SSFL Cleanup – Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Santa Susana Field Laboratory?

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) is a former nuclear and rocket engine testing site located in the hills above the San Fernando and Simi Valleys. In 1959, a reactor at the SSFL experienced a partial nuclear meltdown in which a third of the reactor fuel experienced melting. Radiation monitors went off-scale (i.e., radiation levels were higher than the monitors were calibrated to read). The reactor had no containment structure, and radioactive gases were vented into the atmosphere for weeks. Three other reactors at the site also suffered accidents, and there were numerous radioactive fires at the Hot Laboratory. Radioactive wastes were burned in an open-air “burn pit” for decades. All told, SSFL housed ten nuclear reactors, a fuel fabrication facility for plutonium (one of the most toxic materials on earth), and numerous other nuclear operations. Decades of sloppy practices, accidents, and releases resulted in widespread contamination by radioactive materials. This contamination remains at the site.

In addition, tens of thousands of rocket tests were conducted at SSFL, resulting in significant chemical contamination. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of trichloroethylene (TCE) were used to flush out rocket test engines and then allowed to seep into the soil and groundwater. SSFL is also contaminated with perchlorate, dioxins, heavy metals, and volatile and semi-volatile organics that can cause harm to human health. These are very toxic materials that can cause solid tumor cancers as well as leukemia, and developmental, genetic, neurological, and immune system disorders, and more.

Why is it important to fully clean up SSFL?

Several studies have indicated elevated cancer rates associated with proximity to the site and exposure to the contaminants. Epidemiological studies by the UCLA School of Public Health studies found significantly elevated cancers of the lung and blood and lymph systems associated with workers’ exposure to radioactivity and chemical toxins. A study for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found elevated rates of cancers of the bladder, thyroid, aerodigestive tract, and blood and lymph systems in people living offsite associated with their proximity to the site. Another study for ATSDR by Professor Yoram Cohen and his UCLA team showed that pollution from SSFL migrated offsite and at levels in excess of EPA acceptable limits.

If SSFL is not cleaned up, the site will continue to threaten nearby communities via toxic migration. There have been over a hundred exceedances of pollution standards in runoff from the site reported to the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board in just the last few years. A TCE plume extends offsite. Perchlorate has been found in numerous wells in Simi Valley and in Dayton Creek in Dayton Canyon. Strontium-90 was found at Runkle Ranch. Other contamination has been found at the nearby Brandeis Camp and Sage Ranch. The headwaters of the Los Angeles River are located at SSFL, and have already been impacted by stormwater run off from the contaminated site. In short, when the wind blows and the rain falls, radioactive and toxic chemical pollution at the site can migrate offsite, posing risks to the nearby communities.

What is the status of the SSFL cleanup?

The Boeing Company, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and NASA are the Responsible Parties for the contamination at the site. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has the primary responsibility for assuring that the site is cleaned up. Over the years, the community has struggled with both DTSC and the responsible parties to cleanup SSFL to levels that would be most protective of public health.

In 2007, after four previous attempts were beaten back by Boeing, then-State Senator Sheila Kuehl and Assemblymember (now Congresswoman) Julia Brownley won passage of SB990, requiring that SSFL be cleaned up to strong protective standards. Support for SB990 included both Ventura and Los Angeles Counties. Boeing subsequently refused to comply with the law and sued to overturn it. The case is currently on appeal.

Also in 2007, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti ruled in favor of the City of Los Angeles, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Committee to Bridge the Gap in a lawsuit they brought against DOE. The Court found that DOE’s plans to not clean up the great majority of the radioactive contamination at the site violated federal environmental laws.

In 2010, NASA and DOE signed Administrative Orders on Consent (“AOCs”) with the DTSC agreeing to clean up all contamination on their parts of the property to background levels, meaning returning the property to the condition it was in before they polluted it. There were two rounds of public comment on the proposed AOCs. Approximately 3,700 comments were received, 99% of which strongly supported the AOCs. (Support included the Ventura County Democrats, recently Ventura County, the City of Los Angeles and the City of Simi Valley have all reaffirmed their support, Senator Boxer was a major supporter, a more complete list is included below.) Boeing refused to enter into a similar AOC and it and its allies have opposed the AOCs entered into by NASA and DOE.

