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Groups sue to force a more aggressive cleanup of old Rocketdyne site

A cleanup of the abandoned nuclear power and rocket engine testing site was first promised in 2007. A new plan, activists say, doesn't go far enough.

(CN) – Three groups filed a petition in Ventura County Superior Court on Thursday to block a settlement signed this year by the state of California and Boeing that set up protocols for cleaning up soil and water in an area occupied by the now-abandoned Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

Formerly known as Rocketdyne, the 2,850-acre lab sits just outside the city of Los Angeles near Simi Valley. From 1947 to 2006, it was used to test and develop rocket fuel, engines, chemical lasers and small-scale nuclear reactors. Over the years, the land and water around the lab was contaminated in myriad ways. The lab operated 10 low-power nuclear reactors, some of which had various accidents, including a partial meltdown in 1959 and a radioactive fire in 1971. According to the complaint, "Two open-air burn pits were operated at the site in which radioactive and toxic wastes were burned."

Jeff Ruch, the director of Pacific Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), calls the Santa Susana lab "one of the most toxic places in California," and one with a great potential for harm since it sits at a high elevation near the headwaters of the Los Angeles River, meaning that runoff from the site flows into two large watersheds.

Boeing, NASA (which had used the site for some time), the U.S. Department of Energy and California all signed a consent order in 2007 to clean up the lab. But the parties never agreed on how much cleanup should be done — that is, what levels the contaminants should be lowered to. And so the cleanup never got started. When Governor Gavin Newsom announced the new agreement in May, he promised that was about to change.

“Santa Susana Field Lab is one of our nation’s most high-profile and contentious toxic cleanup sites," Newsom said after he signed the cleanup agreement. "For decades, there have been too many disputes and not enough cleanup. Today’s settlement prioritizes human health and the environment and holds Boeing to account for its cleanup.”

But groups suing to block the settlement say the cleanup plan isn't nearly enough. Ruch said the new agreement is a "a substantial weakening" of the old cleanup plan" and that if it goes through, "the site will never be inhabited." It will be open space — safe enough to walk through but not safe enough to live on.

"They would rather it be a recreation area," says Ruch. "That’s well less than a full cleanup. For the residents that live around there, there will be a significant amount of runoff, which is what’s causing illnesses and will affect property values and other things."

The groups say instead of going through the normal process of environmental review that solicits public comments, the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control "engaged in a secret process with Boeing to foreclose DTSC's consideration of alternatives remediation the site to achieve background levels of contaminants and levels protective of agricultural and residential uses."

The lawsuit, Ruch added, won't "necessarily slow down the cleanup. They could begin the cleanup if they were of a mind to. This concerns when the cleanup ends."

In a written statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Toxic Substances Control said, "While DTSC does not comment on pending litigation, we are confident in our legal position on the comprehensive settlement agreement with Boeing."

Along with PEER, Parents Against Santa Susana Field Lab, a group of nearby residents, and Physicians for Social Responsibility, a physician-led group founded in the 1960s to address concerns over nuclear weapons — shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 — joined the petition. They are represented by Michael Lozeau and Amalia Bowley Fuentes of the firm Lozeau Drury in Oakland, California.

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