LOS ANGELES (May 2, 2007) – In a thorough and sweeping decision that sets extraordinary precedent, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held today the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) accountable for identifying and cleaning up the radioactive contaminants at a nuclear facility in Southern California.
The Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a federal reactor testing site near Los Angeles, housed ten reactors, one of which suffered a partial meltdown in 1959. Despite extensive radioactive and chemical contamination, the DOE had announced in 2003 that it was reversing a decade of promises to clean up the site according to stringent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. Instead, it would leave untouched 99 percent of the radioactively contaminated soil and then release the land for potential residential development.
Referring to one of DOE’s arguments as “laughable”, the court stated that “the DOE has violated and continues to violate” the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and prohibited the DOE from turning over the site for residential development until a full Environmental Impact Statement is completed and a comprehensive clean-up achieved.
“This decision affects nuclear contamination and public health nationwide,” said James Birkelund, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “It will ensure that the DOE complies with federal laws and common-sense standards of decency, for cleaning up dozens of other sites around the nation.”
This decision came in response to a lawsuit filed in October of 2004 by NRDC, the Committee to Bridge the Gap (CBG) and the City of Los Angeles, alleging violations of several environmental laws, including NEPA, the Endangered Species Act and CERCLA, the Superfund law. It sought to force DOE to conduct a thorough environmental review of the site and to clean up the radioactive and chemical contamination according to the highest standards.
“This ruling sends an unequivocal message that those responsible for contaminating our environment have an obligation to make right what they have done,” said Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. “It does not matter whether the violator is a private entity or the federal government, we will pursue them until the violations are remedied.”
“Among the primary purposes of NEPA,” said the court, “is assuring that the public is informed and aware of the potential environmental impacts of government actions. It is difficult to imagine a situation where the need for such an assurance could be greater.” With that in mind, it announced that “the Court will retain jurisdiction over this matter until it is satisfied that the DOE has met its legal obligations.”
The 2,800-acre Santa Susana Field Laboratory is located atop hills between the Simi and San Fernando Valleys in southeastern Ventura County, approximately 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. For decades, the site was used to test nuclear reactors and rocket engines.
A reactor at the site suffered a partial meltdown in 1959 that scientists estimate may have released more radioactivity than the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. Two other reactors suffered serious accidents in 1964 and 1969, when large numbers of nuclear fuel rods cracked. Radioactive contamination from decades of accidents and spills is widespread. Toxic chemicals such as TCE, dioxins, PCBs and heavy metals also pollute the site - by-products of rocket engine testing and nuclear activities.
Eighteen years ago, CBG and NRDC joined forces with local community groups and shut down nuclear operations at the site.