California is battling federal authorities over how to clean up a contaminated former nuclear research site near Simi Valley that was also caught up in the flames of November’s Woolsey Fire.

The fire complicated cleanup efforts after burning large portions of the site, scorching nearly 100,000 acres of land, and destroying 1,643 buildings.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory operated as a nuclear research and rocket test facility on 2,850 acres from 1948 to 2006. Ten nuclear reactors were used on the site for various research products, and a partial meltdown in 1959 was not revealed until 20 years later.

The operations contaminated soil, bedrock, and groundwater with 116 chemicals and 16 radiologicals—including cesium-137 and strontium-90. Cleanup work of some kind has been ongoing since the 1960s.

“It’s a complete mess,” California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Jared Blumenfeld said. “The level of toxicity and the history there is just, when you’re on-site, it’s just depressing.

“Everywhere you look there was flagrant violations, even for what they knew back in the day.”

Responsible Parties

The current dispute is related to a 90-acre parcel where Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne Division, now owned by Boeing Co., conducted nuclear energy research, according to Energy Department documents.

Boeing owns most of the land now, and is listed along with NASA and the Department of Energy as a party responsible for cleanup. All three signed binding consent orders in 2007 to clean up groundwater contamination. Boeing at the time also signed one related to soil.

Abbott Dutton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, called Santa Susana one the state’s more complex cleanup sites.

The agency early this year plans to finalize an environmental impact report and management plan detailing how the Energy Department and NASA will comply with a 2010 order of consent, she said.

The state says an Energy Department final environmental impact statement released at the end of 2018 exploring cleanup options does not adequately remediate the site in accordance with the 2010 agreements.

During a Feb. 27 joint budget hearing, Blumenfeld, from the California EPA, said the consent documents do not give federal authorities discretion to make changes and California will have to make sure they comply.

“It’s going to be a struggle, because the federal government isn’t prioritizing these kind of cleanups,” Blumenfeld said.

Cleanup Options Dispute

An Energy Department spokesman said its Office of Environmental Management is “eager to begin remediation of the site.”

The agency was required to consider reasonable cleanup alternatives, he said in an email. The document in question outlines “the best options for site cleanup and remediation that are most protective of human health and the environment,” he said.

Environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council have also protested the federal plan, saying it “sets the stage for abandoning huge amounts of radioactivity and chemically hazardous material and consigns this portion of Southern California” to never be cleaned up.

The state agreements order that contamination be remediated to background levels, which would mean removing 1.6 million cubic yards of soil. This new analysis proposes cleaning it up to meet open space standards for walking paths and other uses.

That would mean only dealing with 38,200 cubic yards, a small proportion of material compared to the state agreements, said Daniel Hirsch, former director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at University of California, Santa Cruz.

Final Plan ‘Vastly Worse’

In addition, Hirsch said the final version of the environmental document differs wildly from a draft released in January 2017.

“The draft was pretty bad but the final is vastly worse,” he told Bloomberg Environment. Hirsch is also president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nonprofit that advises communities on hazardous site cleanups.

The federal agency, as a polluter, also does not have the authority to make cleanup decisions, said Hirsch, whose students uncovered the meltdown in 1979 after finding unreleased Atomic Energy Commission reports of the incident.

A substation on the property reported a failure moments before the Woolsey fire began, Hirsch said, pointing out that that substation was intended to deliver power to nearby communities from the very reactor that had the nuclear meltdown in 1959.

Had the cleanup been completed in 2017 as originally ordered, the brush and grass growing out of contaminated soil may not have burned.

Bill to Monitor Contaminants

“How much contamination was released?” Hirsch asked.

State Sen. Henry Stern (D) has filed a bill (S.B. 633) that would require the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to create a monitoring plan to collect data on contaminants that could migrate off-site. It has been referred to the rules committee.

Nearly 600,000 people have signed a Change.org petition asking Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to push the DTSC to completely clean up the site. It was created by a mother whose child has cancer.

Blumenfeld, who was appointed to the California EPA job in January, has been to the site and met with nearby residents.

“There’s a very real and personal face to all of these sites,” Blumenfeld said. “We need to be rigorous and disciplined.”