Water worries linger as field lab cleanup progresses

Residents seek answers



TAKING NOTES—A group stops at a former burn pit at the Santa Susana Field Lab during a tour with surface water experts in November 2022. Workshops and another tour are planned to educate residents about groundwater treatment at the site. MICHAEL COONS/Acorn Newspapers

TAKING NOTES—A group stops at a former burn pit at the Santa Susana Field Lab during a tour with surface water experts in November 2022. Workshops and another tour are planned to educate residents about groundwater treatment at the site. MICHAEL COONS/Acorn Newspapers

During an online public listening session Jan. 23, officials from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control faced community scrutiny regarding groundwater issues at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

The goal was to collect input from residents on what DTSC should address during an upcoming series of workshops, dubbed Groundwater University, which are being held to educate residents so they can participate in future discussions involving groundwater cleanup at SSFL, a former rocket engine test site where a partial nuclear meltdown occurred in 1959.

Despite reassurances from DTSC officials that any toxic contaminants in the site’s subterranean water reservoirs present a limited threat to public health, a lingering sense of distrust remains among some community members who believe the site in the hills south of Simi Valley remains a health hazard.

Some residents also expressed concerns about potential water contamination coming from the site’s Area 1 burn pit, where cleanup is set to commence Feb. 5, according to a DTSC official.

TOXIC—After years of delays and discussions, clean up at the Area 1 burn pit is set to commence this month. Acorn file photo

TOXIC—After years of delays and discussions, clean up at the Area 1 burn pit is set to commence this month. Acorn file photo

The 2,850-acre field lab was in operation from 1948 to 2006. Residents claim radioactive materials left behind from high-tech tests contaminated the area’s air, soil and water, causing a notable rise in cancer rates over the decades.

Boeing owns 80% of the site, with NASA overseeing the remaining 20% for the federal government.

DTSC states that 18 water supply wells were drilled at SSFL in the 1950s for site operations. Although no longer in use, monitoring at those wells is ongoing. In the 1980s, chlorinated hydrocarbons were found in groundwater samples, leading to a continuing investigation. This included installing more than 600 groundwater monitoring wells across the site and sampling 100 off-site seeps and springs around the site’s periphery.

Steve Becker, DTSC’s project director for the SSFL cleanup, said Boeing must monitor groundwater and surface water through a permit overseen by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. The agency expects to receive Boeing’s initial groundwater cleanup documents this year for public review. To date, Becker said, stormwater tested at the site doesn’t contain high enough concentrations of any substance that would pose a threat to human health or the environment.

“There may be low concentrations, but they’re not at levels necessarily that are going to pose a risk to anyone,” Becker said.

Simi Valley resident Julie Korenstein questioned why Boeing is able to conduct its own monitoring.

“I only wish there was someone else verifying it. I don’t really feel comfortable. It’s the fox verifying how many chickens there are in the chicken shed,” Korenstein said.

Simi Valley resident Jeni Knack, from the activist group Parents Against SSFL, contested Becker’s assertion about limited off-site contamination. Knack cited an independent study published in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity after the 2018 Woolsey fire which indicated that SSFL’s radioactive contamination had migrated, with high levels found in Newbury Park.

She expressed concern that such critical information will not be addressed in Groundwater University events and highlighted inconsistencies between provided information and actual collected data.

Melissa Bumstead, a West Hills resident who is also a member of Parents Against SSFL, criticized DTSC’s repeated assertions about low off-site contamination risk. She cited federally funded studies that show higher cancer rates among those living closer to SSFL.

“I need DTSC to question what your goal is because you cannot protect human health if you don’t see the problem,” said Bumstead, whose daughter is a two-time cancer survivor.

Simi Valley resident Marisa Lopez said her daughter has cancer and thanked DTSC for providing an opportunity for the community to share their concerns.

Lopez said residents are worried that a full cleanup will not happen at the site.

“Please not only hear us loud and clear but please do something about it,” Lopez said.

Some residents expressed fear of soil disturbance and potential off-site groundwater contamination from the burn pit, the most toxic area at the SSFL. Questions about the safety of local drinking water also came up.

Sarah Spinuzzi, DTSC’s legal counsel, said the Safe Drinking Water Act requires water providers to notify customers in writing if the public water supply is contaminated, irrespective of the contamination source.

Korenstein wasn’t reassured that drinking water is safe.

“It’s been too many years of contamination and I don’t feel the public is really being protected,” Korenstein said.

Chris Rowe of West Hills raised concerns in the meeting about public misinformation regarding the site’s history and health risks.

Referring to a study done by Dr. Thomas Mack from USC’s Keck School of Medicine, Rowe suggested cancers might be influenced by factors beyond SSFL contamination. Though she said she has consistently advocated for a health-focused cleanup, Rowe believes ongoing litigation by nonprofit groups has impeded progress.

“I want this site cleaned up too, and I don’t want it delayed by further litigation,” Rowe said.

Groundwater University workshops are set to take place Feb. 20, March 12 and April 4, with an SSFL site visit set for April 6. For more information, go to dtsc.ca.gov/events.