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DTSC and DOE Agreement for the Demolition of Structures at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Raises Many Questions

PUBLIC HEALTH-On May 20, 2020, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the lead agency for the cleanup of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) issued a press release:

“California Issues Legal Order for Cleanup of Santa Susana Toxic Site Requires U.S. Department of Energy to Remove 10 Buildings at SSFL” 

SACRAMENTO – California has reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to remove contaminated buildings at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a former nuclear research and rocket engine test facility in Ventura County. This action requires DOE to remove all 10 buildings within the Radioactive Materials Handling Facility Complex. Removal of these deteriorating buildings will avoid a release of hazardous substances and minimize risk to the public and environment in the event of a fire followed by heavy rain. 

“Today’s actions to clean up this toxic site are the result of a critical partnership between California and the U.S. Department of Energy that greatly benefited from the personal involvement of DOE Secretary Dan Brouillette and former Secretary Rick Perry,” said Governor Gavin Newsom. “The surrounding communities have waited a long time for decisive action at the Santa Susana Field Lab and today’s Order represents a new and important chapter towards the full cleanup.” 

“This is a significant step forward in the cleanup of this important site,” said CalEPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld. “We share this community’s concern regarding the possible release of contamination from this area, and credit the federal Department of Energy for working collaboratively to remove the buildings and complete this action.” 

Demolition and removal of the building debris will be done under the requirements of the 2010 Administrative Orders on Consent, which governs the cleanup of SSFL. The debris from all 10 buildings will be transported out of state to a low-level radioactive waste facility for disposal.

“The Department of Energy is committed to making real and significant progress to address the environmental legacy of government-sponsored research,” said Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette. “This agreement demonstrates that DOE and the state of California can work together to move the ETEC site to final cleanup and completion.”  

The consent order issued by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control is consistent with Governor Gavin Newsom’s efforts to prevent and mitigate the impacts of wildfires. In reviewing Executive Order N-05-19, DTSC identified an opportunity to mitigate the risk from wildfires at SSFL. In the event of a fire followed by heavy rain, the deteriorating buildings could potentially release contamination that could migrate off site. This interim action will result in the removal of the above-ground portions of the buildings. 

Contamination within the 1.5-acre RMHF Complex includes radionuclides, heavy metals, solvents, oils and greases, lead-based paint and asbestos-containing materials. The RMHF Complex, which is within the former Energy Technology Engineering Center, was built in 1959 to handle nuclear fuel. 

DOE is one of three responsible parties for the cleanup at SSFL, with Boeing owning most of the site and NASA also owning a portion. 

View the Order on Consent for Interim Response Action and other documents related to SSFL.” 

As an interested party and local resident of the community potentially impacted by the SSFL cleanup, I received notice of this agreement by email from DTSC which included the image above. 

DTSC’s Community Notice: 

The RMHF complex is located in the former DOE-owned Energy Technology Engineering Center (ETEC) in Area IV, an area vulnerable to wildfires. It was built in 1959 to handle nuclear fuel. Contamination within the 1.5-acre RMHF Complex includes radionuclides, heavy metals, solvents, oils and greases, lead-based paint, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and asbestos containing materials. This Order on Consent allows for the immediate removal of the above ground portions of 10 buildings. 

The 2005 Topanga Fire and the 2018 Woolsey Fire are recent fires that impacted SSFL. Although the 2019 Easy Fire did not reach SSFL, it occurred nearby. In the event of a fire followed by heavy rain, the deteriorating buildings could potentially release contamination that could migrate offsite. Executive Order N-05-19 provides an opportunity to mitigate potential risk from wildfires at SSFL. 

Demolition and removal of the building debris will be done under the requirements of the 2010 Administrative Orders on Consent, which govern the cleanup of SSFL. It will also be guided by DOE’s Standard Operating Procedure and the final Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) Closure Plan. 

Debris from all 10 buildings will be transported out of state to an authorized or licensed commercial low-level or mixed low-level radioactive waste facility for disposal. DOE is one of three responsible parties for the cleanup at SSFL, with Boeing owning most of the site and NASA also owning a portion. Please visit our website for updates on this and all other activities onsite.” 

