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Weekend Action: Comment on DOE's Santa Susana Cleanup Plans

Website for commenting (before March 14) on the Dept. of Energy's Environmental Impact Statement for the Santa Susana Field Laboratory site:

Sample Comment: 
As a resident of _____________ and as a parent, I am appalled that the Department of Energy has recently decided not to uphold its 2010 agreement to perform a thorough cleanup of the Santa Susana Field Lab site. I do not support the DoE's alternative plans, which would leave a large percentage (or perhaps nearly all) of the contaminants on the site to decompose for an additional 70 years. I am very concerned about the close proximity to my children of the SSFL's well-documented toxic and nuclear waste, and I am concerned about the long-term effects that waste may have on their health and quality of life. The DoE has announced these plans to renege on its commitments despite preliminary evidence of a pediatric cancer cluster in the area around the site, and has refused to conduct more research into such health impacts. I ask the DoE to fulfill its 2010 commitments to a full cleanup of the SSFL site. Thank you.

The Department of Energy is accepting public comment on its cleanup plans for the Santa Susana Field Laboratory site, located in the hills at the east end of Simi Valley, through March 14. In January the DoE announced a new Environmental Impact Statement that marked a dramatic change from an agreement that had been in place since 2010 between the DoE, NASA, and California's Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). That agreement had required that all toxic contamination that could be detected in the soil must be cleaned, to "background" (i.e., clean enough for a housing tract to safely occupy the site), by 2017. In contrast, DoE now plans to conduct a cleanup that would leave 34%, 86% or even 94% of the contaminated soil in place.

During its years in operation between 1949 and 2006, SSFL was used for the development and testing of liquid-propellant rocket engines, nuclear reactors, and liquid metals. SSFL housed 10 nuclear reactors, of which at least four suffered serious accidents through the years, including a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959 that contaminated portions of the facility and spewed radioactive gases into the atmosphere. That meltdown was not properly reported for two decades, by which time several more mishaps had occurred, including reactor accidents in 1964 and 1969. The worst contamination is thought to be in a parcel known as Area IV, where the meltdown occurred.

SSFL conducted tens of thousands of rocket tests through the years, using dangerous fuels and toxic solvents that seeped into the soil and groundwater. Additionally, radioactive and chemically hazardous wastes were burned in open-air pits; workers shot at barrels of the waste with rifles to ignite them, resulting in toxic plumes blowing over the surrounding communities. The result of all this was the widespread contamination of groundwater, surface water and soil with strontium-90, cesium-137, plutonium-239, perchlorate, PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals, and volatile organic compounds.  The site has been fined more than $1 million in recent years for allowing pollutants to migrate off the property at levels deemed unsafe for people or the environment.

More than half a million people live within a 10-mile radius of the SSFL site. A federally funded study led by a University of Michigan researcher, published in 2007, found the incidence rate of certain cancers, including thyroid, bladder and blood system cancers, to be more than 60% higher for residents living within two miles of the site in 1988-95 than for those more than five miles away. The researchers didn't tie the illness rates directly to the testing lab, but they observed that the cancers with high incidence rates "have been linked in previous studies with hazardous substances used" at the site. Another government-funded study, by a team from UCLA, concluded that numerous pollutants from the site had migrated offsite at levels in excess of EPA’s levels of concern. 

Responsibility for cleaning up the toxicity at SSFL is shared today by the DoE, NASA, and Boeing, which has owned the property since 1996. A state law passed in 2007 mandated tough standards for the cleanup; that same year, Boeing and the state agreed to terms for the cleanup, and in 2010 the DOE and NASA signed the legally binding agreements described above. However, in the years since then, a "community advisory group" or CAG, funded secretly by the DoE and including three former Boeing employees among its membership, has recommended a much less thorough, "risk-based" cleanup and has claimed that the excavation, removal of soil and backfill might be more hazardous to the public than leaving the contaminated soil in place. The DoE's new Environmental Impact Statement appears to be heavily influenced by the CAG's lobbying.