Friday, March 28, 2008


Santa Susana Field Station

There have been numerous meetings at which concerned citizens have haranged the Boeing Company, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Department of Energy, and various California State agencies about the pollution at the Santa Susana Field Station. This test area was operated for years by North American Aviation. The Rocketdyne Division tested jet propulsion engines there. The Atomics International Division tested experimental nuclear reactors there. Each division had its own area of the Field Station in which to carry out its tests.

When the site was chosen for the work, it was a remote area of Los Angeles County. Nobody lived anywhere near the site. However, as Rocketdyne and Atomics International grew and hired thousands of workers, people moved into the general area around their plants. The Field Station was on the top of a hill and the surrounding hill-side area was a desirable location for homes with views.

Testing at the site started about 1950 and continued until the mid 1990's. The site is no longer used for testing and the successor firm to North American Aviation, the Boeing Corporation, wants to sell it. It would be most profitable to sell the site to developers for residential buildings. It would be less profitable to sell it to the State of California to be used for recreation. In any case, Boeing has no further use for the property and wants to get rid of it.

Unfortunately, Boeing acquired a liability when it took title to the property. The Field Station is polluted with toxic chemicals left over from the rocket engine tests and with radioactive material left over from the reactor experiments. The occasional rainfall in the area causes the toxic material to leach away and get into ground water on the Simi Valley side of the site and into little streams that drain into the Los Angeles River on the Los Angeles side. People living near the site have discovered, perhaps too late, that the site is polluted and that the pollution is spreading. I am not able to give any indication as to how serious the pollution problem is. It is sufficient to say that the residents of the area know there is a problem and are up in arms about it. They want the site cleaned up or isolated in such a way that the pollution will not spread farther. Hence, the meetings.

I have attended two of the meetings recently. It seems to me that they are an example of many meetings held to discuss a problem with nothing done to solve it. The way I see the problem is that there are two solutions, both very expensive. The first is to clean up the pollution at the site. Remove soil and other material and dispose of it in established toxic dumps and radioactive dumps. The other solution is to establish a safe boundary around the site and buy back all the homes and other property of residents living inside the boundary. A safe boundary might have a radius of five miles or more.

Either solution is hellaciously expensive. Boeing doesn't want to pay. The State doesn't want to pay. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't want to pay. The Department of Energy doesn't want to pay. Homeowners living within the "safe boundary" don't want to see the value of their homes drop to zero.

Simple, unsophisticated thinking leads one to the conclusion that the person or organization responsible for the problem should pay the cost of cleaning up or relocating the people affected. But, who is responsible? Is it the Boeing Corporation, successor to North American Aviation who operated the site for many years? Is it the planning commissions of the surrounding cities and counties who allowed builders to locate homes close to the site? Is it the builders themselves who bought the land when it was cheap and made tidy fortunes when the land was rezoned into residential lots and homes were built and sold? More sophisticated thinking leads me to suppose that all parties share some responsibility for paying the cost of correcting the situation.

My solution is as follows:
  1. Conduct the necessary surveys to determine how serious the pollution problem is.
  2. Estimate the cost of the clean-up.
  3. Estimate the cost of buying out the residents who live near the site.
  4. Decide whether to clean the place or relocate the residents.
  5. Divide the cost three ways: Boeing, the local governments responsible for the zoning, and the builders and realtors who profited from the residential construction and sales.

As you can see, I live in a dream world. Nobody is going to get a dime out of the builders and realtors. Boeing may take refuge in bankruptcy. That leaves the taxpayers in the affected governments, the State of California, the federal government, and the residents of the affected area to share the cost.


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