The AOCs have special exceptions built into them to protect Native American artifacts and endangered species.

In 2012, EPA completed a $40 million, multi-year radiation survey which identified 500 places on the property with contamination with plutonium-239, cesium-137, strontium-90, and other radioactive pollutants, as much as one thousand times background.

Is the Cleanup at Risk?

Boeing and its surrogates, as well as some within NASA, are pushing to have the AOCs breached and instead use cleanup standards hundreds or thousands of times weaker than required under the AOCs. This would result in most if not all of the contamination remaining not cleaned up. For example, if the AOCs were broken and the alternative standard they are pushing were put in its place, NONE of the 500 locations identified by EPA with radioactive contamination would be cleaned up.

NASA admits that if it could break the AOC and use a lesser cleanup requirement, 90% of its contamination would be left at SSFL, not cleaned up. Boeing and NASA could save a lot of money if they didn’t have to clean up the pollution for which they are responsible, but people living in the area would thus be at continued risk of cancer or other health impacts from the contamination migrating into their communities.

Perhaps most troubling, the DTSC – currently under intense public scrutiny for being influenced by polluter lobbyists including Boeing – has shown many indications that it will break out of the cleanup agreements.

It is imperative to demand that responsible parties and DTSC fully clean up all the radioactive and chemical contamination at SSFL. Restoring the land to the way it was prior to being polluted is the only responsible course of action that would ensure community health is protected.

Will the clean up have negative impacts?

Trying to get out of cleaning up the toxic contamination for which they are responsible, Boeing and NASA have tried to get some community members to believe that the would have negative impacts and get them to support not cleaning up the great majority of the pollution. Truck traffic issues have been greatly exaggerated, for example; NASA’s draft EIS in fact shows three trucks an hour, and if spread over the three routes considered, only one truck an hour, far less than has been going in and out of SSFL over the decades of operations. Alternatives, such as natural gas- or electric- powered trucks to reduce emissions, or shipping by rail have not been considered.

Boeing and NASA have also tried to get out of their cleanup obligations by trying to get some people to be fearful over the alleged impact of cleanup on the site’s natural habit. (If only they had been concerned about habitat when they were contaminating the site!) However, the areas that need to be cleaned are primarily areas already disturbed — the sites of reactors and test stands-and not pristine areas in the first place. The contamination occurred primarily where soil had already been scraped away, structures constructed, and huge amounts of pollutants just dumped in the soil. By NASA’s own estimates, only ~0.5% of SSFL will be priority conservation habitat that might get disturbed by cleanup, representing 0.05 acres of southern willow scrub and 7 acres of Venturan coastal sage scrub; and under another exception of the AOC, even this can be avoided.

In addition, claims have been made about Native American artifacts, yet the AOC already provides protection for recognized Native American artifacts, as well as endangered plants and animals. Given the quantity and severity of SSFL’s radiological and chemical contamination, and the risk to the nearby communities from contamination migrating offsite if allowed to remain at SSFL, the most negative impact on the community would be if the site is not fully cleaned up.

Who supports a full SSFL Cleanup?

Support for the AOCs has been expressed by:

US Senator Barbara Boxer
Congresswoman Julia Brownley
State Senator Fran Pavley
Ventura County Board of Supervisors
Los Angeles City Council
City of Simi Valley
Friends of the Earth
Natural Resources Defense Council
Consumer Watchdog
Southern California Federation of Scientists,
Friends of the Los Angeles River
Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA
Susana Knolls Homeowners Association
Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition
Teens Against Toxins
Committee to Bridge the Gap
Aerospace Cancer Museum of Education
Community representatives on the SSFL Inter-Agency Work Group.
Ventura County Democratic Party
North Valley Democratic Club
Progressive Democrats of the Santa Monica Mountains
Simi Valley Democratic Club