Guest Blog: Associate Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, Denise Duffield, on the Fight to Clean up California’s Contaminated Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL)

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

Tonight, MSNBC will air a powerful documentary called “In the Dark of the Valley” at 7 p.m. PST/ 10 p.m. EST. The film follows the story of Melissa Bumstead, a mother whose search for answers about her young daughter’s cancer leads her to the contaminated Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), a former nuclear and rocket engine testing site near Los Angeles. I have been involved in the fight to clean up SSFL for 15 years, and PSR-LA has been involved for over 30 years. PSR-LA Board President Dr. Bob Dodge and I are featured in the film, along with our longtime ally Dan Hirsch, President of Committee to Bridge the Gap; generations of SSFL cleanup activists, and many others.

I urge you to watch the documentary tonight or record it to watch later. Not only is the film masterfully done and visually stunning, it manages to capture the heart of one of the longest and most intensely fought battles to clean up a contaminated site in the US. That’s a big deal.

I’m writing to you all today because as I reflect on the fight to cleanup SSFL — the struggles, the hard work, the heartache, the setbacks, the frustration, the power of the forces we’re up against, the greenwashing, the gaslighting,the personal sacrifices made by so many, the folks we’ve lost along the way — the fact that this film was made so well and is going to be broadcast nationally is more than a big deal. It’s a victory. And victories, especially in these troubled times, should be shared and savored. Particularly for those of you who don’t know as much about SSFL, understanding just how brutal SSFL cleanup advocacy is, and how amazing the community and cleanup advocates are, makes this film — this victory — even sweeter.

The fight to cleanup SSFL is not for the faint of heart. The 2,850 acre site is plagued with heavy widespread soil and groundwater contamination resulting from over 50 years of nuclear and aerospace activities — many done with negligence and without regard for human health or the environment. Federally-funded studies show increased cancer deaths for the most exposed workers, increased cancers in the populations associated with proximity to the site, and that SSFL contamination migrates over EPA levels of concern. All of us working to ensure that the site is fully cleaned up have been touched deeply by the magnitude of suffering and loss in the community.

The cleanup fight is complex. SSFL has three responsible parties, numerous regulatory agencies, and requires advocacy at the city, county, state, and federal level. Cleanup advocates therefore must participate in countless agency meetings held by DTSC, DOE, NASA, the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board and others. We also must engage numerous government officials and bodies — the nearby cities of Los Angeles, Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Agoura Hills, and others, Los Angeles County and Ventura County, the California legislature, the U.S. Congress, the White House.

We’ve gone through so much together. We’ve held demonstrations, hosted community events, vigils, and meetings, put forth petitions and advocacy alerts, launched websites, held press conferences, filed lawsuits. We’ve joined with similarly impacted communities in California and nationally through the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. We’ve had to be bold. We’ve taken over agency meetings, demonstrated inside an elected official’s office, protested and stopped cars going into SSFL for Boeing’s greenwashing tours to make sure people knew the site was still contaminated.

And we’ve paid a price for our activism. We’ve been personally attacked. Our employers and our families have been harassed. We’ve been pilloried in traditional and social media, often with cut-out-of-whole cloth lies. We face the meltdown denier, the egoists, the former employees of Boeing and DOE who’ve repurposed themselves into community members opposed to the cleanup, the individuals so difficult to deal with that they’re on elected officials “do not engage” lists. Agencies have even hired armed security guards and police for SSFL meetings.

Many times I’ve told my husband that I didn’t want to do SSFL anymore, that I couldn’t deal with the toxicity, the repugnance of the — no better word to describe it — evil that is often palpable in the rooms. It is not easy to be eye-to-eye and go toe-to-toe with people who have no problem lying, even if it means children die. Michael reminds me of the good people we know, the people we talk and laugh with in parking lots after meeting, our friends, the impact this work can have on their lives and others’ lives. He tells me to enjoy the fight that he himself has been in since 1998 as an investigative journalist. And sometimes I do, as nerve-racking as it can be, but not without a good deal of anxiety and cursing.

It is into this fraught arena that Melissa Bumstead entered in 2015 with Lauren Hammersley and other mothers she’d met at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. Their first meeting was particularly unruly and contentious — the Agency for Toxics Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) had been called in by the astroturfers to refute prior health studies and declare that SSFL didn’t need much cleanup, and DTSC was all too pleased to oblige. Many people rushed to Melissa after the meeting. I gave her my card, and told her I’d be pleased to speak with her about SSFL if and when she desired. A few months later, she sent me an email asking for some information related to pediatric cancer rates in the zip codes near her. She said she felt traumatized and threatened by the meeting, and didn’t plan on attending any more of them.

And here we are, 6 years later, and Melissa is starring in a documentary that will touch so many lives. She summoned the courage to come back to SSFL meetings, driven by her compassion to protect other families from the devastation of pediatric cancer. She educated herself and the community about SSFL’s history and contamination, learned about the regulatory and legislative process, founded her own organization, Parents vs SSFL, and a robust Facebook group, launched a petition that has over 700,000 signatures. And Melissa is not only a great advocate, she’s an amazing person — kind, generous, creative, resourceful, earnest, thoughtful, funny, prayerful, and brave beyond belief. I’m continually impressed at her capacity for building meaningful relationships with so many people.

When Melissa’s daughter Grace’s cancer returned in 2017, she gave all of us a gripping and heartbreaking window into the daily trauma of childhood cancer. Each time she learns of a new diagnosis, or death, she reels again, redoubling her commitment to get SSFL cleaned up. Perhaps no loss impacted her or the community more than when Lauren’s sweet daughter Hazel died in 2018. Lauren has given all of us a lesson in courage and grace as she moves through the most intense grief possible with her family, yet still works to bring public awareness to SSFL.

Now to the film, and the incredibly talented guys behind it. I first met Nicholas, Derek and Brandon in January 2018 when they were filming a video for Melissa’s petition. I was a bit grumpy that morning, hence some language that I didn’t know would make it into the film. “The fellas,” as we’ve come to know them, made good use of it. I can’t say enough about these guys. First, they are so damn nice. And funny. And humble. And patient. I was not always timely in letting them know about SSFL events, leaving them to scramble and change their schedules at the last minute. They would call to ask for an update and I’d say,”Oh yeah, we’re going to Sacramento tomorrow” or “We’re going to Washington DC next week” and they’d have to hustle and probably not get the best airfare. But they would be there. Time and again, at all the meetings and events, incredibly respectful, good-natured and kind, earning the trust and affection of the entire community.

I had no idea, however, just how talented NIck, Derek, and Brandon were until I saw the documentary. Many filmmakers have tried to take on SSFL, but with so many aspects and no seeming end in sight, it just becomes a rabbit hole. But these guys followed through and crossed the finish line, and they did so skillfully, artfully, powerfully. I can’t begin to imagine how many hard decisions had to be made in making this film. The choices they made were masterful. What a gift they have given us, and all who came before us, and everyone engaged in a fight for justice.

We are now at a critical junction in the SSFL cleanup. DOE and NASA have both violated agreements they signed with DTSC in 2010 to fully clean up their areas of the site, and DTSC is engaged in secret negotiations with Boeing that will essentially gut the cleanup. The fight continues.

But today is for celebration.Today a light shines into the darkness of the valley — a light that exposes polluters’ lies, government deceit and wanton disregard for health and the environment, while illuminating the human cost of these crimes and the courage and compassion of impacted families working to make sure their tragedy doesn’t happen to others. I invite you all to celebrate with us.


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