The incredibly destructive Woolsey Fire in southern California has burned nearly 100,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, killed three people, destroyed more than 400 structures, and at the time of this writing, was finally nearly completely contained.
The fire may also have released large amounts of radiation and toxins into the air after burning through a former rocket engine testing site where a partial nuclear meltdown took place nearly six decades ago.
“The Woolsey Fire has most likely released and spread both radiological and chemical contamination that was in the Santa Susana Field Laboratory’s soil and vegetation via smoke and ash,” Dr. Bob Dodge, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA), told Truthout.
The fire has been widely reported to have started “near” the Santa Susana Field Laboratory site (SSFL), but according to PSR-LA, it appears to have started at the site itself.
The contaminated site — a 2,849-acre former rocket engine test site and nuclear research facility — is located just 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
A press release issued by PSR-LA on November 12 stated:
Cal Fire identifies the fire location as E Street and Alfa Road, a location that is in fact on SSFL. It was recently reported that the “Chatsworth electric substation” experienced a disturbance 2 minutes before the fire was reported, but that substation is in fact on SSFL, near that location. A photograph posted on Twitter from KCAL9’s Stu Mundel shows the fire starting Thursday afternoon near the same location [on November 8], which is only about 1,000 yards away from the site of the 1959 partial nuclear meltdown of the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) reactor.
Cal Fire maps show that much of the SSFL is within the boundaries of the Woolsey Fire.
In the aforementioned press release on the crisis, Denise Duffield, the organization’s associate director, stated that, “Though we must wait for fire authorities to conclude their investigation, it is ironic that an electrical substation built for a reactor that melted down six decades ago now may now be associated with a catastrophic fire that began on the SSFL site that is still badly contaminated from that accident and numerous other spills and releases.”
There has been great concern about extensive and extremely toxic and radioactive waste at the SSFL for years.
According to Daniel Hirsch, who recently retired as director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, SSFL is “one of the most contaminated sites in the country.”
Hirsch is also president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nonprofit organization that provides independent technical assistance to communities near nuclear sites. Students working with him back in 1979, when he was teaching at University of California Los Angeles, uncovered the partial nuclear meltdown that had occurred in 1959 at the SSFL, but that had been kept secret. He has worked ever since to have SSFL cleaned up.
Hirsch explained to Truthout that the 1959 partial meltdown had been covered up for years by the Atomic Energy Commission. Meanwhile, at least three other reactors there suffered accidents.
“There were radioactive fires with high-level radioactive waste, releases from a plutonium fuel fabrication facility, and decades of illegal burning of toxic and radioactive wastes in open pits,” he said. “Other parts of the facility hosted tens of thousands of tests of missile and rocket engines, often with exotic and very toxic rocket fuels.”
While explaining how incredibly toxic the SSFL site is, Hirsch added, “Collectively, the sloppy environmental practices and lax regulatory oversight resulted in widespread radioactive and toxic chemical contamination of soil, surface water and groundwater.”
And now, given that most, if not all, of the SSFL site has burned, it is possible that the millions of people who live within a 100-mile radius of the site have been exposed to its radioactive waste and toxic chemicals that are now airborne.
On November 8, Forbes published a story titled, “California’s Woolsey Fire Now Burning Malibu Went Through the Site of a Nuclear Meltdown First.” Other local media, including the aforementioned KCAL tweet with a photo of the fire starting within the SSFL site, also reported on the fire burning through the area.
In contrast with those reports, however, a November 9 statement from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the state regulatory agency responsible for overseeing the cleanup of the site, stated, “Our scientists and toxicologists have reviewed information about the fire’s location and do not believe the fire has caused any releases of hazardous materials that would pose a risk to people exposed to the smoke.”
Much of the corporate press has obediently parroted California’s DTSC’s claim of there being “no elevated radiation levels near the ex-nuclear test site,” as did CBS News.
But Hirsch takes strong issue with the DTSC’s claims of the situation being safe. According to him, in 2010, DTSC entered into agreements for a full cleanup of SSFL, to be completed by 2017. “We are in 2018, and the cleanup not only hasn’t been completed, it hasn’t even begun,” he said. “This is due to the too-cozy relationship between DTSC and the parties responsible for the pollution.”
The entities responsible for the contamination are National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Boeing, and the Department of Energy (DOE).
