2015-10-23 / Front Page
Competing interests complicate cleanup
Level of needed remediation continues to be point of contention
While nearly all agree that a toxic cleanup is necessary at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, what constitutes an appropriate level of remediation continues to be the major point of contention among the property’s owners, government agencies, activists and other interested groups.
Today, the 2,850-acre field lab in the southern hills of Simi Valley is subject to some of the strictest environmental cleanup guidelines in the nation. But competing interests are making the cleanup process, which has been going on since 2007, more complicated than many would like.
One such group, the grassroots Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition, wants the entire site cleaned to background standards, meaning all unnatural material is removed from the property. NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy consented to background standards in 2010 for all of Areas II and IV of the field lab and NASA’s part of Area I.
Santa Susana Knolls resident Dawn Kowalski co-founded the cleanup coalition in 1989, after learning of SSFL’s contamination while serving on the Knolls homeowners association board.
“We were just moms who wanted to know their families are safe,” she told the Simi Valley Acorn. “The . . . years we’ve spent in meetings is time we could’ve been spending with our families that we’ll never get back. But you can’t stop, you have to keep going.”
Kowalski said she wants to see the whole site cleaned to background standards because the property’s future is uncertain.
“Everyone knows how dangerous everything is up on that hill, and until the site is completely cleaned, it’s going to remain dangerous,” she said. “Ignorance is bliss. It’s dangerous.”
Dan Hirsch, also an outspoken advocate for full site cleanup, is president of environmental group Committee to Bridge the Gap. He has worked closely with RCC over the years and has been an active member of the SSFL Work Group, which was formed in 1989 to keep the community informed about site contamination and cleanup.
Hirsch asserts Boeing, which acquired its portion of the field lab in 1996, is trying to get out of its cleanup responsibility. In 2007, Boeing agreed to do risk-based cleanup on its portion of Area I and all of Area III to suburban residential standards, although the company says it intends to preserve the site for open space.
“Boeing is using a (risk assessment) standard that will get them out of cleaning up about 98 percent of their part of the site and walk away from essentially all the contamination,” he said. “The company would save a lot of money, but the community nearby would pay with a continued risk to their health.”
Megan Hilfer, Boeing spokeswoman, said Hirsch’s assertions are “completely untrue” and that the company wants to see the site cleaned up “as much as everyone else.”
“Not only are we going to clean up in a way that’s protective of people and the environment, but we’re also going to preserve it as undeveloped open space,” Hilfer told the Acorn. “There’s nothing that . . . says we would try to get out of that.”
Protect and preserve
While Kowalski and Hirsch are part of the camp that believes the entire field lab should be brought back to its original, natural state, others, like West Hills resident Christina Walsh, believe only a partial cleanup to background is needed.
An activist involved with SSFL for 15 years, Walsh shifted her thinking over the last five years from cleaning the field lab to preserving parts of it, like the historic Coca test stands that were instrumental in the Apollo program in the 1960s.
Walsh said she’s disappointed the cleanup arguments among the involved parties have created such a “big mess.”
“We have a big problem with contamination and we can’t solve that when we’re so focused on if the ground is glowing, instead of just recognizing that there is contamination,” Walsh said, adding some activists are too worried about past agreements rather than the site’s future.
“There’s so much history on the site that’s worth preserving. But under those (2007 and 2010 cleanup) agreements, it would’ve been demolished before anyone had time to think about it.”
That’s why Walsh has joined with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, who monitor the property’s sacred artifacts and natural resources, to petition President Barack Obama to designate 450 acres of NASA’s portion of the field lab as a national monument. The area includes the Burro Flats Cave, which is home to Native American paintings that are thousands of years old.
Walsh said a monument designation would preserve the site and ensure it remains undeveloped.
Clearing out the risks
Before Walsh began working on the national monument petition in March, she was a member of the SSFL Community Advisory Group, said Alec Uzemeck, founding member and co-chair of CAG.
Consisting of 17 members from neighborhood councils in West Hills, Woodland Hills, Chatsworth and Bell Canyon, CAG is against requiring NASA and the DOE to clean the site to background standards, Uzemeck said.
“Those standards would wipe out the historic test stands and the (Burro Flats) cave paintings and destroy the environment,” he said.
Rather, the group prefers the “reasonable cleanup” outlined in the 2007 agreement that Boeing is following.
“By doing risk-based cleanup, (NASA, Boeing and the DOE) would be able to focus on contamination that poses a risk, instead of wiping everything onsite away,” the CAG co-chair said.
In March, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry accepted a petition from CAG member Abraham Weitzberg on behalf of the group asking the federal agency to reevaluate whether there are any lingering health risks for residents living near the site today.
The requested study is currently on hold while ATSDR reevaluates the site’s activity over the last decade, as well as present and future concerns at the field lab.
“Recent publicity has the public so alarmed that they’re going to die tomorrow because of what’s being said (about SSFL’s contamination),” Uzemeck said. “I don’t know the causes or the realities (of the health risks), but I believe ATSDR . . . can possibly explain what’s going on, talk about health risks and address any questions.”
Part three of this series will explore the health risks some say are caused by nuclear contamination from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.