Department of Energy (DOE) Press Release:   

Department of Energy to Resume Cleanup at Energy Technology Engineering Center 

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will soon resume environmental cleanup at the Energy Technology Engineering Center (ETEC) in Simi Valley through an agreement with the State of California. This important step allows active work to restart after more than a decade. 

DOE and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control announced a consent order to demolish 10 of the remaining DOE-owned buildings, including several of the most contaminated, at the former nuclear and liquid metals research site in Ventura County. 

“Under President Trump’s leadership, the Department of Energy is committed to making real and significant progress to meaningfully address the environmental legacy challenges from decades of Cold War era government research,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette. “This agreement is an important step that demonstrates how DOE and California can collaborate to bring the ETEC site to its final cleanup and completion.” 

"Today’s actions to clean up this toxic site are the result of a critical partnership between California and the U.S. Department of Energy that greatly benefited from the personal involvement of DOE Secretary Dan Brouillette and former Secretary Rick Perry,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom. “The surrounding communities have waited a long time for decisive action at the Santa Susana Field Lab and today’s Order represents a new and important chapter towards the full cleanup." 

The 10 buildings slated for demolition comprise the former Radioactive Materials Handling Facility complex, used for the processing, packaging and shipment of radioactive and mixed hazardous wastes. The buildings became inactive from 1999-2001. 

“The Department of Energy looks forward to resuming active cleanup at the ETEC site, and it will be done safely and effectively,” said Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar. “Removing these buildings is a significant step forward toward final cleanup of the site.” 

Removing the facilities will reduce potential risk from wildfires and erosion from significant storms. DOE will dispose of building demolition debris at licensed and permitted disposal facilities outside the State of California. DOE will continue to work with the State toward processes to remove the remaining DOE-owned buildings at ETEC, and toward cleanup of soils and groundwater at the site. 

“This is a significant step forward in the cleanup of this important site,” said California Environmental Protection Secretary Jared Blumenfeld. “We share this community’s concern regarding the possible release of contamination from this area, and credit the Federal Department of Energy for working collaboratively to remove the buildings and complete this action.” 

In September 2019, former Energy Secretary Rick Perry became the first DOE Secretary to visit ETEC, seeing first-hand the cleanup challenges facing the Site and meeting with California officials to discuss a path forward. 

The ETEC site, located at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, served as a premier research facility during the Cold War era. Since the 1980s, more than 200 structures on the site have been demolished and removed; after completing this demolition, only 8 DOE structures remain.” 

The Differences between the three press releases (in my opinion): 

  • The press release by the State of California implies a resistance by the DOE to demolish the structures at its Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) also known as the Energy Technology and Engineering Center (ETEC) Complex 
  • The use of the State’s language “requires” implies the State’s cleanup authority under various State and Federal laws. 
  • The State’s press release emphasizes that the cleanup of the Radioactive Materials Handling Facility (RMHF) complex will be done according to the

DTSC and DOE 2010 Consent Order which is linked to that document. 

  • The State’s letter emphasizes that the debris from the demolition of these structures, some of which are known to be radioactive, will be taken to low level waste facilities out of State. 
  • The State also emphasizes that this action for demolition of these radioactive structures is to be performed due to the potential future risks of wildfires in the area. 

How the State’s Public Notice Differs from the DTSC emailed notice 

  • The DTSC emailed notice did not reference all the quotes from the various agency leaders about the agreement. 
  • In the DTSC emailed notice, it references what type of contaminates of concern would be found within this complex which is also a part of the State’s press release. 
  • DTSC also notices the community that the demolition is only for the above ground portions of the structures which is consistent with the press release. 
  • DTSC’s emailed notice references the 2005 Topanga Fire and the 2018 Woolsey Fire which both burned large percentages of the SSFL site. It also referenced the “Easy Fire” which did not reach the SSFL site, but it occurred nearby. 
  • Both the State’s press release and the DTSC emailed document reflect that “NASA” owns a portion of the SSFL site. I would like to correct that statement to reflect that the United States Government owns the portion of the property that NASA currently “administers.” NASA is currently the responsible party for the Federal land that it has used and was also used in the past by the Air Force before NASA was created. 

