People will be gathering at the Simi Valley’ Cultural Arts Center in Ventura County on October 1 to discuss nuclear contamination in their community and ponder the question: “Will the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Ever Be Cleaned Up?”
The answer depends in large part on what is meant by “cleaned up.”
On Friday, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals gave an interpretation (pdf) that might not sit well with the group. The justices upheld a 2011 decision by U.S. District Judge John Walter that strict state cleanup regulations dictated by a 2007 law were trumped by looser federal standards.
The Santa Susana Field Laboratory site is “a terrible environmental mess,” Judge Andrew Kleinfeld wrote for the appellate court. After mentioning twice in the first four paragraphs of the ruling’s “Facts” section that the mess was caused by government work that benefited the nation in “war and peace,” Kleinfeld detailed onsite practices of scattering nuclear material around the premises and “shooting barrels of toxic substances with shotguns to make them explode and burn.”
The former Rocketdyne test facility, on the border between Simi Valley and northern Los Angeles County, was the site of a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959 that released radioactive material into the atmosphere. A lot of the work at the site was done for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other federal agencies.
The incident wasn’t publicly known until UCLA student Michael Rose stumbled on it in 1979 while sorting through an archive. There were also nuclear incidents in 1964 and 1969.
In 2002, the department identified the toxic chemical perchlorate in local groundwater and the next year linked it to Santa Susana. An estimated 800,000 gallons of the known-carcinogen Trichloroethylene (TCE) were used to clean engine parts there before and after the firing of 30,000 rocket engines. This ultimately leached into the groundwater, spreading out into several plumes, as well as impacted several areas of surface waters. TCE was detected in 355 of 425 monitoring wells sampled at the site.
Boeing currently owns most of the site and NASA manages the rest for the federal government. The 2,850-acre property used to be out in the boonies. Now, 150,000 people live within five miles it.
The state got involved in 2007 when it passed Senate Bill 990, authored by former state Democratic lawmaker Sheila Kuehl, a candidate for Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. It prescribed a higher standard of cleanup than the federal government. Essentially, the federal standard requires that the site be clean enough to build on and populate with people.
The state standard requires that the soil, water and air be clean enough to conduct subsistence farming. Judge Kleinfeld characterized it thusly:
“In effect, Senate Bill 990 (“SB 990”) would require that hypothetical subsistence farmers could live safely on their farms eating nothing but their chickens, eggs, crops, and cheese and drinking their milk from their cows eating the grass, in this patch of nuclear and chemical toxic waste in the Los Angeles suburb.”
That would cost more. And some weight was given to Boeing’s argument that there wasn’t going to be subsistence farming on that land anytime soon. But the judge said it all boiled down to one thing: “SB 990 directly interferes with the functions of the federal government.”
No one is contesting the damage done to the site. “The government's work unarguably imposed tremendous harm to the environment. The soil, ground water and bedrock were seriously contaminated. Disasters and foolishness added to the environmental harm,” Judge Kleinfeld wrote.
Residents in the area fear that the foolishness has not quite ended.