Valley activists, residents head to Sacramento to demand cleanup of contaminated Santa Susana Field Lab

Environmental justice groups gathered Monday, Aug. 30, in front of the California EPA building in Sacramento, demanding cleanup of contaminated sites around the state, including the Santa Susana Field Lab tucked away in the hills above the San Fernando and Simi valleys.

Organizers of the demonstration said the California Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Toxic Substances Control, the regulatory agency overseeing the investigation and cleanup of contaminated soil and groundwater at the SSFL, failed to hold polluters accountable, allowing them to walk away from cleaning contaminated sites often located in low-income and working-class communities.

Rally goers held signs that read “Six decades later still waiting for 100%% cleanup of SSFL” and “We demand complete cleanup of toxic and radioactive waste” while chanting “No more!”

Groups present at the rally included the California Environmental Justice Coalition, Central California Environmental, the Del Amo Action Committee and others.

Melissa Bumstead, a West Hills resident and founder of the Parents Against Santa Susana Field Lab, said DTSC and CalEPA have failed to protect San Fernando Valley neighborhoods located near the Santa Susana Field Lab, which are still waiting for cleanup of the sprawling field. Bumstead believes her, a two-time cancer survivor, got sick because of the release of radiation from the site.

“Communities like mine are being exposed to dangerous contamination,” she said. “Our children are sick.”

Santa Susana Field Lab became contaminated when the area was used to test rocket engines and other activities for decades. In 1959, a nuclear reactor partially melted down, releasing radioactive gas into the atmosphere. Built in the 1950s, test stands at the site were home to rocket performance assessments for NASA’s Space Shuttle program and for U.S. Air Force missiles. Later the sites would play a major role in buoying the Apollo program, which launched the first American astronauts to the moon.

Those activities, however, left the area fouled with radioactive and chemical toxins, affecting nearby communities. For decades, activists have been calling for the cleanup of the sprawling site.

The site is encircled by the communities of Chatsworth, Thousands Oaks, Canoga Park, West Hills and Simi Valley where nearly 400,000 people reside. After years of negotiations and agreements, a full-scale cleanup of the area has still not been launched.

California EPA chief Jared Blumenfeld stepped outside his office to talk to rally goers, saying “many of you are on the front lines of communities that have been polluted for a way too long.”

He added: “Too many people have died because polluters are not paying the price. The whole system is designed to make sure polluters pay and that’s what we’re here to do.”

There are 150,000 to 200,000 sites in California, he said, that need to be cleaned up and that have no responsible party “because a responsible party walked away…The polluters are not going to pay in those circumstances because they just ran away.”

Photo: Courtesy of Jin Zhu.

He added that this year’s budget has $500 million designated for cleaning up brownfield sites.

“There are going to be times when you think we’re not doing enough and there are going to be times when polluters think we are doing a way too much but we are here to push them toward cleaning up California and make sure we don’t have chemicals put into the production, into the ground and into our bodies,” Blumenfeld said.

His speech was interrupted several times by rally goers, saying he needs to hold polluters accountable for delaying cleaning up toxic fields.

“They made promises and we had meetings,” said Bumstead, “but it’s not doing anything and it’s not changing.”

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