“Nearly 15 years ago the Boeing Company and the state agency that oversees cleanup of the radioactively and chemically polluted Santa Susana Field Lab signed an agreement that asked Boeing to clean up its portion of the site once known as Rocketdyne.
Now, as Boeing and state officials this week praised their new plan to protect people and the land, a respected expert is among critics who say the company and state moved the goal posts, significantly weakening the promised cleanup.
Among the most outspoken is Dan Hirsch, former director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who reviewed the new 850-page agreement, comparing it to a longstanding 2007 agreement.
“The new cleanup levels are vastly weaker and less protective than the ones promised to uphold” in 2007, he told Los Angeles Daily News.
The 2007 legally binding document required the restoration by 2017 of tainted water and soil in the Simi Hills where nuclear reactor accidents and rocket testing left a disastrous environmental legacy.
But that agreement to clean up the sprawling lands between Simi Valley and Los Angeles was never honored or enforced. The groundwater and soil cleanup never began.
The years of delay drew criticism from government officials, activists who produced an MSNBC film titled In the Dark of the Valley, and highly organized and fearful residents in the area.
On Monday, California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control said the agency finally reached a new agreement with Boeing that promises to keep the company accountable.
But Hirsch said he discovered that under the new agreement, the most stringent standards for cleaning up certain dangerous chemicals, long dubbed by experts as the “residential with garden” scenario, have been weakened.
The “residential with garden” refers to environs where families might grow vegetables in their yards — and then unknowingly eat chemically tainted food.
He said changes in the new agreement would allow Boeing to clean up only a fraction of what was required under the old agreement.
For example, the standard for polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, has been weakened 20 times, he said. The standard for chemicals like benzo(a)pyrene has been weakened 237 times while the standard for cleaning benzo[k]fluoranthene is now about 2,000 times lower, he added.
“The change kills people,” he said.
Melissa Bumstead, founder of Parents Against Santa Susana Field Lab and a West Hills resident, said she struggled to “understand why our government agencies would make a deal with Boeing so they can leave dangerous contamination behind.”
Bumstead, whose daughter Grace was diagnosed with rare cancer at age four, added that “these chemicals are classified as ‘carcinogenic’ and ‘toxic’ for a reason. I believe the (Santa Susana Field Lab’s) contamination caused my daughter’s cancer. Our kids won’t be safe until all of the dangerous chemicals are cleaned up.”
On Monday, California Department of Toxic Substances Control Director Dr. Meredith Williams said, “it’s an agreement that provides us with a path for a safe cleanup and thorough cleanup.”
“That’s what we heard from community members that they wanted to see at the site,” Williams said. “Now we have a path to that.”
DTSC spokesperson Allison Wescott wrote in an email to the Daily News that “any assertion that DTSC has watered down the cleanup standard is false. The agreement supports a residential with a garden cleanup standard that is both scientifically rigorous and protective of human health and the environment.”
The new agreement reached between DTSC and Boeing on Monday creates a framework that would set up a protocol and timelines for Boeing to clean up contaminated soil, groundwater and storm-water runoff.
The framework requires that Boeing remediate radionuclides in the soil to the background level, as if the industrial activity had never happened.
But it’s unclear what standard the state will require Boeing to meet in remediating the other major problem — the chemical contamination.
Officials said on Monday that Boeing will remediate chemical contamination to a standard that could be as stringent as a “resident with garden” level — meaning people can live at the site and consume homegrown produce from their own garden.
During the May 9 press conference, Williams of DTSC said the new agreement only specifies the cleanup standard for radiological contamination. In addressing the cleanup of the chemical pollutants, she added, the state still has to go through the CEQA process before establishing a new standard.
“In the past, Boeing has litigated and disputed anything related to cleanup standards of ‘residential garden,’” she said. Now Boeing has “taken litigation off the table that enables the state to make a decision to (set) a very aggressive cleanup standard.”
Cal EPA director Jared Blumenfeld said that his agency is “committed to the most protective standards that we can achieve.” He added that an environmental impact report for the cleanup of chemical contamination will be finalized late this summer.
Blumenfeld said he was optimistic that the residents would get the most stringent cleanup.
In a statement, Boeing said it “supports the comprehensive framework with the State of California as it provides a clear, accelerated path forward for Boeing’s cleanup at the former Santa Susana Field Laboratory. The framework protects the important environmental and cultural resources at the site, which will never be developed under a conservation easement.”
The field sits at the border of Los Angeles and Ventura counties and encompasses 2,850 hilly acres. Boeing and its predecessors, along with NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy, conducted research, development, assembly and testing of rocket engines, small-scale nuclear reactors, and chemical lasers at the site between 1947 and 2006.
In 1959, the area was the site of a partial nuclear meltdown.
Hirsch, the president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, said he was frustrated that the state signed the agreement without any public input.
It’s not the first time residents and some experts have expressed frustrations about DTSC having negotiations behind closed doors.
Last year, Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks expressed frustrations about DTSC having negotiations with Boeing without public notice.
“There are confidential negotiations between the polluter and regulator,” Parks said in 2021 in an interview with this paper. “I feel like the voice of the residents is left out, and they’re the ones that are impacted. If the county of Ventura had a representative there, then at least they would be representing the people.”
Parks added that “the biggest concern that I have is that in the request that DTSC made to Boeing, they said they wanted these confidential negotiations. Otherwise, they will go back to the 2007 consent order. That implies to me that they are willing to break the 2007 consent order.”
DTSC will host a public meeting on June 2 to present key elements of the new agreement.”