Rocketdyne Cleanup Victory


For the last quarter century, former and present PSR-LA members and our environmental allies have fought to get the massive Santa Susana Field Laboratory, commonly known as “Rocketdyne,” cleaned up to the most stringent standards.  The 2,850-acre Rocketdyne complex is situated about 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles in the hills between the San Fernando and Simi valleys. Activist efforts have finally paid off and have helped to achieve one of the most significant military toxins-related environmental victories in the history of Southern California.

Rocketdyne’s polluted soil and groundwater will be remediated to the strictest Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund standards with State oversight. The cleanup, which could cost hundreds of millions, is scheduled to be completed by 2017. The agreement with lab owner Boeing gives the property to the State for open space and parkland after Boeing picks up the tab and continues to supply funds.  The endgame began in December 2007 and an agreement was in place by mid-January 2008.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger empowered the state’s Secretary for Environmental Protection, Linda Adams, to work out a deal with environmentalists, including PSR-LA, to make sure that California remains in charge of the multimillion dollar cleanup of the lab.  The Governor has committed that the place be cleaned up to the highest standards possible.

In July 1959, a partial meltdown of an experimental reactor took place at the lab. That meltdown released hundreds of times more radiation from an uncontained reactor structure than did the more famous Three Mile Island meltdown twenty years later. Another partial meltdown occurred at Rocketdyne in 1964 when 80% of an experimental space reactor’s radioactive fuel “cladded” or melted. Numerous accidental and deliberate spills and burning of radioactive material has left parts of Rocketdyne so polluted and dangerous that the Environmental Protection Agency once recommended that a family of four visiting the place should come no more than twice a year and stay no more than 15 minutes each time.

The mid-December push to finalize cleanup plans for the lab included a letter petitioning the Governor to accept U.S. EPA’s historic decision to add Rocketdyne to the Superfund National Priorities List for special cleanup. PSR-LA’s Executive Director Martha Argüello signed this letter along with a number of important players in the negotiations including Committee to Bridge the Gap and the Sierra Club.

For years environmentalists had pressed for a federal EPA Superfund listing, which is a designation deigned for the most polluted places in America. That would have put the U.S. EPA in charge of the overall cleanup project.

By early January, environmentalists changed tactics and pressed the Governor to keep State control of the cleanup and assure that the lab would be cleaned to Superfund levels, which mandate that no radiological or chemical contaminant cause a fatal cancer in more than one in a million exposed people.

Schwarzenegger decided to pass on the Superfund listing, at least for six months.

Activists became doubtful that the Superfund listing would be as much or more effective than the Rocketdyne cleanup law Schwarzenegger signed last fall. Senate Bill 990, authored by State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles), mandates that Rocketdyne be remediated to Superfund levels, but an agreement with Schwarzenegger included the proviso that Kuehl would have to essentially gut her own bill in the new 2008 legislative session as an inducement to keep Boeing at the negotiating table. The new agreement frees Kuehl from having to do this.

Environmentalists remain concerned about neighborhoods being built on land adjacent to Rocketdyne. Gross chemical contamination rivals the radiological pollution at Rocketdyne and appears to be spreading offsite in all directions, including neighboring Runkle Canyon in Simi Valley where KB Homes hopes to build hundreds of residences. Recently, the rocket engine solvent, trichloroethylene, was found in Runkle’s groundwater close to the lab’s perimeter. TCE is a carcinogen and volatile organic compound which means that it vaporizes. In other locations nationwide, evidence of TCE collecting in structures over plumes of the contaminant has shown that this vapor is deadly even in minute amounts.

PSR-LA will continue our efforts to ensure that the clean up agreement is enforced and that off-site contamination is dealt with as well. These efforts will be buoyed by the historic Rocketdyne victory, which reaffirms that we can win on tough issues, even when the odds seem insurmountable and take decades to achieve.

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