Activists fear Woolsey Fire may have released toxic materials at Santa Susana Field Lab
Mike Harris, Ventura County Star
Santa Susana Field Laboratory cleanup activists fear that hazardous materials may have been released when the Woolsey Fire burned a portion of the contaminated site last week.
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing the long-planned cleanup of the field lab, site of a 1959 partial nuclear meltdown when it was the Rocketdyne/Atomics International rocket engine test and nuclear facility, says it doesn’t believe any contaminants that pose a risk to people were released. The site also experienced other chemical and radioactive contamination over the years.
The fire, which started Thursday afternoon near the 2,850-acre field lab in unincorporated hills just southeast of Simi Valley, burned a portion of the site later that day, the state agency said in a news release Friday.
“It is no longer burning within the SSFL site and is moving away from the site,” the release stated.
“Our scientists and toxicologists have reviewed information about the fire’s location and do not believe the fire has caused any releases of hazardous materials that would pose a risk to people exposed to the smoke,” the agency said.
Cleanup activists have their doubts.
“We can’t trust anything that DTSC says,” one such activist, Melissa Bumstead, said in the activists’ own news release. “DTSC repeatedly minimizes risk from SSFL and has broken every promise it ever made about the SSFL cleanup. The public has no confidence in this troubled agency.”
Robert Dodge, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles, shares Bumstead’s concerns.
“We know what substances are on the site and how hazardous they are,” he said. “We’re talking about incredibly dangerous radionuclides and toxic chemicals … and heavy metals.”
“These toxic materials are in SSFL’s soil and vegetation, and when it burns and becomes airborne in smoke and ash, there is a real possibility of heightened exposure for area residents,” he said.
A third activist, Marie Mason, of Simi Valley, and co-founder of the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition, said in a second statement that the fire “may have resulted in even more toxic exposures. We’ve always worried about a fire at SSFL. SSFL could have and should have been cleaned up a long time ago.”
Activists call for independent agency to test field lab
Bumstead said cleanup activists want independent experts, not the toxic substances control department, to determine if the fire caused any contaminants to be released at the field lab.
“We want an independent agency to do the radioactive and air monitoring near the site,” said Bumstead, who lives in West Hills, which neighbors the site in Los Angeles County.
Bumstead said she’s spoken with the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
“They said only the federal Environmental Protection Agency had the capacity to do the monitoring,” she said.
An EPA spokesperson on Monday would only say that she believed the toxic substances control department remained the lead agency for monitoring the site.
Bumstead said State Sen. Henry Stern, D-Canoga Park, said at a community meeting Sunday night that “he agreed that an independent agency needed to look into whether the fire caused hazardous materials to be released at the field lab.”
The community meeting was held at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, a section of Los Angeles not far from Simi Valley.
As of Monday morning, the Woolsey Fire had spread to 91,572 acres, killed two civilians and destroyed 370 structures.
Most of the Santa Susana site is now owned by aerospace giant Boeing and is divided into four areas with northern and southern buffer zones.
Boeing is responsible for cleaning up Area 3, its part of Area 1 and the Southern Buffer Zone.
The Department of Energy does not own any land at the site but is responsible for the cleanup of Area 4 and the Northern Buffer Zone.
NASA administers a smaller portion of the site and is responsible for remediating Area 2 and its part of Area 1.
It’s not clear when the much-delayed cleanup will begin.
The toxic substances control department said in August it didn’t know when it would release its “decision document,” which will detail the agency’s cleanup plan for the site.