The DOE’s Press Release – How it differs from the State’s and DTSC’s Press releases 

  • The DOE’s emphasis is on restarting the cleanup after more than a decade of inaction in terms of cleanup at the ETEC complex. 
  • It references a Consent Order to cleanup 10 structures “including several of the most contaminated, in its nuclear and liquid metals research portion of the SSFL site.
  • The DOE’s document references President Trump’s leadership to clean up what is known as “environmental legacy” sites. 
  • DOE references the relationship that the State had with former Energy Secretary Perry who toured the SSFL site with California’s EPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld in 2019. 
  • The DOE press release emphasizes that the ETEC site was a premier research facility during the Cold War era, and that since the 1980’s, more than 200 structures have been demolished in their portion of the site known as “AREA IV” of the SSFL site. It emphasizes that after this demolition, only 8 DOE facilities will remain in AREA IV. 

What Concerns Me About This Agreement 

  • Why are only the above ground structures being removed at the RMHF? 
  • In historic discussions related to the AREA IV demolition, I was lead to believe that work done in underground areas could be done more safely by demolishing the below grade structures such as vaults that may be radioactive by cutting these vaults and some non- load bearing walls into manageable blocks to that could be wrapped and lifted onto trucks in a manner that would prevent the release of the radionuclides contained in these cement structures to the open environment. 
  • In 2018, DTSC held a public meeting for discussion on the future of the RMHF and the Hazardous Waste Handling Facility (HWHF) in AREA IV of the SSFL. The Public Presentation for that event is here:

“DRAFT CLOSURE PLANS FOR THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY HAZARDOUS WASTE MANAGEMENT FACILITY AND RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS HANDLING FACILITY Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL)” 

 

 

This image is the geological map of the RMHF complex from the DTSC Open House on the RMHF in 2018. 

  • Why is there an Agreement in place for demolition by the DOE for the RMHF when DTSC has not released the public comments or the responses to the public comments to the potentially impacted community when public comment was due by October 12, 2018? 
  • While I do recognize that the Woolsey Fire impacted the SSFL site in November 2018, why hasn’t DTSC released those documents and its comments on them? 

 

 

 

  • It has been DTSC, in my opinion, that has delayed the demolition of the remaining DOE facilities in ETEC. In 2007, the DOE held public meetings in which they stated that they had the funding available to demolish these structures. I was told by DTSC employees that these facilities could not be demolished until the DOE completed its Environmental Impact Statement which it began in 2008. 
  • The DOE agreed to a cleanup standard in the 2007 Orders on Consent with DTSC. 
  • The Governor signed SB 990 into law in October 2008 which created a new cleanup standard for the SSFL property. 
  • The 2010 Administrative Orders on Consent (AOCs) were written to comply with SB 990. 
  • SB 990 was found to be unconstitutional in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. 
  • Why is the State of California insisting on the 2010 AOC cleanup standard when it was based upon a law that was found to be unconstitutional? 
  • Is DTSC considering any of the letters written by the four local Neighborhood Councils to DTSC regarding the cleanup standards of the SSFL site? 
  • What route will the trucks take with the radioactive waste to the landfills out of State? 

If you are interested in the cleanup of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory and in understanding any risks that demolition of these facilities will have to the local community, please see the following notice:

 

“If you have questions or need to secure meeting materials in Spanish or Hindi, please contact Michelle Banks-Ordone at (818) 717-6573 or Michelle.Banks-Ordone@dtsc.ca.gov. All requests for translated materials, must be received by June 2, 2020.”

 

(Chris Rowe, a former health care employee who has worked at Northridge Hospital, Tarzana Medical Center, and West Hills Hospital has a B.S. in Health Education. She is a 42-year resident of West Hills. She has written for the Los Angeles Daily News, RonKayeLA.org; OurLA.org; and CityWatch. She has a blog on the USC/ Annenberg Center for Health Journalism website and can be reached at rowecl@yahoo.com) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.