Mystery shrouds old rocket and nuclear test site

One of the more interesting, ongoing stories in Los Angeles is the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a 3,000 acre property nestled in the mountains where nuclear reactors and rocket engines were tested by the government beginning in the mid 1940s.  The area is now owned mostly by the Boeing Co, although NASA and the Department of Energy still oversee slivers of the property. But questions linger from residents near the site about contamination.  Since I wrote the story below (Daily News, 2009), there have been some updates I’ve written on levels of toxic chemicals, but clean up seems far off. From my story (Daily News, 2009):

CHATSWORTH – Before they learned words like dioxin and perchlorate, mothers let sons and daughters play near streams that trickled down from hills that hid some of the government’s biggest secrets.

Families who settled in neighborhoods blooming in Chatsworth, West Hills and Simi Valley led idyllic lives, even when their bedroom and kitchen windows rattled from the roar of rocket engines being tested at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Hills.

But in May 1989, surveys from the Department of Energy – reported exclusively in the Daily News – revealed that radioactive and toxic contamination from decades of nuclear experiments and rocket tests had leaked into soil, groundwater and bedrock at the hilltop site.

Now, 20 years after the 210-page report became public, a full-scale, government-ordered cleanup has yet to start. Community activists worry that if the cleanup doesn’t begin soon under the land’s current ownership, part of the property may be sold, leading to an inadequate cleanup under new owners and possibly clearing the way for construction of an undesirable prison or Indian casino.

“The story that has evolved in 20 years is from coverup to a dribble of information about the real situation there,” said former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, who authored a 2007 law that prohibits the sale or transfer of the site until the state certifies it has been properly decontaminated.

“There was a realization among residents around the site that their health may have been seriously compromised by both emissions of air and groundwater and the fact that there was no serious intention by the government to clean the site,” Kuehl said. “It started a consciousness but there has been nothing but roadblocks all the way.”

Mystery has long shrouded the Santa Susana Field Lab, located on 2,900 acres at the top of the Simi Hills in Ventura County.

Founded in the mid-1940s at what was then a remote location, the lab developed and tested nearly a dozen nuclear reactors for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which later became the Department of Energy. It also tested and developed powerful rockets – like the Delta II, and the systems that powered the Apollo and space shuttle missions – under contracts with the Department of Defense and with NASA, which still owns 452 acres of the property.

Kept secret from the public was the partial meltdown of one of the reactors in 1959, an accident that released radiation into the air. Five decades later, the full scope of the release and its impact on workers and residents remains unknown.

In fact, few details about any of the health or environmental effects of decades of nuclear experiments and rocket testing were known until the 1989 report, which revealed radioactive and toxic contamination in more than a dozen sites.


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