Dirty Business

Dirty Business

New law cleaning up Rocketdyne for parkland may not stop adjacent KB Home development pushed by Simi

By Michael Collins 11/01/2007

The apocalyptic Ranch Fire marching toward Simi Valley Oct. 22 never made it to the city limits, but smoky wind gusts up to 70 mph heralded the firestorm that would take place at the city council meeting that night. Shouldering against dust devils that made it hard to walk, the “Radiation Rangers,” a local citizens group, made their way into Simi Valley City Hall. They were determined to force the city to conduct a new Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the proposed 1,595-acre Runkle Canyon development because they contend that the original report is inaccurate and new pollution information has been uncovered by themselves and the municipality.

The Rangers assert that the 461-residence KB Home scheme is contaminated by radiological and chemical pollution emanating from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in eastern Ventura County. The Boeing-owned lab, commonly known as Rocketdyne, is the site of this country’s worst nuclear meltdown and countless toxic spills, dumping and mishaps over the 50 years it served on the frontlines of the Cold War. The partial meltdown of Rocketdyne’s Sodium Reactor Experiment, which supplied the nation’s first commercially available electricity to the then tiny town of Moorpark, released up to hundreds of times more radiation than the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster. Studies have linked the lab to cancers in its workers and in the surrounding communities. Indeed, Boeing paid $30 million to settle lab-related lawsuits against it in the fall of 2005.

“If we hadn’t come forward to stop this thing, that home project would have started last August [2006], been built and right now you would have a situation with toxins in that canyon in homes,” said “Toxic Terry” Matheney, a Ranger who lives next to Runkle Canyon. “We know the toxins are there. You checked it. We checked it. And yet the bill that was just signed, 990 — and you guys supported that — to have that Santa Susana Field Lab cleaned up to its utmost [is law]. We feel that if it’s good enough for you guys to vote for that to be done on such a large scale up there, knowing that it’s toxic, then we should do the same thing down here. We feel that lives are at stake.”

The city disagrees and has let both the residents and the media know it. Council members have condemned the Rangers as NIMBYs and alarmists, and have repeatedly questioned their character and motivations, hostile viewpoints reported in the Ventura County Star and Simi Valley Acorn.

Such contentiousness continued at the Oct. 22 meeting.

“Be careful with some of the people that are behind some of this stuff because it is rhetoric,” said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Sojka, who calls the issue personal because his father died of leukemia. “They put out fliers that say we’re in the back pocket of the developer, that we’re criminals, that just all we want to do is build all over Simi Valley, and that’s not true.”

While the Rangers' fliers and Web site don't refer to council members as criminals, they do reveal that four out of five council members, except Council Member Michele Foster, have received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from KB Home, the previous developer of the property, GreenPark Runkle, and Boeing since 2002.

Summaries of the contributions are published on the citizens' Web site, StopRunkledyne.com, and have been substantiated by copies of campaign contributions forms obtained by the Reporter. It is unclear whether the city’s Code of Ethics and Conduct demands disclosure or that council members make a “declaration of conflict” prior to discussions of the development at City Council meetings.

Community members also complain that the city has not agendized the Runkle Canyon issue, even though two new tests of the property, one by the Rangers and the other by the city, have found alarming levels of heavy metals. They maintain that the council's failure to fully discuss the issue of pollutants with the community, and misinterpreting scientific reports including their own, belies a disturbing lack of understanding of the science involved in developing Runkle Canyon, or maybe something worse.

For its part, KB Home has attempted to placate alarmed residents by conducting a new series of soil tests to determine if strontium-90 has turned the development’s soil into property too hot to handle. Sampling took place for three days beginning Oct. 3 with about 60 dirt specimens collected from where KB Home plans to build, or about one sample per two acres. This sampling, done with a city official looking on, seems at odds with KB Home’s Runkle Canyon Web site, which says no more testing is necessary: “We already have independent tests that indicate that the property is suitable for residential development, and no new information has been presented that would call into question those conclusions.”

