Administration Plan Would Allow Housing on Dangerously Contaminated Land 30 Miles from Downtown; Decision Could Affect Nuke Cleanup Nationwide

LOS ANGELES (October 21, 2004) -- Conservation groups, joined by the City of Los Angeles, sued the Bush Administration today, alleging it broke longstanding commitments to clean up a radioactively contaminated 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 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced last year that it was reversing a decade of promises to clean up the site according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. Instead, DOE intends to leave untouched 99 percent of the radioactively contaminated soil and then release the land for potential residential development.

Clean-up workers; Melted fuel rod. (Click on the photos to enlarge.)

According to EPA, the cleanup criteria chosen by DOE would permit concentrations of some radioactive materials in the soil 10,000 times higher than EPA remediation goals; concentrations so high they pose the risk of cancer for one out of every 50 people exposed. Nevertheless, once cleanup is complete, according to DOE, "future use of the property for residential purposes is probable."

The lawsuit, filed today in federal court in San Francisco by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Committee to Bridge the Gap (CBG), and the City of Los Angeles, alleges violations of several environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and CERCLA, the Superfund law. It seeks 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.

Accidents, Spills, Meltdown Leave Deadly Mess

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.

Fifteen years ago, CBG and NRDC joined forces with local community groups and shut down nuclear operations at the site.

Energy Department Flip-Flop

Late last year, EPA found DOE in violation of the DOE-EPA 1995 Joint Policy that commits all DOE sites to be cleaned up consistent with EPA standards. EPA also found that under DOE's new plans, it would not be safe to release the site for any unrestricted use such as homes, and that the only acceptable use would be day hikes with limitations on picnicking.

Although the cleanup of such a contaminated nuclear site clearly is a major federal action that could significantly impact the environment, DOE failed to prepare a required Environmental Impact Statement, producing instead a conclusory "environmental assessment." DOE also has failed to consider in its environmental review the recent discovery that tritium (essentially radioactive water) contaminates groundwater at the site at four times safe drinking water levels.

"Surface and groundwater contamination by toxic and radioactive substances does not stop at city borders or respect county lines," said City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. "My office will continue to look out for the health and safety of the residents of Los Angeles and Ventura County to ensure that responsibility for cleanup of the problems at this facility is properly addressed."

"This case could affect nuclear contamination and public health nationwide," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with NRDC and director of its Urban Program. "If the administration can ignore sensible cleanup standards here, at a site with a long history of nuclear accidents and even a reactor meltdown, it will do so anywhere. But if we can enforce a strong federal cleanup policy at Santa Susana, we will establish a precedent to safeguard the public nationwide."

"It is hard to conceive of putting houses on top of a former meltdown site," said Daniel Hirsch, President of CBG, another party to the suit and a longtime watchdog of Santa Susana Field Laboratory. "It is even harder to imagine given that EPA says it would be safe only for day hikes and limited picnics. We sue to get the government to live up to its promises, to clean up the mess it made, and place no more people at risk."

"We've been lied to for twenty years about the health consequences of this place," said Barbara Johnson, a cancer survivor who lives in the shadow of the field lab. "I'm so grateful that someone is finally going to force them to clean up this awful mess. It shouldn't take a lawsuit to get the government to protect us."

Copies of the Complaint and rare government film showing the meltdown and aftermath are available upon request.