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
Elation over a historic deal to clean the sprawling Santa Susana Field Laboratory earlier this month garnered significant media coverage for good reason: The California Environmental Protection Agency division overseeing cleanup of the long-closed Rocketdyne rocket-testing and nuclear-research site convinced two federal agencies to agree on a plan for ridding the polluted acreage of toxins. Cal-EPA's Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) persuaded the Department of Energy and NASA to clean up their polluted portions of the 2,850-acre site, leaving behind only normal, or background, levels of radiation, heavy metals, dioxins and other chemicals.
Built among rocky bowls and stunning canyons between Simi Valley and the San Fernando Valley, the testing site suffered a partial nuclear meltdown in July 1959 that was the worst in U.S. history, releasing far more radiation than the better-known Three Mile Island disaster in 1979.
But lost in the glow of good news, L.A. Weekly has learned, is the fact that the cleanup will stop at the property line.
In a July 22 letter, California's toxic-substances control department had already quietly approved KB Home's cleanup plans for an adjacent property in pretty, but toxin-tainted, Runkle Canyon. KB Home plans to erect 461 condos and homes.
The department is not requiring that the tainted soils be returned to normal in Runkle Canyon. In fact, its plan appears to be to back off.
Yet according to an October 25, 1999, report by Foster Wheeler Environmental Company of Costa Mesa, the soil contains radioactive Strontium-90 readings averaging nearly 27 times normal levels. The state also will stop testing surface water in Runkle Canyon for heavy metals, according to the July 22 letter, although the state's own data, supplied to the Weekly, shows that it detected metals including nickel and barium in the single water sample it tested.
In an e-mailed response to questions from the Weekly several days ago regarding heavy metals found in the water, Rick Brausch, the state's project director for the Rocketdyne and Runkle Canyon cleanups, assured: "DTSC has not yet concluded this evaluation, and will make no final decisions or interpretations of the data until this issue is satisfactorily resolved."
Activists living in nearby Simi Valley enclaves, some of whom got involved years ago after family members fell ill, previously sought their own studies of Runkle Canyon, which found high levels of arsenic, nickel, vanadium, barium, cadmium, lead and chromium.
The first study, in May 2007, was commissioned by the group Radiation Rangers. Another sampling two months later in the same area, conducted by the City of Simi Valley, yielded high levels of heavy metals.
One Radiation Rangers member, Patty Coryell, calls herself "meltdown mad" over the fact that California's toxics department is taking credit for hammering out the recent federal agreements while ignoring problems that remain at Runkle Canyon.
"The DTSC doesn't care," Coryell tells the Weekly. "They've shown in the best, biggest and flashiest way possible that they just don't care. They ask for comments; they pay no attention to comments. They say they are going to clean it; they have no intention of cleaning it up. ... It's beyond the pale."
Excitement had greeted the news that Cal-EPA Secretary Linda Adams and California Sen. Barbara Boxer had finessed the deal with Energy Secretary Steven Chu to clean up the federally controlled areas of Rocketdyne. Chu, who shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics, proposed an approach that bypasses lengthy and expensive risk assessments.
"I'd say since March, things really shifted gears and especially with the federal agencies, the DOE in particular, I think took a huge turn," Brausch told the Weekly on September 3, the day the draft agreement was announced.
"We basically said, 'OK, let's clean up to background [levels] and now focus on that as being a performance standard.' If you find it above background, you take it out. There really isn't this question of how much and how clean and that sort of thing. We're bypassing all of that," Brausch said.
Local activists were especially pleased because it meant the cleanup could be completed in 2017. "I'm ecstatic," says longtime Rocketdyne watchdog Dan Hirsch, of the Committee to Bridge the Gap. "We have a long ways still to go. The core of it is absolutely extraordinary. This is the biggest news since word of the meltdown."
Yet until a Weekly reporter told him, Hirsch was unaware that California's toxics department had approved a "response plan" for KB Home on July 22 that didn't require the soils to be returned to normal radiation and toxin levels.
"When did they put up a response plan and what does it say?" a puzzled Hirsch asked. "I was having some conversations on what I thought had to be done and I thought they hadn't decided."
The response plan the state sent to KB Home, which is posted on the department's Runkle Canyon website, is the culmination of an April 2008 agreement between the department and developer to clean up contamination in the canyon before home building begins.
Westwood-based KB Home hopes to develop 1,595 acres west of the lab site. In 2005, the Ventura County Reporter revealed that radioactive Strontium-90, which can cause leukemia, was found at hundreds of times normal background levels in the soil. Since then, the proposed KB Home development has been embroiled in controversy.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city