Runkle Canyon say latest report on Rocketdyne confirms their fears

By Avi Rutschman avi@theacorn.com

UNSURE OF THE LANDSCAPE-Simi Valley residents Patricia Coryell and Terry Matheney are concerned that development of the neighboring Runkle Canyon property could release toxins that come from the ground runoff at Santa Susana Field Laboratory. An independent study released last Thursday says a 1959 nuclear meltdown at the facility has produced several cases of cancer. UNSURE OF THE LANDSCAPE-Simi Valley residents Patricia Coryell and Terry Matheney are concerned that development of the neighboring Runkle Canyon property could release toxins that come from the ground runoff at Santa Susana Field Laboratory. An independent study released last Thursday says a 1959 nuclear meltdown at the facility has produced several cases of cancer. Terry Matheney, 55, and Patricia Coryell, 52, may live in one of the safest cities in America, but both are distraught over what they say is a lack of concern shown by the city of Simi Valley for residents living near Runkle Canyon.

"Why worry about the crime rate when the hills will kill you?" asked Coryell, a vice president for Countrywide's client support division.

In 2005, Runkle Canyon, one of the last remaining pieces of

verdant, open space in the city, was purchased by Los Angelesbased home builder KB Homes from developer GreenPark LLC.

KB plans to put 461 residences in the 1,500-acre canyon including 138 units for senior citizens and 62 units marked as affordable. But the development site lies near the now infamous Santa Susana Field Laboratory, which was the focus of a study released last week connecting radiological contamination of the property to cases of cancer (see related story).

Both Matheney and Coryell, who live next to Runkle Canyon, are concerned that if the city gives final approval to the grading and development of the property, dangerous toxins could be released into the air.

"My biggest fear is that they proceed with this project with children and women living in the surrounding area," Coryell said.

The neighbors said they have already witnessed several cancer cases and birth defects among the residents of the surrounding area.

None of the neighbors of the site who were questioned had heard about the contamination of Runkle until they investigated the situation. Coryell, who has lived in Simi Valley for five years and previously resided in West Hills, said she didn't even know about the Rocketdyne facility until she heard what she believes was a rocket test taking place.

"I found out about it because I heard a loud noise and saw a flash of light. I thought a plane crash had taken place, but one of my neighbors told me it was just a rocket test," Coryell said. "Once I found out that we were so close, I began to investigate the issue and was shocked with what I found."

Both Matheney and Coryell have dedicated themselves for the past two years to spreading awareness about the alleged perils of Runkle Canyon.

"We treat Rocketdyne like it's a good corporate neighbor, but it's not. They've killed at least 300 people. If you had a gang going around murdering people, you'd do something about it, but the city isn't doing anything," said Matheney, a training instructor for an aircraft company.

Scott Ouelette, KB Homes' executive vice president in charge of the Runkle Canyon development, spoke at the Sept. 25 City Council meeting. He said KB, which performed a "stringent review" of the property before gaining a financial foothold, is confident that development of the property poses "no threat" to nearby residents.

"We were aware of the issues and we conducted a thorough review of the EIR and found the property is safe for development and poses no public health risk," Ouelette said.

Frank Serafine, another neighbor of Runkle Canyon, isn't convinced that the site is safe.

"This is a developer (KB Homes) that built homes in San Antonio on top of an old Army missile range. People were finding live rounds in their backyards," said the 53-year-old composer and sound designer. The City Council, responding

to concerns from residents, put the project on hold in August when it asked public works to withhold KB grading permits until information about the development could undergo further study.

"The City Council has asked both the state and the federal government to review the information we have regarding Runkle Canyon," said Mayor Paul Miller.

"If there is demonstrable information that tells us if we grade that land it is going to create dust that presents a hazard to our residents, then we're going to do what we can to prevent it from happening."

Simi Valley senior environmental planner Lauren Funaiole said information the city has received so far puts the canyon in the clear.

"All of the conclusions of the reports that have been prepared for the various studies have indicated that the cancer risk does not exceed EPA standards," Funaiole said. "That's all the council has had to go on."

But Councilmember Barbara Williamson, who said she visited this week with concerned residents, said the latest report raises certain questions.

"If given the chance right now, I will lean on the side of safety. If I have 17 scientists from all over the country saying 'Hey, there's a problem,' then I'm going to listen," said Williamson, referring to the study.

Though the city stands to make millions of dollars from new property taxes generated by the Runkle Canyon development, Williamson said she would have no problem seeing it stopped if solid evidence is presented that it threatens the well-being of Simi residents.

"If the EIR we saw is flawed, I would hope there would be a law that says we can stop (the development) in its tracks," Williamson said.

"I don't think any elected officials can be wishy-washy on this. We have to take firm stand," she said. "If evidence points to a flawed EIR document-if it takes us going to the courts and getting an injunction to stop this-then we should."

In the meantime, residents near the Runkle Canyon site say they will continue putting pressure on the city to take action against Rocketdyne and to raise the awareness of the potential dangers facing Simi residents.

"We need the city to help us and be at the forefront of this fight," Coryell said. "If they do proceed with developing Runkle Canyon, I will dedicate myself to make sure that every potential home buyer knows exactly what they getting themselves into."

Acorn writer Kyle Jorrey contributed to this story

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