BEFORE the spring of 1989, all most people knew of the Santa Susana Field Lab were the occasional rocket tests that sent a thundering boom across the Valley and shook the homes in West Hills, Chatsworth and Simi Valley, near the hilltop facility.
The sprawling 2,859-acre lab built during the Cold War developed and tested rocket engines that powered missiles and, eventually, the Apollo and space shuttle missions.
But 20 years ago last month, the Daily News obtained and reported on an environmental survey that, for the first time, revealed extensive toxic and radioactive contamination from a 290-acre U.S. Atomic Energy Commission nuclear research facility located at lab.
The news shocked both neighbors and local environmental regulators, who never knew the site was once home to 10 nuclear reactors – one of which experienced a partial meltdown in 1959 – nor had any idea of the radioactive contamination.
They soon realized that secrecy and obfuscation were as deeply entrenched in the field lab as the contamination imbedded in the very soil of those hills.
The revelations sparked a fight by neighbors-turned-activists to force the authorities to thoroughly decontaminate the testing site on the edge of the country’s second-most populous city.
It’s a battle that is still raging, two decades later.
From the beginning, the lab owners and their government partners have continually downplayed the extent of the contamination,
disavowed responsibility and minimized the risk to employees and neighbors – only to slow the cleanup and further erode the trust of the community.
In 1989, the Daily News asked in an editorial: “How could a major defense contractor under the direction of a government department have allowed its facilities to become so contaminated?
“Part of the answer seems to lie in ignorance and apathy.”
Today we ask a different, more important question: How could a major defense contractor under the direction of the government allow a heavily contaminated site to linger for decades, exposing neighbors and the surrounding environment to chemicals that leak off the hill?
Part of the answer lies with a long-standing bureaucratic and corporate avoidance to doing the hard, expensive work of truly cleaning up the site.
Over the last 20 years, regulators have begun to learn the extent of the contamination throughout the entire lab – left by decades of nuclear research, plus work developing and testing rockets for the Defense Department and NASA. And an extremely dedicated and savvy group of community activists have arisen to dog the cleanup and push legislators to require the safest cleanup standards.
Yet for all that work, the cleanup is not expected to be complete until at least 2017. In real-bureaucratic time, that could end up being another two decades.
And despite a state law requiring the strictest cleanup standards, Boeing, which now owns the lab, and the government are still haggling over the details. Too often regulators have given in to pressure from the polluter and eased standards, so activists must be constantly vigilant.
Indeed, for all the money spent on lawyers and lobbyists to weaken the cleanup mandates, Boeing, its predecessors and the government agencies who used the land could have probably cleaned it up by now.
Even today, NASA is seeking to declare its portion of the lab as excess property and transfer it to the federal General Services Administration, where it could offered to other government agencies and nonprofits first, or eventually sold.
That conflicts with state law that requires the property be decontaminated before it can be transferred. That state law was expressly written to ensure lab owners couldn’t evade their obligation to remove their mess, yet NASA’s assurances that it will retain cleanup responsibility do not put anyone’s minds at ease.
As the last 20 years have shown over and over again, promises can be broken. The power comes in pointing them out. The Daily News remains committed to doing so as long as necessary. Along with the vigilance of activists, the commitment of politicians and the pressure of an educated public, the site will be made as clean and the Santa Susana Field Lab saga will be, finally, resolved.
Someday, hopefully before another 20 years have passed, people will be able to visit the hilltop property and learn two important things: how the men and women of the lab contributed to the nation’s 20th-century race to space, and how the men and women of the 21st-century fought the bureaucracy and power – and won.