Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends
Environment & Science

Santa Susana pollution data raises more questions about long term radiation than it answers

I did a short story today about the former Santa Susana Field Laboratory site, where Rocketdyne and others once had operations, and where in 1959 a nuclear accident released far more radioactive material than Three Mile Island. I don't just hang out on the EPA's website, or at the gates of that property. Instead, I heard about the data release from State Senator Julia Brownley's release yesterday

"This confirms what we were worried about," said Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Oak Park, a long-time leader in the fight for a complete and thorough cleanup of this former Rocketdyne rocket engine testing laboratory. "This begins to answer critical questions about what’s still up there, where, how much, and how bad?"

Brownley's release asserts that the new samples collected are up to 1000 times higher than the "radiation trigger levels" approved by state and federal officials in 2010, when state officials reached agreements deemed, at the time, "historic," with NASA and the Department of Energy for cleanups. 

But I want to call your attention to reporting at what I consider to be an authoritative source of information about Santa Susana, Michael Collins' Collins links to previous reports issued by the EPA to suggest that new data is revealing even higher levels of contamination than Brownley is representing. The key is understanding the "radiation trigger levels," numeric values above which the agencies are supposed to clean up their patch of dirt. Collins compares current power point presentations with the agreements themselves, and asserts that the gap between background, or pre-existing levels, and the "radiation trigger levels," or RTLs, is actually way bigger than the EPA is letting on: 

By the side of the Area IV road on the way to the SRE, cesium-137 clocked in at 24,657 times its background as shown in a July 2011 U.S. EPA “Radiological Background Study Report” for Rocketdyne. Yet EPA’s RTL in the PowerPoint is over 25 times background.

On a scenic bluff overlooking Simi Valley next to where the SRE once stood, leukemia-causing strontium-90, which has been found at high levels at Rocketdyne-adjacent Runkle Canyon where KB Home hopes to build hundreds of homes, inexplicably had an RTL over 37 times its actual background. The switch was done by the same agency that generated the data in the first place, the U.S. EPA.

Like the cesium-137, strontium-90 was found in high levels all over the study area including the same scenic view spot at over 1,626 times background.

Radioactive heavy water tritium had an RTL over double its actual background and was found in soil 198 times what EPA had determined was normal background.

Collins has been watching this issue closely for years; much longer than I have. Today I just reported what I could actually confirm and understand on my own. Still, there's no substitute for dogging one type of story all the time, and so if you're interested in more about Santa Susana, poke around over there.