It was a move as deft as any he has ever made in his action films, this time potentially saving countless real lives. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger empowered the state’s Secretary for Environmental Protection, Linda Adams, to hammer out a deal with environmentalists to make sure that California remains in charge of the multimillion dollar cleanup of Boeing’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the hills above Simi Valley. The governor has committed that the place be cleaned up to the highest standards possible.
The Jan. 15 deal leaves the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control in charge of the upcoming cleanup of the 2,850-acre lab, commonly known as Rocketdyne, where the nation’s worst nuclear meltdown occurred in 1959. Years of accidental and deliberate chemical and radiological mishaps and dumping have left Rocketdyne intensely contaminated, according to a number of studies.
"Secretary Adams understood the unique moment in time that we found ourselves in, and that she had an opportunity to make a serious difference in the future of our state," says Christina Walsh of CleanUpRocketdyne.org. "She grabbed it, and that took a lot of courage."
It also took savvy, according to "Toxic Terry" Matheney, a so-called Radiation Ranger who is fighting a proposed housing development in Runkle Canyon that abuts Rocketdyne’s radiological testing area. "It’s clear that Gov. Schwarzenegger is going to the mat on this," says Matheney, who participated in a Los Angeles/Sacramento video conference call meeting with Adams and Rocketdyne activists Jan. 9. "In this fluid situation, it is so encouraging to our community that we are not going to end up getting a raw deal."
For years environmentalists had pressed for a federal EPA Superfund listing, which is a designation deigned for the most polluted places in America. That would put the U.S. EPA in charge of the overall cleanup project, which is scheduled to last until at least 2017 and could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
"We may decide in six months to have it listed," Adams said in the meeting, holding out the possibility that the state’s negotiations with Boeing might fail and the aerospace and military contractor would decide it wants to build homes on Rocketdyne. "I don’t think that there will be residential development on that property. That would be very foolish."
Schwarzenegger’s decision to pass on the Superfund listing, at least for the next six months, was likely influenced by the U.S. EPA’s rejection of the governor’s groundbreaking initiative to curb the state’s greenhouse emissions with what would have been the toughest car, truck and sport utility vehicles gas standards in the country. This rejection in late 2007 angered the governor and prompted a congressional investigation into why U.S. EPA would deny these greenhouse gas regulations. Relations between the state and the agency soured further last week when U.S. EPA refused to hand over to Congress memos related to their decision. Invoking executive privilege, the agency said such disclosures would create a "chilling effect" amongst its employees.
This hasn’t inspired confidence that the Superfund listing would be as much or more effective than the Rocketdyne cleanup law Schwarzenegger signed last fall. Senate Bill 990, authored by State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles), mandates that Rocketdyne be remediated to Superfund levels, but an agreement with Schwarzenegger included the proviso that Kuehl would have to essentially gut her own bill in the new 2008 legislative session as an inducement to keep Boeing at the negotiating table. The new agreement frees Kuehl from having to do this, much to the joy of Rocketdyne watchdogs.
The state does hope, however, that U.S. EPA will take the lead with the radiological survey and cleanup of the lab because of its expertise in this specialty. Activists are particularly keen on getting that help from the federal EPA lab in Las Vegas, even though that unit is not in the regional offices assigned to California, which are located in San Francisco. "We want to get [Las Vegas] back into the equation," Adams said.
"All I care about is that the lab is cleaned up and that the people around it are protected," says Matheney. "This governor of ours is sure showing signs that this is exactly what is going to happen, and he deserves our deepest gratitude."
"He wants you folks to be happy," said Billie Greer, director of the governor’s Los Angeles office during the meeting. "He’s a man of action and he would be down there cleaning it up himself, if he could."