2014-02-20 / Front Page

Community still seeking resolution in Rocketdyne cleanup case

Toxic materials reportedly recycled, not destroyed
By Stephanie Bertholdo


HEALTH RISKS—Dr. Robert Hodge, left, and nuclear policy expert Dan Hirsch discuss the latest cleanup efforts at the former Rocketdyne test site and the complications resulting from its radioactive waste. 
STEPHANIE BERTHOLDO/Acorn Newspapers HEALTH RISKS—Dr. Robert Hodge, left, and nuclear policy expert Dan Hirsch discuss the latest cleanup efforts at the former Rocketdyne test site and the complications resulting from its radioactive waste. STEPHANIE BERTHOLDO/Acorn Newspapers It’s been more than 50 years since radiation leaks occurred at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the hills of Simi Valley, but efforts to clean up the site and stop further toxins from leaching into the soil are far from over.

A panel of speakers that included a doctor, a professor and experts from the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the Department of Energy, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board participated in a community meeting at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center on Feb. 5 to discuss the latest effort in the field lab cleanup.

A college student, Ethan Miska from UC Santa Cruz, riled the audience when he pointed out that, according to a study, radioactive material removed from the site had been recycled and not destroyed.

ACTIVE ROLE—Among those attending the Feb. 5 public meeting about the Rocketdyne nuclear cleanup was this group of young people from Agoura and Oak Park high schools called Teens Against Toxins. Pictured on right is Claudia Schaupp and Ethan Miska, students at U.C. Santa Cruz. STEPHANIE BERTHOLDO/Acorn Newspapers ACTIVE ROLE—Among those attending the Feb. 5 public meeting about the Rocketdyne nuclear cleanup was this group of young people from Agoura and Oak Park high schools called Teens Against Toxins. Pictured on right is Claudia Schaupp and Ethan Miska, students at U.C. Santa Cruz. STEPHANIE BERTHOLDO/Acorn Newspapers Rather than dispose of the concrete, asphalt and metals in structures that had been exposed to radiation, Miska said, the Department of Toxic Substance Control gave approval for the material to be recycled at six separate recycling plants in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

“All of the waste, including radioactive material, went to the garbage dump,” Miska said. He estimated that hundreds of tons of waste was sent to landfills or recycling centers.

“Why didn’t we know about this?” one audience member cried out. “We hear test, test, test . . . and blather. What’s going to happen to us?”

Residents remain concerned that a full cleanup of toxins in the soil has yet to be completed.

The field lab was operated by Rocketdyne, a company that built nuclear reactors and tested rockets that produced radioactive waste. The partial meltdown that occurred there in 1959 has been compared to the later nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

The illegal dumping of radioactive waste and decades of slipshod cleanup are said to have contributed to a rise in cancer rates for people living in nearby Simi Valley, Chatsworth, Oak Park, Bell Canyon and surrounding areas.

Dan Hirsch, a UC Santa Cruz lecturer on nuclear policy and president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a civic organization, gave an overview of the field lab disaster.

The lab was built in the underpopulated area in Simi in the late 1940s, he said. Nuclear activity on the site included 10 reactors and a “hot lab” to cut up irradiated reactor fuel from around the nation. There was also an open-air sodium burn pit to dispose of contaminated reactor components.

Several accidents occurred at the site. In 1959, a breakdown of a reactor released toxic fission gasses, and the sodium reactor experiment in the same year resulted in a partial meltdown. There were radioactive fires in the facility’s hot lab, and numerous spills and releases of toxins into the environment over a decade.

In the mid-1990s, two workers were killed in an explosion, and Rocketdyne was charged with felonies. The explosions were found to have been caused by illegal disposal of hazardous materials and not research, which Rocketdyne first claimed.

Other presentations at the meeting kept the audience riveted.

Dr. Robert Dodge, a medical doctor from Ventura, talked about the health effects of radiation exposure. In addition to causing many types of cancer (thyroid, breast, lymphoma), he said, genetic birth disorders and heart disease could stem from exposure to contaminated soil or water.

Linking cancers and other health disorders to the meltdown is difficult, but Dodge said, “No matter how small the exposure there is an increased risk of cancer.”

Bonnie Klee, a cancer survivor who worked at the contaminated site, talked about her fight to obtain workers’ compensation. Fewer than 10 percent of the people harmed by the unleashed radioactivity were compensated, she said. Klee received $350,000.

Pete Zorba, a NASA administrator, gave a presentation about the contamination as well. NASA tested rockets at the site in 1973. Zorba said NASA has fully complied with cleanup orders.

Other speakers, including Ray Leclerc from the Department of Toxic Substance Control, Cassandra Owens from the Los Angeles Regional Water Control Board and John Jones from the Department of Energy, discussed how their agencies were contributing to the cleanup.

In addition to college student Miska, some Oak Park and Agoura high school students who are members of “Teens Against Toxins” attended the meeting.

Davis Gortner, a sophomore at Oak Park High, said he learned about the contaminated site about four years ago.

“Where I lived in Oak Park was really close,” Davis said. “Cancer rates were higher in these areas. I thought it would be good to do something.”

“Teens Against Toxins” was formed to create awareness of the issue, Davis said. He added that the group is part of an effort to push NASA and Boeing to comply with the cleanup.

“It’s been 50 years since the nuclear meltdown,” Davis said. “The studies are done, but it’s still very present. It’s still radioactive.”

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