Environment & Science

Opposing meetings showcase divergent views on cleanup of toxic Santa Susana site

This 2009 photo shows buildings at the former Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Valley area.
This 2009 photo shows buildings at the former Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Valley area.
Reed Saxon/AP

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Two groups with differing views on how to clean up a contaminated former aerospace site will hold competing community meetings Wednesday to press their case.

The former Santa Susana Field Laboratory near Simi Valley was the site of rocket engine and nuclear energy testing for decades. Contamination from that era remains at the site, including radioactive materials and chemicals like chlorinated solvents, semi-volatile organic compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls and petroleum hydrocarbons.

The Department of Energy, NASA and Boeing oversee various parcels at the site, and each is responsible for a portion of the cleanup. The DOE and NASA have signed agreements with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) that hold them to a strict cleanup standard of returning their parcels to conditions that existed before testing began.

Boeing has proposed a lower standard of cleanup, one that would allow its parcels to be used by outdoor enthusiasts as open space. The proposal awaits a final decision by the DTSC.

For decades, community advocates have called for cleanup, fearing adverse effects should the contaminants move offsite into neighboring communities.

“Every time the wind blows or we have rain, some of that contamination migrates off site,” said Denise Duffield, coordinator for the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Work Group. “This is really important. This is people’s health.”

Her group wants the entire Santa Susana site cleaned up to conditions that existed before the first testing began in the 1950s.

Duffield's group will meet at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center to present the results of a 2006 study funded by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It looked at the potential for offsite exposure from contaminants originating from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

“It was a multi-year study that looked at the potential for contaminants from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory to migrate off of the site, and in fact, they found that that was the case,” Duffield said. “Many times, at levels that were in excess of EPA-acceptable limits.”

At the same time Duffield's group will be meeting, members of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Community Advisory Group are scheduled to present information in support of a lesser level of cleanup. Their meeting is scheduled for the Bell Canyon Social Hall.

Abe Weitzberg, an independent consultant who once worked on nuclear reactors at Santa Susana, said he will present findings that show little-to-no evidence that contaminants are migrating off the site. 

“There was no data that could conclusively state that there was any offsite health effects from emissions from Santa Susana,” said Weitzberg, who is also on the advisory group’s executive committee.

Weitzberg said his group supports a lesser level of cleanup that would allow the site to be used as a protected open space, something that he said would be damaged by cleanup under stricter standards. 

“The risk of the cleanup is very severe, and it’s ignored by the people who live away from the site. They somehow feel like you’ve got to scrape the hill bare to protect their health. There’s no connection between the two.”

The simultaneous timing of the meetings may speak to the degree to which the groups disagree, with each organization claiming to have scheduled its meeting first. Weitzberg, whose group formed about a year ago, said that the working group has used fear tactics to convince the public of the need for stricter cleanup standards. 

"They've been pushing this scare mongering for 20-some-odd years, and that's all people have heard for 20 years," he said. 

Duffield said that the advisory group is dominated by members with ties to Boeing and that her own group is more representative of the public's desires for a fully cleaned site.

"To put it candidly, the Work Group has historically represented the 99% or so of the community that has repeatedly weighed in in strong support of the cleanup agreements," Duffield wrote in an email. 

Meeting Information:

SSFL Work Group meeting
Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center
3050 E. Los Angeles Ave.
Simi Valley, CA 93065
Wednesday, June 18, 6:30 p.m. 

SSFL Community Advisory Group meeting
Bell Canyon Social Hall
30 Hackamore Lane
Bell Canyon, CA 91037
Wednesday, June 18, 7:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.