As of this coming August, it will be officially 60 years since the partial nuclear meltdown at the Rocketdyne/Atomics International rocket engine test and nuclear facility in Simi Valley, also known as the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. Established in the 1940s, work for the federal government included the development and testing of 10 nuclear reactors and testing thousands of NASA rocket engines. Chemicals used regularly onsite included 800,000 gallons of the carcinogenic chemical compound trichloroethylene among other dangerous chemicals.

Numerous academic studies validate radiation exposure concerns while at least one study by the property owner, The Boeing Company, refuted it, the debate over health concerns seems to leave a lot of wiggle room about 1. The urgency to clean up the site, and 2. How intensive the cleanup needs to be as Boeing plans to use it only as open space — the rules would change if it were to be developed.

In 2010, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy entered into an agreement that called for a full cleanup of the 2,850-acre field lab. Since then, not only has the site not been cleaned up, but there have been heated disputes over new plans that say that the degree of the cleanup can be more superficial than a full cleanup since it will only be open space. In January and again just this week, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control put the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA, respectively, on warning that they need to follow the original intensive full cleanup plan. But what that means is unclear.

The price tag for the full cleanup has been estimated to cost at least $200 million, depending on the reference point, which includes removing hundreds of truckloads of dirt and depositing it elsewhere. Meanwhile, there are countless stories of cancer diagnoses over the last several decades that appear at least to have some correlation to living near Rocketdyne. But it’s unclear what putting federal agencies on warning means — does it mean that California will then take these agencies to court where the debate could be prolonged years, decades, indefinitely? 

It’s difficult to feel any sense of satisfaction that after 60 years since the meltdown and nine years after the formal agreement was made that California warning federal agencies to get moving with the full cleanup will result in anything productive. It seems as though that unless the state actually pulls the money together itself, takes responsibility for the cleanup and then demands reimbursement from those federal agencies, that only more of the same will ensue.

It’s an unfortunate part of our society that those who are impacted the most by government proceedings are the ones who get the least amount of respect. Until the people working at these public agencies see their own family suffering from cancer or other health issues as it pertains to the radiation exposure at Rocketdyne, hope for progress seems a long shot. But it’s the best we have, to settle for the suffering while the big dogs bark at each other.