Dan Hirsch, president of the nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap, has trepidations about the safety of the property and the new tests. Hirsch, who first revealed publicly the 1959 partial meltdown to Warren Olney of KNBC-Channel 4 News and the Los Angeles Times in 1979, also broke the news of the high strontium-90 readings in Runkle Canyon to this reporter in late 2004. Hirsch questioned the validity of KB Home’s new testing at a quarterly Rocketdyne Workgroup meeting Oct. 18.

“Strontium-90 is a radioactive material you get from a nuclear reactor and a nuclear bomb,” Hirsch told the crowd of nearly 100 at the Simi Valley Cultural Center, which included officials from the EPA and Department of Energy (DOE). “It has a 30-year half life, which means it’s dangerous for about 600 years. It’s in the same position in the periodic chart as calcium, so it mimics calcium, meaning it concentrates in bone, can radiate in bone causing bone cancer and leukemia. What’s weird with the history of all this is that the developer went out and took a bunch of measurements of strontium-90, and (the results) were not provided to the city when the city gave its EIR. The developer told the city that all the results came back at background and below any health goals, and so the city simply included that sentence in their final Impact Report.

“The statements made by the developer to the city were false, so the city, what it put into its EIR, was false, and that’s why you need a huge amount of credibility now for any additional sampling,” Hirsch continued. “The developer has a self interest. The developer hadn’t disclosed this in the first place.”

The results to which Hirsch refers, and which were not included in the EIR, indicate strontium-90 soil readings in Runkle Canyon average 37 times normal for the area with a high more than 411 times above background. This reporter’s Web site, EnviroReporter.com, has calculated that more than 112 tons of dust will be made aloft by the construction of this project.

Armed with this information, and with the fact that Runkle Canyon is in an 11-acre drainage leading off the nuclear testing area of Boeing’s lab, the Radiation Rangers are in the midst of a battle reminiscent of the one fought over neighboring Ahmanson Ranch, a massive Washington Mutual development derailed in 2003 after revelations in the Reporter of chemical and radioactive materials plaguing the project (See: “Rocketdyne Ranch,” Dec. 12, 2002). The Runkle Canyon clash also revolves around contamination leaching off of the Rocketdyne site. Discovery of the toxic rocket fuel oxidizer perchlorate in Ahmanson groundwater helped sink that development which was finally resolved when Washington Mutual sold the property to the state, which then opened it to the public as parkland Dec. 1, 2003.

Runkle Canyon’s groundwater has more than double the perchlorate in its underground aquifer than Ahmanson has, though unlike the Washington Mutual development, KB Home would not use the tainted water for irrigation. Runkle Canyon is much closer to Rocketdyne and has far higher readings of radiation as well. In addition, toxic heavy metals were discovered in Runkle surface water last May by the Rangers who paid for their own testing after discovering that the developer has somehow missed testing a gooey muck visible in the canyon’s central stream which is fed by seeps. The tests revealed extraordinarily high amounts of poisonous arsenic, nickel and vanadium in the water and arsenic in the top soil of the nearly dry creek bed.

The Rangers’ tests forced the recalcitrant City of Simi Valley to do its own sampling in early July that found even higher amounts of nickel and vanadium, as well as other dangerous heavy metals including barium, cadmium and lead. Regardless, the city told the Star and Acorn that their tests confirmed the safety of Runkle Canyon.

“We saw lots of bees, butterflies,” Councilmember Barbra Williamson told the Acorn. “I would think if there was something really toxic in the ground we wouldn’t see that.”

Belittled by the City Council and waylaid by the local newspapers, the Rangers were thrown a life preserver Oct. 12 when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a historic agreement to clean up and preserve the Rocketdyne lab as parkland. Boeing agreed to remediate the 2,850-acre outdoor lab to strict EPA Superfund standards which would ameliorate the intensely polluted property’s soil, surface water and groundwater and then donate the land to the state as open space. The bill, authored by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles), will be amended next year to determine exactly which residential contamination levels will be finally employed in cleaning up the site. This concerns Hirsch, who worries the newly imposed standards may be relaxed.

