Supreme Court Action Needed To Protect Hundreds Of Thousands Of Californians From Harm
Los Angeles, CA—Public interest groups filed amicus letters with the California Supreme Court seeking review of a decision by the First District Court of Appeal that would allow Boeing to demolish radioactive structures at Santa Susana Field Lab and dispose of the resulting debris in unequipped landfills and metal recycling centers without any state oversight.
“At issue here is a matter that could gravely affect the health and economics of large numbers of Californians statewide,” wrote Friends of the Earth, California Communities Against Toxics, and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in their amicus letter to the Supreme Court supporting a petition by Consumer Watchdog and other groups.
“The question is whether state regulators can ignore longstanding regulations about radioactive contamination and allow those responsible for the contaminated materials to dispose of it any way they wish—for example—recycle contaminated metals into the commercial metal supply, recycle contaminated metal and asphalt, and dispose of radioactive waste in sites not licensed or designed for such waste. Significant harm could occur if the existing appellate decision is not reversed, both by allowing radioactive material from Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL) to be improperly disposed of and by giving state regulators an effective green light to allow that practice statewide, affecting numerous other radioactive sites, solid and hazardous waste facilities and recyclers, and residents and consumers throughout the state.”
Read the amicus letter of Friends of the Earth, California Communities Against Toxics, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.
Parents Against Santa Susana Field Laboratory whose children have experienced rare forms of pediatric cancer filed anotheramicus letter supporting the petition.
The Department of Public Health (DPH) that sets standards to release radiological licenses and that govern site decontamination and the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) responsible for overseeing the safe removal and disposal of radioactive waste to licensed low-level radioactive waste facilities—have been using underground regulations developed away from public scrutiny for decades to allow corporate contractors to dispose of radioactive waste at levels dangerous to humans.
The only legally applicable state standard for cleanup and disposal of radiologically contaminated sites is the removal of all radiation to “background,” meaning naturally occurring levels of radiation with all reasonable effort made to achieve that. The underground standards have never been formally adopted as the law requires, according to the petition to the state’s Supreme Court filed by Strumwasser & Woocher on behalf of Consumer Watchdog, Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA, Southern California Federation of Scientists, and Committee to Bridge the Gap.
“Respondents have been applying their diluted decontamination standard, and disregarding the text of the existing regulation, literally for decades,” the petition states. “If the [Sacramento Court of Appeals] Opinion is allowed to stand….it will be taken by the Respondents as authoritative endorsement of their long-standing practices…Their abiding determination to evade the law is clear from the history of this very controversy.”
The petition continues: “Over half a million people live within 10 miles of SSFL, 150,000 of them within five miles of a site that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal called ‘a terrible environmental mess…’” the petition states. “One would think that the California agencies charged with protecting the public and the environment from radioactive contamination would insist on the strictest application of the state’s protective regulations before approving SSFL’s radiologically- contaminated buildings for demolition and disposal of the debris. Yet, in an abdication of their statutory roles and the rulemaking provisions of the [Administrative Procedure Act], the state has done precisely the opposite, disregarding the elimination-of-contamination standard…and authorizing the ‘unrestricted’ disposal of the debris.”
There is no safe level of radiation exposure. According to the Academy of Sciences, even unavoidable background causes some cancers and higher levels of exposure should be avoided. Children and women are more susceptible, getting 1.5 to 7 times more cancer from the same radiation than adult males get, according to the Academy.
More than two decades ago, the Sacramento Superior Court struck down the agencies’ underground regulations allowing radioactive contamination to be left at levels equivalent to hundreds of additional chest X-rays over a lifetime and its disposal at unlicensed sites. The court directed the agencies to adopt new regulations through proper rulemaking. Until then, they were to enforce the strictest legal standard. The agencies never bothered and continued to flout that law.
According to the amicus letter of Friends of the Earth, California Communities Against Toxics, and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, disposing of this waste at recycling shops and chemical landfills such as Buttonwillow and Kettleman Hills threatens neighboring communities. “In fact, the health damage from exposure to both hazardous and radioactive substances together can be synergistic,” the letter states. “In addition, some chemicals at hazardous waste sites could accelerate the leakage of radioactive waste from the site. Chelating agents, present at hazardous waste landfills, have been likened to putting radioactive wastes on roller skates.”
SSFL, where thousands of rocket tests were conducted and the government ran experimental nuclear reactors, one of which suffered a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959, is one of the most contaminated sites in the entire state. To this day, its toxic and radioactive contamination threatens more than 700,000 people living within ten miles of the site. Levels of cancer are 60% higher among people living within two miles of the site versus five miles, according to a scientific study. According to a Reuters investigative report, Boeing paid $30 million in 2005 to settle neighbors’ claims that contamination from Santa Susana caused cancers and other illnesses.
The litigation against DPH and DTSC began in 2013 when Consumer Watchdog and Committee to Bridge the Gap revealed that state agencies were allowing Boeing, federal contractor at the site in Simi Hills, to illegally deliver radioactive debris from the nuclear portion of the site to recycling shops and landfills not licensed to accept the waste and filed suit against the agencies. Disposing of such waste at recycling shops threatens consumers with potential exposure from radiologically contaminated zippers to structural components of buildings. After winning a preliminary injunction, the case wound its way through the courts, losing on appeal in the Sacramento Court of Appeals.
“Boeing’s handling of debris from the Santa Susana Field Lab in 2013 is something that belongs to a dystopian novel,” according to the letter filed by Parents Against Santa Susana Field Laboratory. “Boeing sent thousands of tons of contaminated debris to non-licensed waste sites, some of them municipal landfills that were not built for low-level radioactive waste and that aren’t monitored to ensure against radioactive leaks. Parents Against Santa Susana Field Lab has worked with other Environmental Justice (EJ) groups across California. The last thing we want is for the contamination at our site to go harm people we care about in other communities.”
Four more buildings in the nuclear portion of the site in the Simi Hills are slated for demolition and disposal. If the lower court decision stands, the state will have enabled Boeing to put radiologically contaminated debris anywhere they like. Those four buildings consist of a uranium carbide manufacturing facility, a plutonium fabrication facility, a research reaction, and a laboratory hosting a nuclear reactor.