By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Pulling up to Simi Valley City Hall the morning of October 21, EPA staffer Vicky Semones was counting on a quiet, efficient work meeting. Her job was to coordinate the scientists, public officials and community representatives monitoring the cleanup from decades of nuclear and chemical experimentation at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, Rocketdyne’s testing ground for the dawning nuclear age.
A previous June session of the cleanup committee had turned into a PR nightmare when a series of vocal public speakers criticized the laboratory and the cleanup, among them a former Rocketdyne employee, Dan Parks, who calmly recited a litany of accidents and radioactive releases at the Santa Susana lab (see sidebar). This time, Semones ordered the meeting closed to the public.
It didn’t work. Semones was greeted at the City Hall entrance by a clutch of 20-odd protesters with signs saying "Stop Rocket-dying" and "Clean Up Your Goo!" Made up in equal measure of Simi Valley residents and anti-nuclear activists, the demonstrators, who had been tracking progress at Santa Susana for a decade and were in no mood to be ignored, forced their way into City Hall. After 10 minutes of heated debate in the meeting room, Semones suspended the session. The Santa Susana Field Laboratory Interagency Work Group hasn’t met since.
Administered by the EPA, comprising nine officials from the EPA, the California Department of Health Services (DHS), the Department of Energy (DOE) and local air-quality officials, along with five community representatives, the work group is charged with coordinating a $58.5 million cleanup of the sprawling, 2,668-acre facility that straddles the mountains between the Simi and San Fernando valleys. Purchased by Boeing in 1996, the Rocketdyne lab tested nuclear reactors, MX missile engines and "Star Wars" lasers — and had a spate of nuclear accidents. It is currently developing the new generation of space-shuttle engines.
Critics say the cleanup has been inadequate so far, that contamination from the facility poses a long-term threat to thousands of Simi Valley residents, and that the government is now seeking to shut down the work group rather than push to remove the toxics at Santa Susana. "The EPA played George Wallace blocking the schoolhouse door," said Dan Hirsch, founder of the activist group Committee To Bridge the Gap (CBG) and a co-chair of the work group. "They are attempting to disband the work group’s oversight of the cleanup and have become a captured agency, bending to Rocketdyne’s attempts to leave the site polluted. The company, which is not part of the work group, is invited — but the press and public are told to hit the road."
Hostility to public input is just one of the areas where critics say federal and state regulators are helping Rocketdyne duck the fallout from its 40-year venture into the world of nuclear fission and caustic, toxic chemicals.
In particular, they say state health officials delayed release of studies critical of the aerospace giant’s handling of hazardous materials, including surveys that found increased cancer rates among plant workers and nearby residents.
That allegation is denied by EPA officials, who share jurisdiction over the cleanup with the federal Department of Energy and the state DHS. But documents produced by Rocketdyne show that the company succeeded in setting the levels of radioactivity to be left in the ground to Department of Energy standards, levels that far exceed guidelines put forth by the EPA. While those levels are listed among the EPA’s national standards, the agency has yet to assert its more stringent cleanup standards with the other state and federal officials monitoring the Rocketdyne cleanup.
The question arose in a 1996 safety review, when company officials proposed leaving ground residue of plutonium 239, which has a half-life of 24,400 years, at levels more than 13 times higher than normal EPA standards for preliminary remediation goals. For the poisonous radioactive isotope cobalt 60, Rocketdyne’s remediation levels are 450 times higher than the EPA’s guidelines — 1.96 picocuries per gram, instead of the required .0043.
According to a September 25, 1996, Rocketdyne memo describing its cleanup plan, "These release criteria have been approved by the California Department of Health Services and the Department of Energy." As for the EPA, the project manager for the agency, Tom Kelly, contends that he still hasn’t made a final decision. "I’m leaning against it," he claimed. But the minutes of an October 28, 1997, Santa Susana site cleanup meeting indicate that the EPA did grant approval of the relaxed remediation standards. Under the "resolved issues" section, the minutes state, "Tom Kelly tentatively accepted the DOE/DHS release criteria for rad facilities."
The Santa Susana Field Laboratory has a well-documented history of problems since it opened in 1948. On a hot July night in 1959, when Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev flashed nuclear sabers in the televised "Kitchen Debate," an experimental sodium-cooled nuclear reactor partially melted down at the site. A third of its fuel experienced melting, and an unknown amount of radioactive gases spewed from the unconfined building. The meltdown only came to light in 1979, when a UCLA student, working with Hirsch, discovered an obscure reference to it while conducting research on a term paper.