By Bob Mayberry
Eighteen miles northwest of Hollywood and thirty miles from downtown Los Angeles, high in the Simi Hills, sits a government research site where rocket fuels and nuclear reactors were developed and tested. The Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), established in 1949 and home originally to Rocketdyne, has been the site of numerous radiation leaks, toxic chemical spills, and one partial reactor core meltdown. The soil on the entire site is toxic, but the responsible parties are doing nothing about it.
In January of this year, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) entered into “non-binding, confidential” negotiations with Boeing, the site’s current owner, which require Boeing to clean up no more than 1% of the contaminants. Under this proposed agreement, or Memo of Understanding (MOU), a panel will be chosen, by Boeing, to set the terms of the cleanup, without public input.
Removing the final hurdle for Boeing, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board approved the MOU at their Aug. 11 meeting in Santa Clarita. The Board ignored over 200 activists and residents who opposed it. Daniel Hirsch, retired director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, called the MOU “a tragedy,” adding, “it made effective the larger deal with Boeing to let them have vastly higher levels of contamination in place.” The polluter will be in charge of the cleanup.
Sordid history: meltdowns, spills, and negligence
In 1957, 1971, and 2005, fires at the SSFL caused massive radiation releases and intense radioactive saturation of the soil. In 1959, a catastrophic meltdown of the experimental Sodium Reactor released an estimated 15 to 459 times more radiation than the infamous Three Mile Island meltdown, causing radiation monitoring equipment to go “off-scale,” meaning the radioactivity in the air was too great to measure. The partial meltdown was particularly dangerous because “experimental” reactors lack the typical cement and steel containment structures associated with nuclear reactors like TMI.
For 20 years, the Department of Energy (DOE) successfully covered up the partial meltdown. However, in 1979, UCLA student Michael Rose and Hirsch, his faculty advisor, discovered internal company documentation of the meltdown. Later that year, Rocketdyne officials confirmed the accident.
In 1996, Boeing Corp. purchased Rocketdyne, thereby inheriting responsibility for cleanup of the SSFL. In 2005, Boeing paid restitution to 100 families affected by cancer, but the Santa Susana Advisory Panel estimates up to 1,600 deaths are directly due to radiation exposure from the site.
By 2006, Boeing had violated toxic discharge permits more than eighty times, releasing chromium, dioxin, lead, mercury, and other toxins into Bell Creek, which flows into the Los Angeles River. From 1988-1995 the incidence of cancer within two miles of the SSFL was 60% greater than in the general Southern California population.
In 2007, Boeing, NASA, and the DOE all signed a consent order agreeing to a cleanup. In 2010, NASA and DOE signed additional administrative orders promising to clean up respective portions of the SSFL to standards higher than were agreed to earlier — clean to background radiation levels. However, Boeing did not sign the administrative order and it remains subject to the 2007 consent order — which it has routinely ignored for 14 years.
Boeing’s practice has been cover-up, not cleanup
On November 8, 2018, the Woolsey Fire ignited near the SSFL and burned over 80% of the site in five days. According to Dr. Robert Dodge, president of the Los Angeles branch of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the chemicals on the SSFL site are “incredibly dangerous radionuclides and toxic chemicals … These toxic materials are in [the] SSFL’s soil and vegetation, and when it burns and becomes airborne in smoke and ash, there is real possibility of heightened exposure for area residents.”
Just nine hours after the Woolsey Fire began, the DTSC, charged with protecting “California’s people and environment from harmful effects of toxic substances,” announced that “the fire did not present any risks other than those normally present in a wildfire situation.”
However, three weeks after the fire was contained, independent researchers sampled soil in and around the SSFL and concluded that “site-related radioactive material … escaped the confines” of the SSFL. The most radioactive sample was collected nine miles from the SSFL. Had the 2007 Consent Order been enforced, the site would have been cleaned by the 2017 deadline, and radiation and toxic chemical exposure would not have been among the many dangers posed by the Woolsey Fire. Instead, the continuing presence of toxic substances at the SSFL site made the fire even more dangerous. Meanwhile, government agencies ignore the need for a cleanup and bow to the wishes of a corporation like Boeing.
For updates, see Parents Against Santa Susana Field Lab: https://parentsagainstssfl.com/
— Bob Mayberry is a retired English and Theatre Professor at Cal State University-Channel Islands.