“And now DTSC and the polluters are pushing to leave 98 percent of the contamination not cleaned up,” Hirsch told Truthout, adding that incoming California Gov. Gavin Newsom “needs to fix DTSC, and commit to complete and prompt fulfillment of the cleanup agreements, which require cleaning up all detectible contamination.”
Dodge was equally critical of how DTSC has handled the situation. “They have continually been trying to undermine the cleanup, as well as proposing leaving over 90 percent of the contamination on site, thus are continuing to put the surrounding communities at risk,” he said, adding that the DTSC is even considering “vastly weaker cleanup plans.”
Rain has already fallen across much of the Woosley Fire area, including SSFL, to which Dodge expressed concerns of ash and soil from the site washing down to the communities below.
Duffield, who has been working for the full cleanup of nuclear and chemical contamination at the SSFL for more than 30 years, explained that there is widespread contamination at SSFL’s soil and vegetation that, when burned, can travel for miles via smoke and ash — especially with high winds speeds as California had during the fire.
“SSFL should have been cleaned up a long time ago — the state signed Administrative Orders on Consent (AOC) agreements with DOE and NASA committing them to clean up all detectable contamination by 2017,” Duffield told Truthout. “Boeing refused to sign the agreement, but DTSC said its normal procedures would require them to clean up to a comparable level.”
This criticism of the DTSC cannot be taken lightly, given that Physicians for Social Responsibility received the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize, and its international organization, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, launched the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
“If DTSC had kept its word, we wouldn’t worry about SSFL contamination being spread further due to the fire,” Duffield said. “Area residents and elected officials should be very concerned and demand the full cleanup to take place now, without delay.”
Truthout has made several requests for comment from the DTSC; on November 15, a representative from the agency said it would reply, but at the time of this writing, Truthout has not received a response.
Major Human Health Impacts
There are multiple human health impacts that have been known to stem from the site well before the Woolsey Fire began.
A study prepared by Professor Hal Morgenstern for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry studied the community surrounding SSFL and found a greater than 60 percent increase in incidence of key cancers associated with proximity to the site.
Melissa Bumstead is a mother who started a petition after her daughter was diagnosed in 2014 with an incredibly rare and aggressive form of leukemia. “Through her treatment we kept meeting other families, and we were shocked to see we lived so close to each other when childhood cancer is exceptionally rare,” she told Truthout. “After we realized we all lived within miles of the Santa Susana Field Lab we started the grassroots group Parents vs. SSFL.”
For years Bumstead and others in her group, along with groups such as PSR-LA, have been worried that a fire at the SSFL would be the easiest way for the carcinogenic chemicals and radioactive waste to reach local communities. She and other health advocates also worry that the ash and smoke from the fire at such a contaminated site could travel far and easily reach children, the most vulnerable part of our population.
“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that children in the United States consume, on average, 200-800 milligrams of dirt per day putting them at the highest risk of ingesting contamination,” Bumstead said.
She referred to a statement about abrupt spikes in childhood cancer rates made by Dr. Catherine Metayer, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, who told WebMD that, “When you see an increase [in pediatric cancer rates] like that — that fast — in a short period of time, most likely it is going to be driven by some exposure to environmental factors.”
Further, Bumstead pointed out that many of the residents she knows living in the vicinity of the SSFL complain of thyroid issues and autoimmune diseases, in addition to cancer.
Duffield explained that SSFL is contaminated with dangerous radionuclides such as cesium-137, strontium-90, plutonium-239 and tritium, and highly toxic chemicals such as perchlorate, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls, heavy metals, and volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds.
“An estimated 500,000 of gallons of the very hazardous trichloroethylene (TCE) were used to flush out rocket test engines and then allowed to seep into the soil and groundwater,” she told Truthout. “Exposure to these contaminants can cause cancers and leukemias, developmental disorders, genetic disorders, neurological disorders, immune system disorders, and more.”
Duffield explained that SSFL is also located on a hill, and because of this, its contamination migrates off site, even when there is not a fire. In addition to contamination in soil, vegetation and structures, SSFL’s groundwater and surface water is contaminated.
“Over 100 exceedances of pollution standards in runoff from SSFL was reported to the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board, resulting in Boeing having to pay more than $1 million in fines,” she said. “Federally funded, independently conducted studies show the incidence of key cancers were 60 percent higher in the offsite population near SSFL compared to further away, and that contamination migrates off site over EPA levels of concern. We are currently also very concerned about a cluster of rare pediatric cancers near the site.”
