2017-02-16 / Community

Activists furious over missed cleanup deadline at field lab

By Melissa Simon


IN LIMBO—Area IV, pictured in 2014, and other sections of the Santa Susana Field Lab northeast of Thousand Oaks remain contaminated by harmful nuclear and chemical materials despite agreements signed by NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and other stakeholders. 
ACORN FILE PHOTO IN LIMBO—Area IV, pictured in 2014, and other sections of the Santa Susana Field Lab northeast of Thousand Oaks remain contaminated by harmful nuclear and chemical materials despite agreements signed by NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and other stakeholders. ACORN FILE PHOTO A recent announcement that the cleanup of the contaminated Santa Susana Field Lab will miss a 2017 completion deadline has activists fuming.

Denise Duffield, who is lobbying for complete cleanup of the 2,850-acre site, said she was angered by a January statement from the Department of Toxic Substances Control indicating the decontamination work will not begin until this year or next.

DTSC is overseeing cleanup efforts of the entire field lab in the hills of Simi Valley, while NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and Boeing Co. handle remediation for specific portions.

“I’ve known that they haven’t started cleanup for some time (but) what’s new is hearing the really quite absurd excuse they’ve given about not realizing the extent of contamination,” Duffield told the Acorn. “They know how contaminated SSFL is . . . and they’ve known for years.

“If the contamination is worse than it thought, DTSC should be demanding the cleanup agreements are upheld and doing whatever it can to speed up the process. But it’s not.”

Under agreements signed by the stakeholders in 2007 and 2010, all detectable soil contamination was supposed to be cleaned up this year, and plans to remediate the groundwater were to be in place.

Russ Edmondson, a DTSC spokesperson, told the Acorn in an email that before remediation can begin, the agency must prepare a draft environmental impact report outlining the proposed cleanup activities for the entire site.

“Investigation activities for both soil and groundwater are substantially complete and the results are being incorporated into reports that will be used to make cleanup decisions,” he wrote.

“There are still contaminated soils and groundwater on the SSFL property that require cleanup activities. Those sitewide cleanup activities will be addressed in the draft EIR and subsequent cleanup decision documents.”

The draft EIR was expected to be released in late 2016, but DTSC officials now say the document will be ready this year.

Edmonson declined to comment further on the agency’s cleanup plans.

Remediation terms

The field lab—about seven miles northeast of Thousand Oaks—had been used for decades as a nuclear test site and for research in the development of ballistic missiles, rockets and space shuttle equipment. Boeing owns 80 percent of the property, including Area IV, where a partial nuclear meltdown occurred in 1959. The federal government owns the remaining 20 percent.

According to the 2007 cleanup agreement with DTSC signed by NASA, DOE and Boeing, the agencies are required to restore Boeing’s portion of the lab to suburban residential standards, meaning people could safely live on the land without getting sick from contamination.

In 2010, NASA and DOE signed a separate agreement with the California Environmental Protection Agency to clean up part of Area I and all of Areas II and IV of the field lab to background standards, which calls for the removal of all materials that are unnatural to the site.

Dan Hirsch, president of the environmental group Committee to Bridge the Gap, one of many advocates in favor of full SSFL cleanup, said “people were dancing in the streets” when the cleanup agreements were signed a decade ago.

“I am deeply troubled that a cleanup that was supposed to be over hasn’t even started,” Hirsch said. “DTSC and the parties responsible for the pollution have dragged their feet, apparently in the hopes of avoiding their cleanup responsibilities.”

Duffield said the delay is “disingenuous” and “outrageous.”

“(DTSC) has been falling down on the job at many toxic sites throughout the state for years, and despite new leadership and several legislative initiatives . . . not much has changed. Communities are still being exposed, and DTSC is not protecting them as it should,” she said.

Duffield asserts that not cleaning up the field lab only allows harmful nuclear and chemical contamination to continue migrating off-site.

Broken promise

Asked if the 2017 deadline set a decade ago was premature, Hirsch said “absolutely not.”

“The cleanup would be over by now if they had begun when they were supposed to. Instead, it hasn’t even begun,” he said, adding it would realistically take only a few years to complete.

“(Cleanup) is technologically simple (in that) contaminated soil is scooped up and taken to a licensed radioactive waste or hazardous waste disposal site.”

When it comes to remediation at SSFL, Hirsch questioned whether the agencies “will live up to their repeated promises to enforce the cleanup agreement.”

“The site was contaminated 70 years ago. It is astonishing that the parties responsible . . . have gotten away with not cleaning it up for (so long),” he said.

“The agreements promising a 2017 cleanup are enforceable only by the parties that signed them and they are the ones breaking them,” he continued. “If the state doesn’t enforce the agreements, there will be no cleanup and people living nearby will risk dying from migrating pollution.”

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