Boeing, Dept. of Energy and NASA push plans to renege on agreements to fully clean up the Santa Susana Field Lab, point of origin for Woolsey Fire
“Time and again, Boeing has cut corners on safety, whether on its airplanes or at SSFL, putting profits above all else.”
“The failure to clean up the site added insult to injury for people impacted by the fire.”
One year after the devastating Woolsey Fire began at and burned most of the contaminated Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL,) Boeing, the Department of Energy and NASA are pushing forward plans to abrogate cleanup agreements and leave most of the radioactive and chemical contamination on the site unremediated. SSFL is grossly polluted from decades of nuclear and rocket-engine testing activities including several accidents, spills, and intentional toxic releases.
On November 8, 2018, the Woolsey Fire ignited approximately 1,000 yards from the site of a partial nuclear meltdown of SSFL’s Sodium Reactor Experiment. The fire burned approximately 80% of the contaminated 2,850 acre facility before burning to Malibu, scorching nearly 97,000 acres, 1,643 structures, and prompting the evacuation of more than a quarter million people in one of Southern California’s worst wildfires to date. Three people lost their lives in the fire.
Though most media reports claimed the fire began “near” SSFL, public health advocates and community members quickly realized that the fire started on the site itself could increase public exposure to contamination in SSFL’s soil and vegetation through windborn smoke and ash and subsequently carried offsite in stormwater. Federally-funded studies have indicated higher cancer incidents associated with proximity to the site, and that contamination migrates over EPA levels of concern.
“If SSFL had been cleaned up by 2017 as DOE and NASA promised to do, communities near SSFL wouldn’t have to worry about heightened exposure to SSFL contamination from the Woolsey Fire,” said Denise Duffield, Associate Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “The failure to clean up the site added insult to injury for people impacted by the fire.” In 2010, the California Dept. of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) signed legally binding cleanup agreements with the parties responsible for cleaning up the site: the Dept. of Energy, NASA, and the Boeing Company. The agreements required a full cleanup by 2017, but the cleanup has not even begun.
In December 2018, just weeks after the fire, the Dept. of Energy released its final Environmental Impact Statement indicating that it intended to break its 2010 agreement with the state and leave almost all of the contaminated soil and groundwater in its area of SSFL not cleaned up. DTSC, under the newly installed Newsom Administration, rejected DOE’s actions in a January 28 letter that stated it would hold DOE accountable to the cleanup agreement. In September 2019, DOE issued a Record of Decision for the demolition of buildings at SSFL that also violated the agreement and would result in radioactive debris being sent off to sites not properly licensed for low-level radioactive waste. DTSC again issued a firm response to DOE that the buildings may not be torn down without its approval and that DOE must comply with the 2010 agreement.
Last month, NASA released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the SSFL cleanup that proposes violating the cleanup agreement and leaving up to 80% of the contamination in its operational area of the site. NASA’s portion of SSFL is heavily contaminated with trichloroethylene, perchlorate, PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals that can cause cancer and other harmful health impacts.
Both federal agencies are taking their lead from the Boeing Company, which owns the most of SSFL. Boeing had long committed to cleanup to a residential standard, to also be completed by 2017. But it never even started the promised cleanup, and in 2017, however, Boeing reversed course, announcing that it would only clean up to a vastly weaker recreational standard, which would leave 98% of the contamination not cleaned up, pollution that could continue to migrate offsite and threaten nearby communities.
“Time and again, Boeing has cut corners on safety, whether on its airplanes or at SSFL, putting profits above all else. Now all three parties responsible for contamination at SSFL are breaking legally binding cleanup commitments and acting as if they aren’t under any regulatory oversight.” said Daniel Hirsch, President of Committee to Bridge the Gap. “Under federal law, DOE, NASA, and Boeing must comply with orders from the Department of Toxic Substances Control.”
While the Woolsey Fire did not trigger progress in the SSFL cleanup, it did increase public awareness of SSFL’s contamination and pressure for the site to fully cleaned up. West Hills resident Melissa Bumstead, whose young daughter has twice survived a rare leukemia, and who has mapped over 50 other rare pediatric cancers near SSFL, said, “The only positive element of the Woolsey Fire, is that our Change.org/santasusana petition, demanding 100% cleanup of SSFL, has grown to nearly 700,000 signatures. We now have many new community members involved, including the Kardashian sisters who’ve been very outspoken about the need for the full cleanup.”
Simi Valley resident Jeni Knack is one of the new cleanup advocates who also sees positive developments since the fire. “The past year since the fire has been transformative for me. In May, I even went to Washington DC to join with communities near other contaminated DOE sites to advocate for stronger cleanup policies,” she said. “The experience was empowering, and it helped lead to a letter signed by Senator Dianne Feinstein and eight California Congressmembers urging DOE and NASA to honor their SSFL cleanup commitments.”
Community members and public health advocates also noted a difference in DTSC over the past year under the Newsom Administration. “We were dismayed, frankly, by DTSC’s response to the Woolsey Fire at SSFL,” said Duffield. “They took only a handful of samples, after the fire was over and when smoke was no longer present, compared the measurements to standards vastly weaker than their own risk-based screening levels, and said nothing to see here, move along. This year, under new CalEPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld, the agency is beginning to act more in the interest of people instead of polluters.”
Whether increased public awareness and advocacy and a new state administration will be enough to finally clean up SSFL remains to be seen. In the meantime, until the site is fully cleaned up, nearby communities will continue to be at risk of exposure to its contamination, especially during wind, rain, and fire events, which are likely to become more frequent as the global climate crisis impacts California.