Agreement to Demolish Buildings in Santa Susana Nuclear Area Met By Skepticism


Statement on U.S. Dept. of Energy and CA Department of Toxic Substances Control’s Order on Consent for Interim Response Action at the RMHF Complex at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory

Agreement to Demolish Buildings in Santa Susana Nuclear Area Met by Skepticism

On May 20, 2020, the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) and the California Dept. of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) signed a consent order to tear down parts of 10 buildings in the nuclear area of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. Both DOE and DTSC released press releases heralding the agreement, which has been covered in many media outlets.

However, the 2010 Administrative Order on Consent (AOC) between DTSC and DOE already required the buildings to be removed, as part of the agreement that soil be cleaned up to background levels of contamination. (Soil is defined in the AOC as including all structures and debris.) And DOE has long wanted to tear down the buildings. So, this new agreement does not really require anything that DOE wasn’t already required to do and didn’t already want to do.

Furthermore, removing parts of these 10 buildings will eliminate only about 0.001% of the contamination at SSFL, the vast majority of which is in the soil. “The 2010 AOC required DOE to remove all soil contamination, and to do so by 2017, but we are in 2020 and the soil cleanup has not even begun,” said Marie Mason, Simi Valley resident and co-founder of the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition. In 2018, DOE issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement proposing to breach almost all of its soil cleanup obligations and leave around 98% of the contaminated soil not cleaned up. “It would be great if DOE decided to fully comply with the AOC now, but we’ll believe it when we see it.” Mason continued.

Though the new order explicitly states that it does not “modify, amend, or reduce the rights and obligations” pursuant to the AOC agreement, and that “all other provisions of the 2010 AOC and 2007 Consent Order remain in effect,” DOE has not publicly reversed its position on soil cleanup. The new, very limited consent order regarding 10 DOE buildings must not distract the public from the most critical parts of the SSFL cleanup; the full cleanup of contaminated soil, which is mandated in the 2010 AOC. Similarly, NASA and Boeing; the other Responsible Parties, have been refusing to carry out their obligations under prior Orders to clean up the soil contamination.

The new consent order covers only 10 of the remaining 24 buildings in the nuclear area at SSFL. The buildings’ slabs and the structures below grade (basements) will not be removed at this time. Instead, warning signs will be put up to warn workers or the public about the remaining radiation in the slabs and subsurface parts of the buildings that remain.

The rationale offered for the new DOE-DTSC order is to prevent and mitigate the impacts of wildfires. However, contaminated soil and the vegetation growing in it presents just as much risk during wildfires as buildings do. Boeing reported 57 exceedances over pollution limits in stormwater runoff after the Woolsey Fire – including lead, dioxin, cyanide, alpha radioactivity – which it attributed to the fire burning vegetation and making soil contaminants more mobile. Contamination in the soil migrates year-round, fire or no fire, making it by far the greatest threat to public health.

“The Woolsey Fire at the Santa Susana Field Lab may have exposed more people to contamination from the smoke, ash, and the high winds. However, the 57 times that the SSFL contaminated the headwaters of the Los Angeles River after the Woolsey Fire doesn’t seem to worry the community as much- and it should. The soil erosion at the site has the potential to contaminate our water and air on a daily basis. That’s why we need to not be placated with this “new” cleanup agreement. We still desperately need the 2010 agreements to be honored,” said Melissa Bumstead, a West Hills resident who became a cleanup activist after her young daughter was diagnosed with a rare cancer.

NASA also signed an AOC agreement to clean up its areas at SSFL to background levels of contamination, and like DOE, has also indicated that it does not intend to comply with the agreement. In fact, NASA recently declared that it will not remove the Alfa rocket test stands and related buildings, in violation of its cleanup agreements, and which would make it impossible to clean up dangerous contamination such as trichloroethylene (TCE) in the soil under the structures. Up to 1,000,000 gallons of TCE were poured directly into the soil at the SSFL. TCE is just one of the many known carcinogens in the SSFL’s soil. Cancer and health issues still plague the 500,000 people living within 10 miles of the site.

“While it’s a positive step that some cleanup will begin, if protecting public health is the goal, it makes little sense to remove contaminated buildings without also committing to fully clean up the soil per the 2010 agreements,” said Denise Duffield, Associate Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles.

Until the contaminated soil at SSFL is cleaned up to background levels as promised, the community will remain at risk and will need to stay vigilant and pressure their elected officials to enforce the full cleanup. DOE should take this opportunity to recommit to the full AOC cleanup for soil as well as buildings, and NASA and Boeing should honor their previous commitments to fully clean up their portions of SSFL as well.

Only then will the community truly have something to celebrate.

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