Santa Susana Field Lab Demolition Stays On Hold

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The Boeing Co. has postponed controversial demolition work of a radioactive building on the Santa Susana Field Laboratory site after a judge indicated he was likely to issue a temporary injunction against the work.

In a ruling made Thursday, Superior Court Judge Allen Sumner agreed to temporarily grant a preliminary injunction against Boeing, siding with activists who said the company needed full environmental reviews before doing the work. But then during a hearing on Friday, Sumner said he would hold off on adopting the preliminary injunction until he reviewed 2,500 pages of documents, five separate briefs and twelve declarations with more than 60 exhibits among other evidence submitted.

“On its limited review, the court is inclined to find the potential harm to Petitioners, the public and environment,” Sumner wrote, but added: “Given the complexity and size of this case, this tentative ruling is just that — tentative. Until the court has adequate time to more fully analyze this motion, it intends to temporarily grant the motion and maintain the status quo.”

In August, Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica based advocacy organization, joined by several other groups, warned the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Department of Public Health that they faced a lawsuit if they didn’t block Boeing’s actions.

The groups said by allowing Boeing to demolish those buildings then discarding the debris at unlicensed dumps, the DTSC and DPH violated the California Environmental Quality Act. They also said “the buildings remained contaminated with high levels of radiation” and that demolition would release unknown toxins.

The watchdog groups, which include the Committee to Bridge the Gap, the Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, and the Southern California Federation of Scientists, also allege DTSC and DPH allowed Boeing to practice “underground regulations” in defining acceptable levels of radiation when approving the demolition.

State agencies DTSC and the Department of Health have said they have no oversight of the demolition of structures built on contaminated land.

The judge disagreed.

“DTSC, DPH and Boeing argue Petitioners cannot prevail on their CEQA claim because CEQA simply does not apply to the demolition of these buildings,” Sumner wrote. “The court is not persuaded.”

Boeing officials issued a statement saying they were pleased the judge postponed a ruling and is taking additional time to review all of the information before making a ruling. The company had halted the demolition work earlier while it was facing a legal challenge and said Monday it would continue to postpone the work even though the judge’s order is not in effect.

“We are pleased by the court’s decision to not grant a preliminary injunction and appreciate that the judge is taking the time to thoughtfully consider the complex issues of this case,” according to the statement.

Boeing officials said they have “compelling scientific evidence from highly qualified experts, including the former chief of the California Radiologic Health Branch, former executive director of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and an expert associated with the National Academy of Sciences, (that) confirms that Boeing’s demolition activities are safe,” according to the statement.

But Sumner appeared to disagree with the spirit of their statement in his Thursday ruling, saying that just because a building is decommissioned and released for unrestricted use, shouldn’t mean it isn’t subject to government regulation or oversight.

“The court finds it hard to believe Boeing can demolish a former nuclear reactor without any governmental oversight or CEQA review,” Sumner wrote.

Nestled between Simi Valley and Chatsworth, the Santa Susana Field Laboratory is a remote, 2,900-acre site developed in the 1940s where rocket engines had been tested and nuclear research had been conducted. In 1989, the Department of Energy released a report admitting that a partial meltdown of a sodium reactor had occurred in 1959 on a section known as Area IV.

The work left contamination in some parts of the area, in soil and groundwater, specifically perchlorate and dioxin. Site owners and environmental regulators still don’t know the full extent of the soil and groundwater contamination but have been mandated by state law to clean up the land to strict levels.

Earlier this year, Consumer Watchdog urged state officials to investigate the DTSC for failing to properly protect the public against polluters and called the agency a weak enforcer.

Reach the author at [email protected] or follow Susan on Twitter: @sabramLA.

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