Distrust of Agencies Spur Independent Study of Contamination from Site
Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2018-19
The Woolsey Fire began on November 8 at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL)—a heavily contaminated experimental reactor and rocket testing facility 30 miles from Los Angeles—and burned much of the site. Government assurances that the fire did not risk increased exposures to SSFL contamination have been met with distrust and skepticism, in part because the very entities claiming there was no toxic risk from the SSFL fire are the ones responsible for contaminating it in the first place and violating commitments to clean it up.
In the face of broad public rejection of official reassurances by the troubled state toxics agency, community members near the SSFL will participate in an independent study of potential migration of contamination from the site following the Woolsey Fire. Fairewinds Energy Education, a non-profit organization founded by former nuclear industry scientists, will conduct the study of dust and soil samples collected from homes in the area and sent to an East Coast laboratory for analysis.
Government agency reassurances lack credibility in large measure because: Within hours of the fire, with no data whatsoever, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) issued a statement claiming there were no releases of radioactive or toxic materials.
DTSC claimed in a Nov. 9 statement that no contaminated areas of SSFL had burned. Subsequent satellite photos demonstrated that a large portion of the site did burn, much of it contaminated. DTSC then tried to walk back its initial false claims. Similarly, the US Department of Energy (DOE) initially claimed the fire hadn’t touched any of Area IV inside SSFL. When satellite photos also disproved this assertion, DOE retracted it.
Days after the fire at SSFL stopped, DTSC said it and others took measurements. But the primary concern was release of contamination in the smoke during the fire.
DTSC reported that its measurements, taken days after the fire, found no contamination even at SSFL. However, DTSC has for decades acknowledged the site is heavily contaminated, which is why extensive cleanup has been required in formal agreements between DTSC and the polluters. The US Environmental Protection Agency conducted a $40 million, multi-year study which found 500 locations at SSFL with elevated radioactivity.
Claims by DTSC that its post-fire measurements could find no contamination at SSFL even though extensive corporate pollution at the site is undisputed, suggests: (1) agency measurements are so insensitive the agency cannot detect contamination that is there; (2) DTSC is inflating background values to make additional contamination appear not to exist; and (3) it is lying about its actual results. If the measurements were somehow correct, and there is no longer any contamination at SSFL after the fire, it would mean the fire drove off existing contamination from the SSFL site and into the outlying communities. The agency’s claims of being unable to detect any contamination, even at the polluted SSFL sites, raise serious questions about the validity of DTSC’s statements.
The DTSC has failed to explain how a fire can burn hundreds of acres of contaminated vegetation growing in contaminated soil and not release some of those contaminants. It is a scientific impossibility. Community members and elected officials have repeatedly asked DTSC to disclose all data and methodology to back up its implausible assurances, but four weeks after the fire no data whatsoever have been released.
“DTSC says at some point it will release a summary of its conclusions, suggesting it is taking weeks to ‘massage’ the data,” said Denise Duffield, associate director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles. At a Nov. 15 press conference, Governor Brown said he too was “very skeptical” of assurances by his own agencies that there were no toxic releases from the fire at SSFL.
In the absence of credible, trustworthy government assessments of the risk of radioactive releases during the fire, the Fairewinds study will rely on “citizen scientists” and volunteers to carefully collect samples of dust or soil from area homes and property. Samples will be analyzed by the Fairewinds team, which released a detailed sampling protocol for the project. PSR-LA and Parents vs. SSFL have assembled a team of trained staff and volunteers to assist with sample collection. “I’m excited to be a part of this project and serve my community,” said Jeni Knack, a Simi Valley resident with prior training in sampling who will help lead field operations. “We’ve already received over 150 requests for sampling assistance from residents.”
Health advocates are grateful for the study, though they acknowledge its limitations. It occurs after the fire is over, when a primary risk was inhalation of radioactivity carried in the smoke while SSFL burned. The study will focus solely on radioactive materials, not the hundreds of toxic chemicals that have contaminated SSFL’s soil and vegetation. Further, it may not be possible to identify whether radioactive particles migrated before or after the fire. “We understand the study won’t address all concerns,” said Duffield. “Contamination from SSFL has been migrating off site for years, and now the Woolsey Fire may have caused even more migration.”
Melissa Bumstead, a West Hills resident whose young daughter has twice survived a rare leukemia she blames on SSFL, agrees. “Given what our family and our community have been through, it’s horrible that we even have to worry about potentially radioactive smoke and ash by the Woolsey Fire,” Bumstead said. Bumstead has mapped over 50 rare pediatric cancers in the area, and launched a Change.org petition for cleanup that at press time had been signed by over 531,000 people. “I don’t trust DTSC at all. They’re responsible for cleaning up the site’s contamination but they continue to benefit SSFL’s site-owner, Boeing, instead of the community.”
Community members and health advocates say that their focus now is ensuring that SSFL is finally and fully cleaned up. “Our greatest frustration is that if DTSC had kept its word, the site would be cleaned up by now and we wouldn’t have new worries related to the fire,” Duffield said. In 2010, DTSC signed agreements with the Department of Energy and NASA that committed them to clean up all detectable contamination in their operational areas by 2017. DTSC also in 2010 committed to require Boeing Corporation, which owns most of the site, to cleanup to comparable standards.
But the cleanup has not yet begun, and DTSC is currently considering proposals that could even leave all of SSFL’s contamination permanently on site. Boeing mounted a formidable greenwashing campaign against a full cleanup, and DTSC issued a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) last year indicating that much of the contamination would not be removed. Community members worry that if the DEIR is finalized, their hopes for the full, mandated cleanup will be dashed.
“We’re asking governor-elect Newsom to step in now,” Bumstead said, “We need him to direct DTSC to honor its cleanup commitments and radically reform that agency. They’ve failed us and other communities across California. We’re thankful to Fairewinds for getting involved and helping us make decisions based on trustworthy data.”
—Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles has worked for the cleanup of SSFL for over 30 years, and Parents vs. SSFL is a grassroots group demanding full compliance with SSFL cleanup agreements as required by law.