2015-12-11 / Front Page

Federal agency scraps health investigation

Planned cleanup should ‘move forward without delay,’ ATSDR says
By Melissa Simon

MOVING ON—A hydrogen gas tank, pictured in August 2014, is one of several structures still standing at the Santa Susana Field Lab. This week the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry decided not to move forward with a new health investigation at the site. 
FILE PHOTO MOVING ON—A hydrogen gas tank, pictured in August 2014, is one of several structures still standing at the Santa Susana Field Lab. This week the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry decided not to move forward with a new health investigation at the site. FILE PHOTO A federal agency that was recently petitioned to study current health risks connected to nuclear contamination at the Santa Susana Field Lab decided this week not to move forward with a new investigation.

Last year, Woodland Hills resident Abraham Weitzberg, a member of the grass-roots SSFL Community Advisory Group, sent a petition to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, asking the agency to investigate risks associated with the 2,850-acre field lab in the southern hills of Simi Valley. The field lab was built in 1947 as a nuclear test site and for research in the development of ballistic missiles, rockets and space shuttle equipment.

ATSDR, created in 1980 by Congress to perform public health assessments, provide medical education, and establish and maintain toxicological databases, accepted Weitzberg’s request in March.

But on Tuesday, after months of reviewing data collected by other agencies at SSFL since 1999 and holding meetings with activists and local, state and federal officials, ATSDR decided not to move forward.

“I have developed a much better understanding of the nature and scope of the investigation conducted and decisions made about remediation of the site, as well as the diverse viewpoints about the efforts to evaluate the public health impact and to develop cleanup plans for the site,” Patrick Breysse, ATSDR director, said in a statement this week.

Breysse said a “thoughtful process has been used to evaluate threats to public health and to develop plans to address those ofthreats.”

As such, the agency won’t conduct any new health investigations at SSFL, and planned cleanup should “move forward without delay,” he said.

Opposing views

Weitzberg, who tested nuclear reactors at SSFL from 1962 to student1965 as an employee of Atomics International, said he’s disappointed with the decision but understands why it was made.

“As far as the data, there’s little (ATSDR) can add. But as far as public education, there’s a lot more they could do but opted not to,” he said.

Weitzberg asserts the federal agency believes the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which oversees cleanup for the entire field lab, already has a handle on contamination on the site.

“(ATSDR) thinks there’s no reason for them to get involved, but I disagree because of the NBC segments where you have activists and investigative reporters, who are nontechnical, providing inflammatory information that is truly scaring the public,” he said.

But not everyone was disappointed with ATSDR’s decision to halt its investigation.

Denise Duffield, associate director of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles, said she was delighted to hear the agency decided to “reject the petition that asked it to refute past SSFL health studies and weigh in against the site’s cleanup.”

Duffield is also an activist working to get the contamination at the field lab cleared out.

“(We) had been especially troubled . . . by proponents of ATSDR involvement who claimed ATSDR was going to conduct a new health study. But that is false,” Duffield told the Simi Valley Acorn Tuesday, adding she was confident there wasn’t going to be another study.

“ATSDR was not going to do any new sampling or generate new data. It was not going to examine health problems in the community,” she said. “It was only going to review past reports and data, most of which had been collected by Boeing.”

Cleanup responsibilities

Boeing Co. owns 80 percent of SSFL, including Area IV, where a partial nuclear meltdown occurred in 1959. The federal government owns the remaining 20 percent, which is managed by NASA.

In 2010, the California Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy agreed to clean up part of Area I and all of Areas II and IV to background standards, which equates to a complete removal of any material that isn’t natural to the site.

While Boeing didn’t sign the 2010 agreement, it plans to comply with a past order signed in 2007 with the Department of Toxic Substances Control requiring Boeing to clean its portion of Area I and all of Area III to suburban residential, meaning people could live on the site without getting sick from contamination.

Megan Hilfer, spokesperson for Boeing, said ATSDR’s decision not to move forward with further investigations doesn’t affect Boeing’s cleanup commitment.

“Numerous studies conclude that there is no evidence that past facility operations have affected the health of the local community,” Hilfer told the Acorn this week. “These findings . . . mean that Santa Susana can be safely enjoyed now and by future generations.”

With the petition no longer in play, Duffield said she plans to continue focusing on efforts to ensure all nuclear and chemical contamination is fully eradicated.

Weitzberg, however, said the community needs access to unbiased, educational information about the site and cleanup. To that end, he plans to host a public forum with experts in the near future. A date has not been set for the forum.

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