Environmentalists fear that a recent announcement by the toxics department that it will consider various cleanup alternatives at the controversial Santa Susana industrial site in southern California may be a veiled attempt to unravel an agreement made between the agency and responsible parties to clean the site to strict "background" levels of radiation.
But the department this week says it still intends to impose strict cleanup standards except for portions of the site owned by Boeing, which is not a party to the agreement.
Environmentalists have raised concerns in the past that the agency has weakened site cleanup requirements at the request of industry lobbyists, and they now argue that the recent announcement appears to conflict with a binding agreement to cleanup the area to strict standards.
At issue is an announcement earlier this month by the Department of Toxic Substances Control that it is preparing a draft environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to "assess alternatives for environmental cleanup" at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory site in Ventura County.
DTSC will host two public scoping meetings Dec. 10 and Dec. 14 in southern California to provide information on the CEQA preparation process and to invite public comments on the scope of the issues and alternatives to be considered in the draft, DTSC says.
The contaminated Santa Susana site covers more than 2,000 acres outside Los Angeles and includes multiple facilities operated by Boeing, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Those three entities are responsible parties at the site, which historically was used to test nuclear reactors and rocket technologies, and has resulted in contamination of soil. Boeing now owns most of the land at the site.
In 2010, environmentalists claimed victory in a long-fought battle over the cleanup, when DTSC finalized a remediation plan with DOE and NASA that environmentalists believed could be looked upon as a standard for how to remediate radioactive contamination at other sites throughout the country.
The agreement between the state and the parties calls for cleaning portions of the site to naturally occurring background levels of radiation that would have been present at the site before a nuclear reactor at the lab melted down. Activists believe this brings the cleanup plan into compliance with U.S. EPA's Superfund rules and state law. Prior to the agreement's signing, activists had feared the cleanup would not comply with Superfund standards and would thus lead to a precedent undermining those standards.
The agreement is referred to as an "Administrative Order of Consent" (AOC) where the parties agree to clean up to background levels and bring the site "to its original state before it was used as a rocket test facility," DTSC's website says.
But the recent DTSC notice for CEQA review of cleanup alternatives at the site raises questions because the AOC specifically calls for portions of the site to be cleaned up to background levels, environmentalists say.
Environmentalists are concerned that the DTSC notice for the CEQA process includes no mention of the AOC or cleaning up the site to background levels, says one environmentalist. "The notice says they are soliciting comments on cleanup 'alternatives,' but there are no alternatives [allowed] under the AOC. There is not a word about cleanup to background or the AOC in the public notices; instead, it claims the scoping is about what the cleanup requirements should be, a clear violation of the AOC."
Environmental groups last year alleged that DTSC was beginning to weaken key aspects of the cleanup agreement at the request of lobbyists for Boeing, some of whom are former Cal/EPA officials. Activist groups argued that Boeing representatives, including former Cal/EPA Secretary Winston Hickox and former DTSC attorney Robert Hoffman, have successfully lobbied the department to weaken cleanup requirements at the site and that DTSC is essentially a "subsidiary" of Boeing.
But DTSC and sources close to Boeing have defended the agency's oversight of the cleanup and disputed assertions that cleanup standards are being rolled back.
When asked whether DTSC is in fact considering alternatives to cleaning up the site to background levels, a DTSC spokesman says that "at this point, we cannot provide a lot of specific detail. We will likely look at removal and off-site disposal, bioremediation, chemical oxidation among others."
When asked directly whether the AOC requires the site to be cleaned up to background levels, the DTSC spokesman says the AOC does require cleanup to background for DOE and NASA's portion of the site. But for the Boeing property, the cleanup is based on risk as required in a 2007 consent agreement. The CEQA document addresses all three parties, the spokesman says.
In a May 2012 letter to NASA, DTSC Director Debbie Raphael requested the agency to ensure the site is cleaned up to background levels in compliance with the AOC and "not an evaluation of alternative cleanup standards."
But the latest DTSC notice appears to show DTSC reversing its opinion and now considering alternative cleanup options, the environmentalist argues.
If DTSC were to allow an alternative cleanup that fails to meet background standards, environmentalists would not be able to challenge that decision in court because the public was not a party to the AOC, the source says. But environmentalists may be able to challenge DTSC's CEQA review of the cleanup if the groups have objections, the source notes.
A DTSC document accompanying the announcement says the CEQA review will include "the activities necessary to implement soil and groundwater remediation. The anticipated remediation approaches and methodologies for [soil] will be further defined in Corrective Measures Study work plans to be submitted by Boeing and comparable Soils Remedial Action Implementation Plans to be submitted by DOE and NASA for each of their respective areas at the site." The document is available on InsideEPA.com. (Doc ID: 2454235)
The CEQA review will establish a framework for "tiered" or project-level environmental documents to be prepared to address further development and refinement of remediation approaches and actions, DTSC's document says.