Hot Cave Paintings
NASA, the Chumash and the Burro Flats pictographs
By Joan Trossman Bien 06/13/2013
(The image of the pictograph is of a Chumash painting in Santa Barbara.)
UPDATED June 18
It’s a deal … maybe
After a half-century of delays, and just when you thought the mandatory cleanup might finally move forward at the contaminated Boeing-owned Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL), yet another signed agreement seems to be poised to fail. The December 2010 consent agreement signed by the Department of Energy and NASA with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, the agency in charge of the cleanup, might have been the final agreement that would see actual progress in remediating the witch’s brew of toxic chemicals, heavy metals and radiation that permeates the compound, the residue of a Cold War.
Agencies and others in the agreement, however, are now sending mixed signals as to their future intentions, adding a level of confusion and uncertainty, beginning with the ownership of SSFL.
“Boeing owns most of SSFL and the federal government owns the remainder (all of Area II and a portion of Area l),” said Merrilee Fellows, NASA Public Affairs Officer for SSFL. “These federal lands are referred to as “owned by the federal government and administered by NASA.” The portion of SSFL occupied by DOE is owned by Boeing and leased by DOE.
Advocates of a thorough cleanup of the pollutants, despite some reassurances, may feel the final deal slipping away from them. Some blame Boeing, officials at DTSC, mid-level managers at NASA, mid-level managers at the DOE and the Santa Ynez Chumash Tribe.
It has been nearly 54 years since the defense contractor site at SSFL experienced a partial meltdown at one of the 10 experimental nuclear reactors in Area IV of SSFL. Located on a mountaintop straddling the border between Simi Valley and Chatsworth, the SSFL site is only 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The 1959 nuclear accident lasted for two weeks, during which time radiation was vented over the San Fernando Valley on a daily basis.
In 1996, Boeing purchased Rockwell International, which included the Rocketdyne division, which had conducted tens of thousands of rocket engine tests over the years. The 1959 partial meltdown occurred under the ownership of Atomics International. Although Boeing has since sold Rockwell International, it has retained ownership of SSFL. As the current owner of most of the site, Boeing is now responsible for remediating the contaminated site to the standards which are required.
Ever since the 1959 hushed-up brush with nuclear disaster was uncovered in 1979, a parade of contracts, consent agreements, promises, threats and court actions have failed to get the poisons off the mountain and out of the groundwater. During that time, radioactivity, heavy metals and deadly chemicals have soaked the SSFL compound. When California passed a law in 2007, SB 990, that required all of the stakeholders to clean up the mess to the most stringent standard — agricultural — Boeing decided instead to sue California in federal court. Boeing prevailed and the case is now on appeal. To understand what is happening to the current agreement, you need to know the standards of cleanup. The strictest standard is agricultural, clean enough to grow food, which is also referred to as the original background standard, the amount of radiation that existed in the background before anything was built on the land. The next standard is residential, which is clean enough for houses to be safely inhabited. Third on the list is industrial. And the least strict standard, that which can have the highest radiation reading, is open space. That is the standard for public parks because people are only exposed to the radioactivity for a few hours at a time.
Boeing insists that it is continuing to abide by an early consent agreement.
“In 2007, Boeing signed a consent order, a comprehensive cleanup agreement with the Department of Toxic Substances Control and continues to comply with it,” said Boeing spokeswoman Kamara Sams. “Our site will be restricted and preserved as open space parkland. However, we are committed to cleaning up the site to a suburban residential level, which provides 10 times more safety than what’s required for open space or parks in the state of California.”
It has been 54 years since the defense contractor experienced a partial meltdown at one of the 10 experimental nuclear reactors
in Area IV of Santa Susana Field Laboratory.
Sams said that Boeing has removed or treated more than 74,000 cubic yards of soil site-wide. Sams also said that 400 structures have been dismantled and that a state-of-the-art groundwater treatment system has been installed.
An invitation was extended to the community to “attend one of our frequent walking and bus tours so they can see the progress at the site for themselves.”