Now, due to the wildfire, Hirsch warned of many other major health impacts the contaminated site poses to those breathing in smoke from the fires. “The … chemicals are by definition toxic to human health, capable of causing cancer and/or other health impacts such as miscarriages, birth defects in one’s offspring, neurological or immunological illness,” he said.
Speaking both to the obvious negative health effects from breathing wildfire smoke as well as the toxins from the SSFL site, Dodge added, “All wildfire smoke can be hazardous to health, but if SSFL had been cleaned up long ago as DTSC promised, we’d at least not have to worry about exposure to dangerous radionuclides and chemicals as well.”
Fox Guards the Hen House
According to its own website, the DTSC is “the lead regulatory agency overseeing the investigation and cleanup of contaminated soil and groundwater at the SSFL.” But there is wide and growing concern that the agency is not only failing to do its job, but is actively working in the other direction.
“DTSC is a classically captured regulatory agency, captured by the polluters it is supposed to regulate,” Hirsch said. “The incoming governor needs to undertake a top-to-bottom reform of that dysfunctional agency and to place a high priority [on] getting the cleanup of SSFL back on track.”
Hirsch feels strongly about the situation, which, he argued was ultimately caused by the DTSC. “If DTSC, the Department of Energy, NASA and Boeing had lived up to their cleanup obligations, the site would have been cleaned up by last year, and the fire that just happened would have not carried with it any risk of releasing radioactive or toxic chemical contamination,” he said.
Dodge feels similarly. He said PSR-LA is demanding independent testing and air monitoring for radiation and chemicals from SSFL. “Why would we believe DTSC’s statement that the fire caused no additional risk, when they know they’re the ones responsible for SSFL still being contaminated in the first place?” he asked.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH) released a press release on November 13 that claimed there was “no discernable level of radiation” at SSFL as a result of the fire.
Duffield said DPH’s statement strains credulity. “Every place on the planet has some level of background radiation related to natural elements, the cosmos or atmospheric nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War. There is no excuse for such a misleading statement.” She added that their statement “does not inspire confidence in the agency.”
PSR-LA has ongoing concerns about what it sees is the DTSC’s failure to properly deal with the cleanup at SSFL. “DTSC needs to stop misleading the public about the impact of SSFL’s contamination and enforce the 2010 cleanup agreements, and keep its word that Boeing must clean up according to local governments’ land use plans and zoning decisions, which for SSFL allow agricultural and rural residential uses, which would be sufficiently protective to the offsite population,” Duffield said.
She argued that the DTSC must now “stand up” to Boeing, which she said has been pushing a “massive greenwashing campaign” that claims Boeing should only have to clean the site up to recreational standards, which “amount to almost no cleanup at all.”
However, instead of doing the right thing and forcing the polluters to clean up their mess, Duffield said DTSC is in “major damage control.”
“It knows that its own foot-dragging on the cleanup has resulted in heightened risk to exposure to SSFL contamination from the fire, so it is doing all that it can to deny the fire could have caused additional harm,” she told Truthout.
Duffield added that the agency’s statements that the site remains safe “defy logic” and “have not yet been backed up by any data.”
“They don’t even have samples back from the lab yet, and it is unconscionable for them to release statements denying risk without also revealing the data and methodology that would justify such statements,” she said. “Nearly every time we are able to see the data and methodology, we find problems, always in the interest of minimizing health impacts.”
Duffield is skeptical that the DTSC will do any of this without direct intervention from Governor-Elect Gavin Newsom, because he is the only one with the power to make it right. “Newsom must order that the SSFL cleanup agreements are enforced, and a top-to-bottom reform of the entire agency,” Duffield said. “As DTSC has also failed to protect numerous communities in California. DTSC must be fully overhauled so that it will protect people, not polluters.”
Bumstead shared similar sentiments.
“Our petition asking Gavin Newsom for the complete cleanup once he becomes governor is nearly at 500,000 signatures,” she said. “We know that our community has already suffered so much in the last two weeks, between the shooting and the fires, and we’re outraged that during this tragedy we have the fears of nuclear waste on top of rebuilding our lives.”
Bumstead called California’s DTSC a “disgrace to democracy,” and added, “Once the full extent of their negligence is revealed, from the last 15 years and the Woolsey fire, we will soon see resignations of top DTSC officials, as well as resignations at Boeing, NASA and Department of Energy.”