Boeing blocks lab cleanup
Rocketdyne lab remediation left in limbo
By Michael Collins 11/19/2009
Boeing’s filing of a federal complaint on Friday the 13th against the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control over cleaning up the monstrously polluted Santa Susana Field Lab was no tardy Halloween trick. The move attempts to gut state Senate Bill 990, which was signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in October 2007, to ensure that the 2,850-acre site is cleaned up to the highest standards.
Invalidating SB 990 would save Boeing hundreds of millions of dollars. The state’s stringent cleanup levels would be relaxed, saving Boeing on the amount of soil and groundwater contamination that would have to be removed from the site and sent to a dump.
If Boeing is successful, federal EPA “Superfund” standards would apply. That would protect the defense contractor giant from most of the remediation costs, due to a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that restricts Superfund liabilities for some corporations.
But to hear Boeing tell it, this blocking action is about saving critters, among other things. In a unique twist of logic, the lawsuit contends that the extensive SSFL remediation would actually hurt the environment.
“Boeing reluctantly took this action due to our concern that the changes wrought by SB 990 in the normal cleanup process under state and federal laws could cause unintended consequences that would damage the biologic, historic and cultural resources of Santa Susana, which is home to several endangered species and a wide assortment of plants and wildlife,” Boeing representative Kamara Sams said in a statement. A VCReporter request for comment was not returned in time for deadline.
“I think it’s ludicrous that Boeing would cite protection of biological resources as one of their reasons for not wanting to remove contaminated soil,” Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, 2nd District, said. “It sounds like they’re more interested in protecting five-legged frogs and two-headed lizards than protecting future generations from radiological and other carcinogenic contaminants.”
Parks, whose district borders the lab, has reason to be concerned. The former Rocketdyne complex is heavily contaminated by chemicals and radiation from decades of rocket testing. Tens of thousands of rocket tests have left the lab’s groundwater contaminated with upward of 800,000 gallons of trichloroethylene, a vaporizing toxic solvent.
On 90 acres at the westernmost end of SSFL, the Department of Energy (DOE) had 10 nuclear reactors and a “hot lab,” where nuclear power plant fuel rods were cut apart. A large unlined area was used to set ablaze barrels of radioactive sodium.
In 1959, the sodium reactor experiment partially melted down and has been estimated to have released hundreds of times more radiation than the more famous Three Mile Island meltdown did 20 years later.
The result has been gross radiological contamination in a hot zone between the Simi and San Fernando valleys.
Attorneys for Boeing argue that the nuclear contamination took place under federal DOE oversight, and therefore, they’re in charge of the cleanup, not the state EPA’s DTSC.
The lawsuit was anticipated since this reporter’s Web site, EnviroReporter.com, broke the news (in an interview posted July 22) that the former DTSC project manager for SSFL, Norman E. Riley, said that Boeing would sue.
“If we are not able to reach an agreement with them [Boeing] for the land, pursuant to 990 standards, then there will be litigation,” Riley said. Riley asserted that the legislation was a “hindrance” and “unnecessarily restrictive.” A month later, Riley was sacked by DTSC and quickly retired.
Superfund pollution thresholds are significantly more relaxed than those dictated by SB 990, one reason activists and the state wanted the legislation in the first place. Less strict limits would mean less remediation, which would potentially save Boeing substantial sums.
A May 2009 Supreme Court decision has limited the amount of money the government can demand from companies occupying land polluted by its predecessors and under the aegis of Superfund. That ruling codified a proportional cost assessed to companies like Boeing, instead of making them foot the entire bill. Since most of the pollution at the lab took place before Boeing bought it in 1996, it could be off the hook for all the contamination that took place in the decades before.
The decision to sue seems to violate an agreement between DTSC and Boeing in early October that “between now and February 15, 2010, Boeing has agreed not to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality or validity of SB 990.”
Clearly, Boeing broke that pact. It also reneged on SB 990. If Boeing is successful, the taxpayers will pick up the tab for much of a reduced cleanup.
“It is disappointing that Boeing isn’t a more responsible corporate steward,” Parks said. “It continues to avoid its responsibility to clean up the facility and land, and now is challenging a state law that protects the environment.”
Joan Trossman Bien contributed to this article.