Our region has just been hit by two significant events that affect the health of our community. While we have long awaited some relief for our drought, torrential rainstorms inundated the Santa Susana Field Lab, one of the most polluted places in the state. Storm-water runoff from far lesser storms over recent years resulted in more than 200 instances in which highly toxic and radioactive contaminants migrated offsite at levels in excess of state pollution limits, and one can only imagine the effect these recent very large storms have had.
Around the same time, the Department of Energy (DOE) broke its solemn cleanup commitments and announced it would leave as much of 94 percent of the soil it contaminated at SSFL not cleaned up. Unless people rise up and our elected officials act strongly to enforce the promises, people in neighboring communities will be at perpetual risk from migrating radioactivity and toxic chemicals.
SSFL housed 10 nuclear reactors, of which at least four suffered accidents, including a partial nuclear meltdown. There was a factory for fabricating reactor fuel rods out of plutonium, perhaps the most dangerous substance on earth. There was a “hot lab” in which highly irradiated nuclear fuel rods shipped in from around the nation were cut apart, with several radioactive fires. SSFL illegally burned radioactive and chemically hazardous wastes in open-air pits by shooting barrels of the waste with rifles to ignite them, with the toxic plumes blown over the surrounding communities. It conducted tens of thousands of rocket tests, many using very dangerous fuels, and then flushed out the engines with a million gallons of toxic solvents that were allowed to simply percolate into the soil and groundwater.
The result of this shameful violation of basic environmental protections is widespread contamination of groundwater, surface water and soil, with strontium-90, cesium-137, plutonium-239, perchlorate, PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds and much more. And because the site is located in the hills overlooking more than half a million people within 10 miles, the contamination wants to flow offsite to the places and people below. The site has been fined more than $1 million in recent years for allowing pollutants to migrate off the property at levels deemed unsafe for people or the environment. And as long as the site doesn’t get cleaned up, that will continue.
These awful materials cause cancers, including leukemias, genetic defects, neurological and developmental disorders, among other health problems. A federally funded study by Dr. Hal Morgenstern of the University of Michigan found a greater than 60 percent increase in key cancers in people living near the site, compared to people living farther away. Another government-funded study by a team from UCLA led by Dr. Yoram Cohen concluded that numerous pollutants from the site had migrated offsite at levels in excess of EPA’s levels of concern.
For these reasons, the community was joyous in 2010 when DOE and NASA signed legally binding agreements with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) requiring that all contamination that could be detected in the soil be cleaned up to background, by 2017. It is now 2017 and the cleanup hasn’t even begun. And DOE has just issued a draft environmental impact statement breaking the 2010 cleanup agreement and saying it will only consider three options, none of which complies with its past commitments. One would leave 34 percent of the contamination in place. A second would leave 86 percent. And the third would walk away from a staggering 94 percent of the contaminated soil, just leaving it in place. The 2010 agreement barred any consideration of leave-in-place alternatives.
DOE has essentially thumbed its nose at California, ignoring the fact that DOE can’t walk away from the contract it signed with the state. Furthermore, even if the cleanup agreement didn’t exist, the decision as to how much of its toxic pollution to clean up doesn’t rest with the polluter, but with the state regulator, DTSC. DOE can’t decide to just walk away from most of its contamination.
But DTSC has been, to date, remarkably silent in response to this assault on its authority. Indeed, it has in its own actions undercut the cleanup agreement it signed. DTSC is years late on its own environmental impact report and has been busy undermining the cleanup in other ways as well.
In 2010, we were promised that, with a couple of narrow exceptions, all of the soil contamination that could be detected would be cleaned up. Now it appears likely that close to none will be, and the people in the area will continue to be at perpetual risk from the migrating radioactive and toxic contamination, unless they speak out now, loud and clear, and their elected representatives do the same.
To comment on the new cleanup proposals, go to www.ssflareaiveis.com.
Daniel Hirsch is director of the program on environmental and nuclear policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap.
Robert Dodge is a family physician practicing full time in Ventura. He is president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles (www.psr-la.org) and co-chairs the security committee of Physicians for Social Responsibility (www.psr.org). He also serves on the board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org) and Citizens for Peaceful Resolutions (www.c-p-r.net).