The old Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Laboratory site in eastern Ventura County overlooking the San Fernando Valley has long been notorious for horrific pollution problems. The hilltop site, located near residential communities, operated for over 60 years as a rocket testing site and hosted nearly 30,000 tests. It also operated as a nuclear reactor test site and suffered a scary accident in 1959, when more than a dozen uranium fuel rods in the reactor ruptured and partly melted. As a result, extensive groundwater and soil contamination plagues the facility, which Boeing now uses as a research outpost. Polluted runoff discharged from the site has exceeded water quality standards on dozens of occasions.
Last Friday, the Regional Water Board inexplicably voted to weaken stormwater regulatory requirements for two drainages leaving the site despite its long and dark history. The “rationale” for replacing enforceable numeric limits in the permit with meaningless benchmarks (unenforceable water quality guidance levels) for the next year? Supposedly giving Boeing, the current owner of the polluted site, some breathing room to build stormwater pollution controls for the drainages and complete soil cleanup activities without the risk of financial penalties.
Board members directed staff to bring the permit back before them in a year to discuss Boeing’s progress and determine if benchmarks are still appropriate; however in the meantime, Boeing in essence has a permit to pollute. The board also made its decision retroactive to 2007, in essence reducing Boeing’s liability for numerous violations over the last two years. The chances of completing the contaminated soil cleanup activities and extensive stormwater pollution controls in one year when there isn’t even a Regional Board-approved soil cleanup plan are remote at best. Look for the board to extend the unenforceable benchmarks into the foreseeable future.
From Heal the Bay’s perspective, the board move was extremely disappointing. The Rocketdyne site has a long history of water quality violations and its permit had strict numeric effluent limits for toxics that were upheld by the State Water Board in response to a Boeing appeal.
Dan Hirsch, a longtime environmental and anti-nuclear activist, has led the fight to clean up the Rocketdyne site for decades. At the hearing, he brought a number of local cancer victims that reside near the Rocketdyne site. Despite their emotional pleas and recounting of years of suffering, the board split on a 3-3 vote. After another hour of debate following additional testimony from Hirsch and Heal the Bay’s Kirsten James, the board decided to approve the weakened permit. The final, strong arguments from board members Maribel Marin and Fran Diamond did not sway their colleagues.
Because the Regional Board is generally more environmentally protective than the State Board, the outcome shocked Heal the Bay and the local community. Perhaps Commissioner Marin stated it best when she said, “As a board, our job is to protect water quality. Today, we didn’t do our job.”