“I think it is appropriate for Dan to raise the issue of what the standard will be,” Sen. Kuehl told the Reporter. “I think it is inappropriate, though, to conclude anything about what that standard will be because I think I have convinced [California EPA] Secretary Adams that it is in the state’s interest not to get chumped on this and therefore settle for too low a standard, because if Boeing gets off with too low a standard, the state is left holding the bag for the rest. EPA is still evaluating the site as a Superfund possibility — the national EPA. Of course, you know Boeing is under court order to meet a certain standard.”

At the workgroup meeting, Norm Riley of the state EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control said, “It's almost impossible to estimate what the final volume will be, but it will be hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of yards of soil that has to be removed off that hillside in order to achieve cleanup standards that we think is necessary to protect the public health and environment.\" Riley will head the DTSC team that will oversee the Rocketdyne cleanup once the bill takes effect Jan. 1. “The property does not transfer until it’s been cleaned to the standards specified by the state. We are not going to take possession of contaminated property.”

Riley and the DTSC aren’t going to be making any substantive moves in Runkle Canyon, at least not anytime soon.

“DTSC has never said that Runkle Canyon is safe or unsafe,” Riley said. “We are aware that the Radiation Rangers have done some work out there and believe that there is a problem.

“For our part, we have issued an order to Boeing, NASA and DOE on Aug. 16 that requires them to do many many different things according to the schedule set out in the order,” Riley continued. “One of the things that they are required to do is to provide to us, within 120 days, a report that presents and discusses all of the offsite work that they have done, all the investigative work they have done outside the boundaries of the facility … when we see that report, we will look at work, if any, they have done in the direction of Runkle Canyon. And based on what we see there, we may order Boeing or NASA or DOE or all three of them to develop work plans to conduct additional investigative work in that area.”

Until then, the residents of Simi Valley are on their own, though the Rangers feel that with an infusion of new support from longtime Rocketdyne activists, they might be able to get the City Council to agendize the issue and subsequently force KB Home to complete a new EIR. They say another possibility is a supplemental EIR that would incorporate the new test results and other factors such as the estimated 18 percent loss of water supplies that the city faces due to cutoffs from the drought-impacted Metropolitan Water District which supplies 80 percent of the city’s water.

“Don’t make this mistake now,” pleaded Christina Walsh of CleanUpRocketdyne.org at the council meeting. “This cannot be undone. When you start digging this up and putting that contaminated dust into the air, you can’t undo it. You are basically re-exposing everybody to the accidents and mistakes of 50 years. And you know better. SB-990; you supported it, you know better. The Governor knows better. He made a deal that says (Rocketdyne) can only be parkland because it is so contaminated. You cannot make this mistake and think that we’re not going to be back.”

Back again for another struggle on the fringes of Rocketdyne’s infamous lab was Mary Wiesbrock, founder of Save Open Space which has 1,000 members in Ventura County. Wiesbrock fought the Ahmanson Ranch project for years and was so instrumental in saving it as parkland, she was honored at the inauguration of the park and had a trail loop named after her.

“We would like to put into the record that the environmental work on the hazards area is inadequate,” Wiesbrock told the council in her three minute public comment. “In order to protect public health and safety of existing residents and new future residents, a full health risk assessment needs to be done. This new health risk assessment must analyze the Runkle property in the following areas: air toxics, soil gases, water and alluvial sampling. All of this should be done in a full grid sampling according to EPA standards, not one sample per every two acres. That is inadequate.”

Judging from the response of the council to a dozen speakers’ concerns, the leaders of Simi Valley don’t seem too moved.

“You know we want to hear what the residents’ concerns are, and we do listen,” said Williamson. “We’ve always listened, but to make those kind of statements by flier or Internet to say that we’re on the take — I mean I’m offended, and I’m not happy. I think it’s the worst thing you can do for this community. We always listen, and for you to put out a publication like that, shame on you. Shame on you. I mean this council is doing everything they can to make sure that everybody gets a fair hearing, not just the residents, but KB Homes, too. They deserve that.”

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