Nuclear expert Dan Hirsch is the co-founder of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nonprofit nuclear policy organization focusing on issues of nuclear safety, waste disposal, proliferation, and disarmament, and has been actively trying to get SSFL cleaned up for 30 years.
“The site is heavily contaminated with radioactivity and toxic chemicals. That contamination includes soil, groundwater and surface water,” said Hirsch. “The Los Angeles Regional Quality Control Board has cited SSFL for scores of violations of water pollution limits in recent years; i.e., contamination has been migrating offsite in surface runoff whenever it rains. Contaminants have been found at the nearby Brandeis Bardin Camp Institute and the Sage Ranch Park, part of the Santa Monica Conservancy, as well as two proposed housing developments. A quarter of the water wells in Simi Valley have been found to be contaminated with perchlorate. The TCE plume, which covers a significant portion of the 2,850 acres of the site, has migrated offsite as well.”
Mark Malinowski of DTSC said, despite the Boeing water treatment system, it could take centuries to get rid of the contaminants completely. He said the geology of the site is fractured rock and very complex.
“Contaminated groundwater that is caught in a dead-end fracture cannot be easily removed,” Malinowsky said. “Some chemicals stick to the rock and soil. Stuck contaminants can be at concentrations that continue to contaminate the groundwater. Pump and treat can be a very time consuming and expensive approach. Pumping will have to continue for many more decades.”
The guys in the white hats?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was given $41 million in stimulus money to establish which radionuclides are still present and their potency. The survey was also expected to compare the current readings to the original background levels.But after some samples were sent to various labs, trouble began — the background information was not being uniformly calculated.
Gregg Dempsey of the EPA offered an explanation at a community meeting in Simi Valley on December 11, 2012.
Dempsey said the labs were the problem. “We really had to spend a lot of extra time with them [the labs] on making sure that the data product they got to us could be validated,” and there was difficulty determining the background levels of remediated areas.
According to the EPA website, there are massive amounts of hazardous chemicals and radioactive substances littering SSFL, including some of the most toxic substances known to man such as dioxins and plutonium.
“Past site operations have resulted in soil and groundwater contamination. Primary chemical contaminants include a variety of radionuclides, trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), metals and petroleum hydrocarbons . . .. It is estimated that more than 500,000 gallons of TCE is beneath the site. Radionuclides associated with (Area IV) nuclear operations include tritium, plutonium-238, plutonium-239, iodine-131, strontium-90, cesium-137, cobalt-60, thorium-228 and uranium-235.”
A 2006 UCLA study estimated that the chances of getting cancer from the toxins were statistically higher for workers who had been at SSFL for several years. On the DTSC website, a warning about offsite migration was issued.
“The following chemicals should be considered for continuing offsite monitoring: PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), PCDDs (polychlorinated dibenzodioxins)/PCDFs (polychlorinated dibenzofurans), perchlorate, beryllium, asbestos, arsenic, chromium, mercury, lead, N-nitroso-dimethylamine, TCE, and DCE.
“A comprehensive offsite monitoring of radionuclides is warranted given the recent detection of tritium at levels as high as 83,000 pCi/L (PicoCuries per liter) in new groundwater wells. Some radionuclides to monitor offsite include: tritium, cesium-137, strontium-90, radium 226/228, plutonium-238, thorium-230, and uranium-235.
“Municipal water supply companies using groundwater wells in Ventura and Los Angeles counties (within three miles of SSFL) should regularly monitor for perchlorate, NDMA, 1,4-dioxane, and chromium and assess the ability of their water treatment systems to remove these chemicals.”
Another issue in this long-running drama is seen in the criticism that was leveled at the top officials at DTSC by Consumer Watchdog. The consumer advocate group filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) alleging that Chief Deputy Director of DTSC Odette Madriago and Deputy Director Stewart Black had financial conflicts of interest through large personal investments with the very corporations they were required to regulate.
In a letter to DTSC Director Debbie Raphael, state Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, wrote that the performance of DTSC was “failing to adequately do its job to protect California from dangerous and poisonous substances.”
