The Santa Susana Field Lab, nestled in the Simi Hills, is about an hour by car from downtown Los Angeles. It is the scene of experimental nuclear reactor testing and a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959, plutonium production, and tens of thousands of rocket engine tests that left this infamous Cold War lab one of the most dangerously contaminated 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.
At the beginning of 2013, Consumer Watchdog and Committee to Bridge the Gap discovered that two state agencies—the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and the Department of Public Health (DPH)—were allowing Boeing, federal contractor at the site of the former Cold War lab in Simi Hills, to illegally deliver radioactive debris from the nuclear portion of the site to recycling shops and landfills not equipped or licensed to accept the waste and with no state oversight.
Disposing of such waste at recycling shops threatens the health and safety of consumers with potential exposure from radiologically contaminated zippers to structural components used in the construction of new buildings. Only facilities with barriers to prevent any material from escaping for 500 years are licensed to accept low-level radioactive waste. There are no such facilities in California. Hazardous waste facilities are not deep enough to safely contain radioactive waste.
Consumer Watchdog, Committee to Bridge the Gap, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, and the Southern California Federation of Scientists, represented by Strumwasser & Woocher, LLP, filed suit against both the DTSC and the DPH in August 2013 in Sacramento Superior Court. The complaint alleged the continuing violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by the two agencies because they entirely failed to perform any of the required environmental review prior to authorizing demolition and disposal of radiologically contaminated structures in the nuclear portion of the Santa Susana Field Lab site known as Area IV owned by Boeing.
The suit also alleged that the agencies were using diluted decontamination standards never formally adopted under the state’s Administrative Procedure Act (APA), rather than the sole, more stringent legally applicable state standard for cleanup and disposal of radiologically contaminated sites in California. That standard requires the removal of all radiation to “background,” meaning naturally occurring levels of radiation with all reasonable effort made to achieve that.
The groups succeeded in getting the trial court to issue a preliminary injunction in October 2013 ordering DTSC to not approve further demolition of Boeing radioactively contaminated structures in Area IV while the suit was pending. In September 2017, the DTSC issued a draft Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) reviewing the significant environmental effects of the lab’s cleanup, identifying ways to minimize those effects and to review all the reasonable alternatives for cleanup. But the agency did not address the demolition and disposal of Boeing’s five Area IV radwaste buildings as part of the cleanup project under CEQA in that draft PEIR, and the case proceeded to trial.
In December 2018, the trial court denied the requested writ of mandate that would have ordered DTSC and DPH to comply with CEQA and the APA prior to allowing demolition. Petitioners appealed, but the First District Court of Appeal in Sacramento upheld the trial court’s decision in May 2023. The groups then petitioned the California Supreme Court to review the case, which the Court declined to do in July 2023.
But at the end of the day, the groups’ litigation did result in expanding the scope of the DTSC’s environmental review to include demolition and disposal activities of Boeing’s five Area IV radiological structures. In June 2023, the DTSC issued its final Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) for the lab site, which stated, “DTSC will ensure that the demolition and disposal of these buildings is carried out in accordance with applicable law…To facilitate a more conservative and quantitative analysis of impacts, DTSC is including the remaining Boeing building demolition as part of the analysis of project impacts.”
Further, the DTSC’s final PEIR stated that Boeing structures in Area IV “will be removed consistent with the 2010 AOC for Area IV.” In 2010, the state signed a cleanup agreementwith the US Department of Energy ensuring that its contractor Boeing cleaned Area IV up to background and disposed of radioactive debris at low level radioactive waste facilities. The plaintiffs have long supported the AOC and its requirements as environmentally protective.
The plaintiffs in the case had asked the DTSC to comply with CEQA by including the demolition and disposal of radwaste buildings belonging to Boeing in Area IV of the Santa Susana Field Lab as part of the sitewide cleanup project in its PEIR. Though the case was lost on appeal, the agency did ultimately consider the potential environmental impact of demolition and disposal of Boeing’s remaining Area IV structures as part of the overall lab cleanup project in its final PEIR, and the agency committed to requiring Boeing to carry out these activities in accordance with California law.
Plaintiffs’ perseverance over the course of a decade was the catalyst in motivating the defendants in the case, namely state agencies, to provide the primary relief sought. The litigation brought the reprieve of a decade in disposal of radioactive waste in a manner that threatens the public. The groups will continue to monitor whether DTSC follows through on its promises to require Boeing to dispose of radiologically contaminated structures in facilities equipped and licensed to store radioactive waste.