What is a polluter’s shill to do when trying to save a client hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs? Well, one tactic is to manipulate the public living near the site of a partial nuclear meltdown into believing that nothing at one of the most polluted sites in California can hurt them. And hint that maybe, just maybe, this well-documented partial meltdown never happened in the first place.
The shill is the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). Somehow our top toxics regulator has the misguided idea that the “client” is industry, instead of the public that it was created to protect from toxic harm. And the tactic this compromised arm of the California EPA used last week was a new low.
The DTSC put on a public dog and pony show in Simi Valley that asserted that no contamination had ever migrated off the extensively polluted site despite numerous studies to the contrary. And to add insult to injury, the DTSC invited Dr. Thomas Mack from USC’s Keck School of Medicine to present on whether environmental pollution, including extensive chemical and radiological contamination from sloppy operations at the Santa Susana Field Lab, posed a risk to nearby residents. The once-secret lab nestled in the Simi Hills was used to test nuclear reactors that had no containment systems, rocket engines, and for other experiments.
Former Los Angeles Times reporter Joy Horowitz has described Mack, and his wife, Dr. Wendy Cozen, who also teaches at USC, in her book, Parts Per Million, as being “well known in public health circles for their deeply skeptical views about environmental links to cancer.”
Horowitz described Mack’s work a decade ago for a law firm defending an oil company in a suit alleging that Beverly Hills High School students developed cancer from oil drilling on campus as helping industry “thwart” liability claims and develop “a strong public relations front.”
The choice of Mack was also surprising given that the DTSC could have, and should have, invited the actual authors of federally funded multi-year studies of the site who did find indications of health risks for the population living near it. These studies by epidemiologists at UCLA and the University of Michigan are well known, including by the DTSC.
By omitting the experts who are most familiar with the cancer risks from the Santa Susana site, and instead inviting only someone skeptical that toxins hurt anyone living near them, the DTSC proved that it might as well not be in business.
At the Simi Valley presentation, Mack maintained that in the entire United States there has been just one documented instance of environmental pollutants causing cancer, in this case mesothelioma from asbestos among people living near a mining operation out West.
Why ask someone you know believes that there is practically no risk anywhere in the country of environmental pollutants causing cancer to talk about the risk from Santa Susana? But then again, why would the DTSC invite anyone who could really explain the health risks when the whole point of last night’s exercise was to avoid precisely that.
This is the sort of expert a regulator invites when that regulator wants the public to think there is more harm from the removal of environmental pollution than there is leaving right where it is. This is the sort of expert that the regulator invites to deflect any thoughts on the part of the audience that perhaps the regulator is protecting Boeing from having to spend the money to clean up very dangerous pollution at a site it almost wholly owns.
At the time of the Beverly Hills High suit, Mack maintained a person is just as likely to get cancer from his or her car stereo as they are from exposure to toxins from oil drilling, in a remark quoted by a New Republic reporter. But the reporter’s piece did not mention that Mack was consulting to a law firm on behalf of an oil company in the suit. Mack ultimately declined payment and expressed remorse, but only after the Los Angeles Times exposed Mack’s arrangement, according to Joy Horowitz’s book.
Jody Kleinman, a mother of a Beverly Hills High student, says this episode “speaks directly to the lack of integrity that Mr. Mack displayed when he became involved in our struggle,” adding that his input was “biased, detrimental, and even harmful to that investigation.” She said the study of cancers at the school done by his wife Dr. Wendy Cozen was also “totally inadequate and misleading.” For all these reasons, Kleinman said she would “continue to question Mr. Mack's ability to approach any environmental issue with anything but a pro industry bias and personally would not trust any of his opinions or recommendations.”
But Mack also provides an assist to regulators who are captive to industry. If regulators can get out of having to force a cleanup like Santa Susana’s with the argument that widespread contamination is harmless to people living near them, just think what regulators will be able to avoid making polluters clean up in the rest of the state.
When confronted with the question of why the authors of federal studies weren’t invited, DTSC’s Project Director for Santa Susana, Ray LeClerc, acted as if he had never even heard of the studies. “If there’s others, we’ll consider bringing them in,” he said.
When a member of the audience asked point blank if a partial meltdown had ever happened at the site, LeClerc said he was “unprepared” to talk about "the incident." Now, the DTSC can’t even admit a partial nuclear meltdown that is a documented part of history.
The state’s toxics agency has become the toxics denial agency. Not only does it deny the migration from the contamination at the site, but also wraps itself in the claims of a person deeply committed to the position that environmental pollution has virtually never given anyone living near it cancer. I won’t be surprised if the DTSC begins to deny the fact of the partial meltdown like some people deny Darwin and think that dinosaurs roamed the Earth together with people. This $200 million dollar agency is serving the client all right. It is just the wrong client.