The Ventura County Reporter inaccurately reported on June 6, 2013, that Stewart Black, deputy director for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, is leaving the Department. Black is not leaving. Additionally, the article may appear to imply that Chief Deputy Director of DTSC Odette Madriago is leaving the department as a result of the findings of an FPPC investigation. Madriago, unrelated to any investigation, announced earlier this spring that she has stepped down as Chief Deputy Director and is retiring at the end of the year.
NASA and the Chumash Tribe
After signing the 2010 agreement, a different arm of NASA, the Office of Inspector General, launched an internal audit that showed the standard for the contractual cleanup will cost more than a more modest cleanup of the site.
“NASA’s Office of the Inspector General conducted the audit. They are a body separate and independent from the operational activities of NASA. Audits and other activities are undertaken by them at their own initiative.”
Since those results were published in a report titled, report titled “NASA Committed to an Excessive and Unnecessarily Costly Cleanup,” NASA has been offering reasons why it should not clean up the land to original background standard.
“NASA has agreed to clean its portion of the Santa Susana site to a level that exceeds the generally accepted standard necessary to protect human health in light of the expected future use of the site. Moreover, the cleanup is likely to cost taxpayers significantly more than the cleanup effort NASA agreed to in its 2007 Consent Order with the State of California — a remediation level that was more stringent than what would be required based on the expected use of the site.”
The report then details the estimated and projected costs and truckloads, emphasizing how much more expensive it will be to adhere to the 2010 consent agreement. It also states that it cannot meet the 2017 deadline. No equation that determines the cost or number of truckloads has been agreed upon by all parties.
The EPA survey found examples of extremely high levels of radiation, 1,000 times background in one instance, but “look-up” charts needed to calculate precisely what needs to be done have not yet been created. The audit report further indicated:
“NASA, Boeing, and DOE officials told us that political interest in the SSFL cleanup is rooted in a long history of community distrust about the federal government’s activities at the site, particularly the nuclear testing and research the government conducted there in the 1950s. According to DOE officials, a partial meltdown of one of the nuclear reactors at DOE’s portion of the site in 1959 has been a longstanding focus of public attention and suspicion from anti-nuclear groups. DTSC also cited community distrust as one of the reasons California has taken a particularly aggressive approach to the SSFL cleanup.”
NASA said it is still waiting for the results and data from the EPA survey, although the raw results were released in December, some six months ago.
After reading the NASA internal audit report, a concerned Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., sent a letter to the NASA administrator on March 29, 2012:
“I was alarmed to learn that NASA has threatened to unilaterally move forward without addressing the state’s legitimate concerns and without laying the groundwork for protecting public health in a manner that is consistent with its agreement. I share California’s very serious concerns about what appears to be NASA’s apparent disregard of the commitment that it has made to the state and its citizens.”
When asked why NASA launched its own internal audit and why it was happened after the consent agreement of 2010 had been signed by NASA, a brief reply came from Renee Juhans, executive officer of the NASA Office of Inspector General: “We have no further comment.”
Further complicating the cleanup, the Santa Ynez Chumash Tribe has entered the picture and wants to buy the NASA portion of the SSFL, where the Burro Flats Painted Cave is located. The cave holds ancient pictographs, which may be the most complete in the state and are about 1,000 years old.
In a press release, referring to the agreed cleanup of the NASA portion of SSFL, tribal spokesman Sam Cohen said the Chumash are requesting the land be transferred to the tribe in fee title instead of the typical federal trust. Cohen says that fee title “prevents it from being used as a casino.”
Nuclear expert Dan Hirsch of Committee to Bridge the Gap is concerned about what Cohen did not include in his statement. Hirsch referred to the routine process of changing the fee title to a trust title with the federal government. When the title is in trust, the land becomes a virtual part of the reservation and, with that change, also establishes tribal sovereignty. As such, government regulations, even on a very local level, are no longer in authority. The Indian law of the tribe becomes the law of the land.
