The U.S. Department of Energy announced this week it has decided to demolish and remove, without state oversight, 13 of 18 remaining structures from its portion of the contaminated Santa Susana Field Laboratory as part of the much-delayed cleanup of the site.
However, in a so-called record of decision it issued Monday, the federal agency said it recognizes that the demolition and removal of the other five structures must be “compliant” with state permits and state hazardous waste laws.
Even so, cleanup activists said all of the energy department’s plans are a breach of a legally binding agreement the federal agency and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing the cleanup, signed in 2010.
“The issuance of this … decision marks a significant step forward toward the final cleanup of this site.”
U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry
The 2,850-acre field lab in unincorporated hills just southeast of Simi Valley experienced a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959 when it was the Rocketdyne/Atomics International rocket engine test and nuclear facility, as well as other chemical and radioactive contamination over the years.
The energy department’s former Energy Technology Engineering Center or ETEC, established at the site in the 1960s, served as a premier research facility for the United States during the Cold War.
The federal agency doesn’t own any land at the site, but is responsible for cleaning up one of four areas there – Area 4 – and a northern buffer zone. The site is now largely owned by aerospace giant Boeing.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who toured his department’s portion of the field lab site Sept. 6, said in a statement Monday that as “secretary of energy, one of my main priorities has been to tackle our … cleanup challenges, including the ETEC site.
“I recently had the opportunity to travel to California and visit the site where I was able to see first-hand the progress that has been made and learn about the remaining challenges,” Perry said. “Theissuance of this record of decision marks a significant step forward toward the final cleanup of this site.”
The energy department’s record of decision comes some nine months after it released its final environmental impact statement, which analyzed the potential environmental impacts of cleanup options for its portion of the site. The record of decision announced the option the department has chosen for remediating the 18 structures, cleanup activist Dan Hirsch said Monday.
But the 2010 agreement requires all energy department buildings at the site to be cleaned up under the oversight of the state’s toxic substances control department, said Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nonprofit nuclear policy organization.
The agreement – called an administrative order on consent –also requires all radioactive wastes to be disposed of in a licensed low-level radioactive waste dump, said Hirsch, the retired director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at UC Santa Cruz.
“Instead, DOE has announced that it will usurp the state’s authority and unilaterally tear down 13 of the 18 contaminated buildings and send the radioactive waste to recyclers and landfills not licensed for such waste, creating new risks to public health,” Hirsch said Monday.
Plus, he said, the energy department intends to demolish the five remaining structures with only limited state oversight, in violation of the administrative order on consent.
“The problem is that you’re not allowed in an EIS to pick an optionthat is illegal. And this is illegal.”
Santa Susana Field Lab cleanup activist Dan Hirsch
“The problem is that you’re not allowed in an EIS to pick an option that is illegal,” Hirsch said. “And this is illegal.
“The Trump administration has been trying to break out of this agreement in numerous ways,” he said.
Another cleanup activist, Denise Duffield, associate director of Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles, agreed.
“This action, again, demonstrates DOE’s contempt for the community and the state of California,” she said.
But Kelly Love, an energy department spokesperson, said, “as stated in the record of decision, DOE will develop a demolition plan for each building and dispose of waste in accordance with applicable laws, regulations and requirements.
“Radioactive waste will be disposed of at properly licensed facilities in accordance with the waste acceptance criteria of the receiving facilities,” she said.
Energy department official John Jones, director of the former Energy Technology Engineering Center, wrote in a letter Monday that “the safe and effective cleanup of the ETEC site is a priority for the department. DOE is ready and eager to begin this stage of the ETEC cleanup … that is fully protective of workers, the public and the environment.”
He noted in his letter that the energy department “did not receive any substantive comments regarding the demolition and removal of the buildings,” after the final environmental impact statement was released.
But Hirsch said there is no formal comment period allowed on a final environmental impact statement.
“There were, however, substantive and critical comments on the building demolition and disposal aspects of the earlier draft environmental impact statement, which were very critical and which have been ignored,” he said.
A senior energy department official, Betsy Connell, said in an interview Monday that the demolition of the 13 structures could begin this fall.
“We would anticipate authorizing the contractors to start mobilizing shortly,” she said.
The department anticipates it will take about two years to finish the project.
The department noted that since the 1980s, it has demolished and removed more than 200 other structures from its portion of the site. According to Hirsch, the agency contends all that was done prior to the 2010 agreement.
Russ Edmondson, a spokesperson for the state toxic substances control department, said Monday his department hadn’t yet reviewed the record of decision.
But “DTSC remains fully committed to holding DOE accountable to the requirements of the administrative order on consent negotiated and executed … in 2010,” he said.
Said Hirsch, “That’s the whole issue: whether the state is going to stop DOE.”
He noted that the energy department’s record of decision on its soil and groundwater cleanups at the site is still to be issued.
Edmondson said in 2018 that the cleanup of the site could finally begin this year. In April, however, he appeared to back off that statement. Under the 2010 agreement, the cleanup was supposed to have been completed by the end of 2017.
Boeing is responsible for cleaning up Area 3, its part of Area 1 and a southern buffer zone. NASA administers a smaller portion of the site and is responsible for remediating Area 2 and its part of Area 1.
Mike Harris covers the East County cities of Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, as well as transportation countywide. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-437-0323.