2017-04-20 / Community

Knight urges NASA to save test stands used at Simi field lab

By Melissa Simon

HISTORIC PLACES—Photographs detailing NASA accomplishments are on display near an Alfa rocket test stand, shown here in 2014. 
ACORN FILE PHOTO HISTORIC PLACES—Photographs detailing NASA accomplishments are on display near an Alfa rocket test stand, shown here in 2014. ACORN FILE PHOTO U.S. Rep. Steve Knight is spear­­heading an effort to save the remaining rocket test stands and preserve the Chumash cave paintings at the Santa Susana Field Lab in the southern hills of Simi Valley, north of Oak Park.

On March 21, Knight (R-Simi Valley) sent a letter to Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, urging the preservation of the test stands and cave paintings due to their “legacy and symbolic importance.”

“This is a two-pronged effort to make sure that we do everything we can to preserve some of the historical value of . . . what we’ve done in the space industry and also to make sure the American Indian sacred sites are guarded,” Knight told the Simi Valley Acorn on Tuesday. “We don’t want those (stands) to just get mowed over, because then what protections would there be for the sacred sites? This is not just a part of space history, it’s part of Southern California’s history.”

In the letter, Knight cites the field lab’s involvement in the first American-made rocket engine in 1950; in 33 Saturn and Apollo missions, including the first mission to land a man on the moon in 1969; and in the work with the Space Shuttle starting in 1981.

The 2,850-acre field lab had also been used for decades as a nuclear test site and for research in the development of ballistic missiles. Today, Boeing Co. owns 80 percent of the property, including Area IV where a partial nuclear meltdown occurred in 1959. The federal government owns the remaining 20 percent, including Area II, where six remaining historic rocket test stands and cave paintings are located.

A complex multi- agency cleanup effort by Boeing, NASA, the Department of Toxic Substances Control and U.S Department of Energy has been underway at SSFL for nearly a decade. Per cleanup agreements, NASA began demolishing buildings on the federal government’s portion of the site in 2014, although takedown of the test stands was deferred in 2015 after some activists began calling for preservation.

‘Very troubling’

Denise Duffield, who is lobbying for a cleanup of the entire field lab to background standards— meaning all materials unnatural to the site would be removed—said it is impossible to remove all contamination from SSFL and preserve the test stands.

“Most of the contamination on NASA’s property is located under and near the test stands. We’re talking about very toxic materials and in very high quantities,” Duffield said.

She said Knight’s letter is “very troubling” and she’s concerned it will be used by NASA and Boeing to push for weaker cleanup standards. Current agreements in place require NASA to clean up Area II to background standards, while certain portions of the field lab under Boeing’s charge must be remediated to suburban residential standards— meaning people could live on-site without getting sick from contamination. (Despite the standards, Boeing intends to preserve its portion as open space.)

“From a public health perspective, the SSFL site must be fully cleaned up before there is even consideration of designating it a park or national monument,” Duffield said. “Otherwise, the polluters will use the park status to (leave) gross quantities of toxic materials on the site that will continue to migrate and impact local communities.”

But Knight argues that preserving the stands will not impede remediation.

“The cleanup is still one of our highest priorities, ensuring that it’s cleaned up to . . . where people can go enjoy a recreational-type of place,” the congressman said.

‘Preserve and protect’

In 2015, activist Christina Walsh started a petition on change.org asking President Barack Obama to designate the site as a national monument in an effort to preserve the test stands and the cave paintings. Although the petition is what caused NASA to defer demolition of the test stands two years ago, it seems to have stalled, as no updates have been posted since July 2015.

Knight said his letter—which was signed by U.S. Reps. Julia Brownley (D-Thousand Oaks), Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles), Tony Cardenas (D-Van Nuys), Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks)—is separate from Walsh’s effort.

In a statement provided in an email to the Acorn, Brownley said everything should be done to “preserve and protect important cultural and historic features,” a task she believes can be accomplished while still meeting cleanup requirements.

“The beautiful cave paintings . . . juxtaposed with the test stands from NASA’s Mercury and Apollo era create a unique and remarkable cultural and historic connection between this ancient Native American astronomical observatory and religious shrine and the site’s role in propelling us into the modern space age,” Brownley said.

Jennifer Stanfield, a NASA spokesperson, confirmed the agency has received Knight’s letter but declined to answer specific questions about what happens next.

The agency only provided a statement saying NASA is as “equally committed to preserving the cultural legacy of the site” as it is to protecting human health and the environment.

“We appreciate the significant public interest in the site’s rich history and at this time plan to continue to defer demolition of the historic test stand structures, unless they pose risks to safety, health or the environment that cannot be mitigated,” the statement reads.

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