2013-12-20 / Front Page

Judge orders temporary stop to field lab cleanup

By Gabrielle Moreira

A Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled in favor of environmental groups and imposed a preliminary injunction on the Department of Toxic Substances Control to stop approving building demolitions at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

The ruling, filed Dec. 11, came after four environmental groups filed a joint lawsuit in August against the DTSC and the Department of Public Health.

Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica based nonprofit and one of the lead groups in the lawsuit, claims the DTSC is approving the demolition of buildings within a highly contaminated area of the lab without proper environmental reviews, and possible radioactive debris is being disposed of improperly.

The lab is owned by Boeing Co., NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy. Boeing, which owns 80 percent of the field lab, acquired the site in 1994 and plans to clean it up and turn most of it into open space.

Liza Tucker, consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, said the four groups are grateful for the injunction and hope to win their case.

“We will make every effort to ensure that this toxic regulator follows the state’s signature environmental law, instead of breaking it, by stopping Boeing’s illegal disposal of radioactive waste at dumps and recycling shops not licensed to receive such waste,” she said.

The judge stated in the court documents that the four groups have enough merit to win their case against the DTSC for not following the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) regulations.

The document states: “The court concludes (the petitioners) established a reasonable probability they will prevail on their CEQA claim against the DTSC, and the balance of harms on the record to date tips in their favor.”

The 2,850-acre field lab was used for research and development of ballistic missiles, rockets and space shuttle equipment. In 1959, the lab suffered a partial nuclear meltdown, and the Environmental Protection Agency in December 2012 found that Area IV, which contains a plutonium fuel fabrication building, had high levels of radiation.

The environmental groups claim that debris, specifically from Area IV, was improperly disposed of at recycling facilities in Ventura and Kern counties that were not licensed to handle radioactive waste.

Boeing owns Area IV and last year conducted its own testing on the site, which showed low levels of radiation. In a statement released in September, Boeing said it was following all protocols to remove debris properly.

Now that an injunction has been set against the DTSC, it can no longer approve the demolition of buildings— including the plutonium building— for Boeing. Since the court did not find the cleanup activities conducted by Boeing unsafe, the ruling is specifi- cally against the DTSC and the Department of Public Health.

Though the ruling is disappointing, Boeing said, the company will voluntarily halt all cleanup in Area IV until further notice.

“We are evaluating this decision and determining the next steps,” Boeing said in a statement released Monday. “Meanwhile we will continue with the site-wide investigation and cleanup efforts at Santa Susana.”

No court date has been set for another ruling, and the injunction could last anywhere from four to six months.

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