“Once they get it into fee (title), they can transfer it into trust. They are the Santa Ynez Band that operates a casino. The amounts of money that they could bring in would be in the billions. You acquire it in fee. You transfer it into trust. And you create a casino.”
“I very much respect their desire to protect sacred sites but I want to make sure any such action precludes the establishment of a casino,” said Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks.
Cohen said there is no possibility of a casino on the property.
“If the tribe owns the land, we’ll be in the best position to protect sacred sites,” Cohen said. “We are definitely committed to the cleanup. But we are also committed to the protection of the cultural resources on the site. So far, I have not seen any conflicts between the two goals. I don’t see a conflict.”
NASA takes great pride in the way it has protected the Burro Flats Painted Cave and the ancient pictographs, according to NASA program director Allen Elliott, who is in charge of NASA’s operations and land use.
“NASA takes its obligation for protection extremely seriously and has been very careful to limit access to Burro Flats [Painted] Cave to protect it from damage or harm,” Elliott said. “The site has been under our stewardship for over 50 years and has remained undamaged. Both GSA and NASA as federal agencies recognize the importance of protecting the site in the future regardless of the ultimate owner.”
NASA project manager at SSFL, Peter Zorba, is in charge of the cleanup at SSFL for NASA.
“The Santa Ynez Chumash Band is one of the ‘consulting parties’ under the National Historic Preservation Act, and like many other consulting parties and local tribes, has been expressing concerns regarding the proposed cleanup since our initial discussions began in 2011,” Zorba said.
Parks questioned whether the Chumash, assuming they get the power of tribal sovereignty like other federally recognized tribes, would be bound by the elaborate cleanup agreement orders that apply to the portion of the sprawling facility that they are seeking.
A Los Angeles Times article on Oct. 30, 2012, reported, “Although decades of security have helped preserve the cave’s painted images, Cohen said the tribe fears the effects of possible cleanup measures.” Cohen describes one cleanup measure as “scraping the site clean,” possibly damaging the paintings.
Rick Brausch, who is directing the cleanup for DTSC, said those fears were unfounded.
“We’ve heard hyperbole being kicked around about scraping the top off the mountain and it’s not remotely accurate,” Brausch said.
Zorba said NASA’s contractual obligations will be met. “NASA remains committed to completing the cleanup of the portions of SSFL that NASA administers, regardless of any change in ownership and the timing of any change.”
Nuclear watchdog Hirsch is concerned, however, about possible failure to remove the contamination if the land eventually falls under national sovereignty.
“From a safety standpoint, if they [Chumash] acquire the land before it is cleaned up, there are serious questions as to whether or not the cleanup can even occur,” he said. “The Native American tribe is arguably sovereign. Therefore, federal environmental laws do not apply?”
Local politicians demand cleanup
Many local agencies and groups have formally signed resolutions demanding that Boeing and the others clean up the mess so no one else is exposed to the hazards that are present.
The Ventura County Board of Supervisors and the city of Simi Valley have passed resolutions confirming their expectations that SSFL will be cleaned up to the standards in the 2010 agreement. Recently, the Los Angeles City Council passed a similar resolution.
L.A. City Councilman Dennis Zine was one of the sponsors and explained why the city of L.A. is so concerned about the pollutants remaining at SSFL.
“The site is on the fringe of Ventura County but the impact is on Los Angeles,” Zine said. “We are concerned with health standards, health issues, cancer from the heavy metals and absorption into the groundwater supply. We’ve been discussing this cleanup for years. It’s been a very long song and it doesn’t seem to end the talking, with very little actual activity taking place on the cleanup. I think one of the problems is, who is in charge?”
Congresswoman Julia Brownley, D-Thousand Oaks, said she expects the cleanup to proceed according to the agreement. “I want to make sure that NASA and DOE uphold their commitment to clean up the property. I want to make sure that both DOE and NASA have the appropriate budget available to them for cleanup.”
If this dysfunctional co-existence between a toxic mountain and an urbanized area is our legacy from the Cold War, did we really win?