Residents Blast Plan to Clean Up Cold War-Era Testing Site Near LA

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (CN) – People living near a Cold War-era rocket fuel testing site and nuclear facility in Southern California want an independent study of toxins in the area even as the federal government released a report Tuesday detailing how it will clean up the site.

An aerial view of part of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Hills in Southern California. The city of Simi Valley can be seen in the upper left corner. (U.S. Department of Energy)

Advocacy groups called the federal government’s findings and cleanup plan tepid at best and are asking for their own study on toxins in the area.

Known today as the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, the 2,850-acre site in Ventura County was used between 1948 to 2006 to test rocket fuel and conduct nuclear power research, which left toxins in the soil and groundwater. A partial meltdown at the facility in 1959 sent radioactive contamination into nearby residential neighborhoods.

In 2007, the California state Senate passed a bill that would bolster cleanup efforts with more stringent standards than the federal government. But the Ninth Circuit struck down the bill as unconstitutional in 2014, finding it exceeded the state’s authority in the matter.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA signed an agreement to clean portions of the site within seven years, but missed the deadline.

This past month, a massive wildfire started near the former site of the field laboratory. While state officials said no radiation or other hazardous materials released after the fire burned through the area, residents aren’t so sure.

The nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles said the fire likely released and spread toxins through smoke and ash. West Hills resident Melissa Bumstead said she’s highly skeptical of the state agency’s findings, too.

Bumstead’s daughter Grace was diagnosed with leukemia in 2014 and is now cancer-free after a bone marrow transplant. Bumstead said her daughter is one of 50 children with cancer who live in the area and while she will never be able to definitively say radiation from the site caused her daughter’s cancer, she has reluctantly become an advocate for a thorough cleanup at the site.

She also has issues with the U.S. Department of Energy plan to clean up the site and demolish remaining buildings.

“The report is using one of the lowest standards for a cleanup process and it’s almost like there is no cleanup at all,” said Bumstead, who created a Change.org petition two years ago to clean up the site. Her petition currently has over half a million signatures.

Advocates asked outgoing Governor Jerry Brown to pressure state agencies to provide a more thorough cleanup of the site, but Tuesday’s report from the federal government adds fuel to the residents’ belief an independent study is needed.

Associate director Denise Duffield with Physicians for Social Responsibility called the release of both the federal and state reports a double whammy and slap in the face of residents because cleanup standards proposed by the Department of Energy reverse course on the 2010 agreement.

“They are thumbing their noses at the entire community with this report,” said Duffield.

Residents will now focus on getting Governor-elect Gavin Newsom’s attention and making sure the agreements signed by the federal government and NASA are honored.

Fairewinds Energy Education, a South Carolina-based nonprofit, will conduct the independent study at Santa Susana Field Laboratory. While the nonprofit will be somewhat limited in the tests it can conduct, Duffield sees it as the most logical step in the face of the state and federal agencies inaction.

“We’re doing what (the state agency) is not testing,” said Duffield. “We’re going to be testing where people live. That’s the most important part. Residents have not been more engaged, more active and outraged.”

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control did not respond to an email seeking comment by press time.

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