Santa Susana Cleanup in Danger

by CBG President
Dan Hirsch

SEVENTY YEARS AGO, A facility for testing nuclear reactors and rockets too dangerous to be conducted near populated areas was established on the boundary of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. Since then, the population has mushroomed, with half a million people now living within ten miles.

In 1979, Bridge the Gap brought to public attention a partial nuclear meltdown that had occurred at that Santa Susana Field Laboratory in 1959 but had been kept secret for decades. At least three other reactors suffered accidents there as well, along with numerous radioactive fires, spills, and releases. Tens of thousands of rocket tests added to the widespread nuclear and toxic chemical contamination burdening the site, some of which migrates offsite. Government-funded studies found contaminants had migrated offsite in excess of EPA levels of concern, and a greater than 60% increase in incidence of key cancers associated with proximity to the site.

In 2010, Bridge the Gap was instrumental in getting legally binding agreements for full cleanup of the contamination, to be completed by 2017. As we approach the end of 2017, however, the cleanup not only hasn’t been concluded, it hasn’t even begun. The parties responsible for the pollution–the Department of Energy (DOE), NASA, and Boeing— and the regulatory agency, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) have all dragged their feet. And now they are trying to break out of the cleanup commitments and leave virtually all of the contamination not cleaned up.
This would put at continued risk the people living nearby.

In January 2017, DOE released its draft Environmental Impact Statement for the cleanup. Every option proposed would breach the cleanup agreement it had signed in 2010. Rather than cleaning up all the contamination, as promised, DOE proposed to leave in place as much as 99%. Thousands of people submitted comments in protest. The Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles and Ventura County Boards of Supervisors passed resolutions in opposition. The Los Angeles City Attorney, Bridge the Gap, and the Natural Resources Defense Council submitted joint, extremely detailed critical comments. Fifteen years ago, CBG, LA City and NRDC successfully sued DOE when it tried to walk away from cleanup obligations, and the court retains jurisdiction. Now, we may have to return to the court to stop DOE all over again.

In September, DTSC released its draft Program Environmental Impact Report (EIR). It too breaches virtually every commitment DTSC had made to a full and protective cleanup. The agreements DTSC signed bar “leave in place” alternatives. Now, however, in the EIR, it proposes to leave in place, not cleaned up, vast amount of contamination. Once again, CBG is spearheading public resistance to these broken promises.

The fight is really pretty simple: on the one hand, the power of the parties responsible for the pollution, particularly Boeing, and their captured regulatory agencies, and on the other hand, the innocent victims of the contamination for which they are responsible and the obligation to clean it up which they are attempting to evade. Recently, a group of families with children with rare pediatric cancers has become deeply and movingly involved in the fight for cleanup. Many met in the halls of Children’s Hospital’s oncology ward. Most lived in neighborhoods within ten miles of SSFL and became convinced that Santa Susana may have caused some of the cancers.

One of the children, 7-year-old Grace, first diagnosed in 2014, had gone into remission after months of grueling chemo. This summer, the cancer returned, and she is back in Children’s Hospital, valiantly undergoing more chemo and a bone marrow transplant. This is all a fight between corporate greed and corrupt agencies on the one hand and the Graces of the world on the other. And Grace has taught us, among so many other things, that we can’t ever give up.

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