Woolsey Fire Crippled Boeing Water Safety System at Toxics Site - NBC Southern California
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Woolsey Fire Crippled Boeing Water Safety System at Toxics Site

The giant Woolsey Fire ignited at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, burning 80 percent of the 2,850-acre site, state records show.

Woolsey Fire Crippled Boeing Water Safety System at Toxics Site
Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag
FILE PHOTO taken 7/26/94 of the main section of the Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Laboratory facility where an explosion killed two workers and injured another . (Photo by Steve Osman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

California regulators say it's one of the state's worst toxic waste sites, and it's perched atop a rocky plateau in suburban Ventura County, close to Los Angeles.

Yet, the Boeing Co., which owns the largest portion of the site, has been relying on plastic pipes to reroute and treat potentially toxin laced rainwater before it flows toward thousands of homes and businesses down the hill.

In a major storm, state officials knew, rainwater could carry pollutants from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a former nuclear and rocket testing site with a documented history of nuclear and chemical accidents, toward the surrounding communities of Simi Valley and the West San Fernando Valley.

Boeing worked with the state and installed a massive system of plastic pipes, treatment systems and holding ponds meant to filter and manage potentially toxic rainwater before it poured downhill, according to interviews and company and state records.

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Then the giant Woolsey Fire ignited at the old laboratory, burning 80 percent of the 2,850-acre site, state records show.

Flames destroyed plastic piping and tore through the storm water system before ravaging another 94,000 acres as the fire stormed west to the sea, according to state and Boeing records.

The unusually heavy rainy season that followed could not have come at a worse time for Santa Susana's neighbors.

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Torrential rains started in early December, and, Boeing records show, tainted water spewed through outfalls surrounding a site that is still awaiting a full cleanup of chemicals and radiation in its soil.

Key findings:

  • Records reveal that 57 times in the following three months, chemicals and radioactive contamination spilled from the site at levels exceeding safety standards set by the state, according to reports that Boeing submitted to water regulators in February and May.
  • Lead was measured at 17 times the state safety limit one December day in water leaving the site toward Bell Canyon, those Boeing records show. More water containing lead, at 10 times the limit, was detected leaving the site toward Dayton Canyon. No safe level of lead has been identified for children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Other elevated toxins in water, measured at outfalls at the site's edges, included arsenic, cyanide, dioxins, copper, iron, manganese, nickel and a form of radiation called gross alpha, the Boeing reports state. All are pollutants known to have been generated by the old laboratory during its decades of rocket testing and experimentation with nuclear reactors, as reported in state and federal records. The contaminants remain at the site today, according to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.
  • A team of Boeing-paid experts that advises state water officials, however, has said that the Woolsey Fire forged most of those toxins from burnt pipes and treated wood, vegetation ash and other substances. An October report from the five stormwater experts, for example, states that pavement solids could be a source of the lead.
  • Boeing normally would have to pay the state as much as $154,250 in fines for 57 violations. However, a state official slashed the fine to $28,000 at Boeing's request, after the company cited an exemption for natural disasters that could not be prevented, according to correspondence between Boeing and the state official, obtained by NBC4 under the California Public Records Act.

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Two wildfires burned near the Santa Susana site in the past month. The Saddleridge fire scorched hillsides as far west as Porter Ranch, east of the old laboratory. And the Easy Fire began in the Simi Valley area northwest of the site and moved west.

Burnt Plastic

The state regulatory agency overseeing storm water at Santa Susana is the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

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When water board staff members arrived at Santa Susana 12 days after the Woolsey Fire, they discovered a bleak vista of ash-covered hillsides, burned trees and pond water discolored by ash.

The fire had wreaked serious damage on the engineered system of plastic pipes, holding ponds and treatment systems meant to reroute and manage polluted water, aided by fiber rolls and vegetation, according to the board staff's Nov. 20, 2018, site report.

Much of the piping was made of high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, a kind of plastic, and was destroyed in the fire, the staff's report says.

In one area, the report states, "Ash, burned downed trees, and burned brush was in the drainage. Fiber rolls and soil stabilizing vegetation were burned. During the inspection, Boeing staff identified a tree that was smoldering. Onsite fire safety personnel were alerted and responded."

The report found, "During the site visit, there was no power at the site, making recovery efforts more challenging."

One of Boeing's major treatment facilities, at Silvernale Pond, did not reopen until mid-January, water board official Cassandra Owens said in an email to NBC4. Boeing spokeswoman Holly Braithwaite stated in an email to the station that the site's other such facility was fully repaired in April.

Also damaged were fixtures made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, plastic housing, metal platforms, batteries and utility poles, the expert panelists reported at a July 17 meeting in Calabasas attended by NBC4.

Whistleblower Account

Millions of tons of chemical and radioactive waste remain at the old laboratory 13 years after it fully closed, the legacy of decades of tests and accidents chronicled in federal historical documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act and in reports archived by state regulators.

A 1959 partial nuclear meltdown and other problems plagued 10 experimental nuclear reactors in a federal program that operated at the site, according to state and federal documents and a whistleblower who told his story to NBC4. Boeing acquired its share of the laboratory in 1996 and was not involved in the nuclear program.

Boeing and two federal agencies have tussled with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, or DTSC, the site's lead regulator, over a myriad of contaminants and what to do with them.

The toxics site was supposed to be cleaned up by 2017.

Yet the main project has not yet begun, plagued by what the agency has called the complexity of the project and the site and ongoing probes. Some smaller cleanups have been completed.

The full-bore project could require excavating 2.5 million cubic yards of soil, with a total of 3.2 million cubic yards of soil removed or treated, according to the toxics control agency's 2017 draft cleanup plan.

Inhaling Toxins

Pollutants in the 2018-19 storm water runoff from the contaminated site would have been diluted in local streams. But their effects could linger, experts said.

"When streams dry up, contaminants are left in the stream bed, and wind will carry those contaminants, and people can inhale them," said Daniel Hirsch, the retired director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a long-time Boeing critic, and an advocate for a complete Santa Susana cleanup.

Dry sediment can contribute contaminants widely, said Professor Oladele Ogunseitan, founding chair of the University of California, Irvine, Department of Population Health and Disease Prevention and a University of California Presidential Chair. He cited problems at the much larger Salton Sea southeast of Coachella as an example.

When asked by NBC4 about the scenario of blowing contaminants, a California Air Resources Board spokesperson said there is a potential for risk.

"It should be investigated," the spokesperson, Melanie Turner, said in an email to the station. "The risk will depend on the concentration of toxics in the sediment and the amount of sediment."

Swimming in rain

In the past, children close to streams near Santa Susana have been known to play in storm water, NBC4 reported in 2015 as part of its series, "LA's Nuclear Secret."

A Canoga Park woman who developed complex cancers years later, along with her two sisters, told NBC4 investigative reporter Joel Grover, "I played in the water. I swam in the water. I drank the water."

Another woman, who grew up near Bell Canyon, remembers running outside as a child as soon as the gutters filled with rainwater.

"The gutters would flow so high, and it would be so much fun," said the woman, Deva Andrews, now of Thousand Oaks, in an interview in September. She developed a granuloma tumor on her gums at age 11 and then a rare non-malignant brain tumor when she was older, she said. Her brother and sister, who also played in rainwater, both died of cancer, she said.

Andrews said she never asked any doctors about whether the storm water could be connected to her own illnesses or her siblings' cancers, and no study has made a conclusive connection.

Fish at Risk

UCI's Ogunseitan said that he would need more information to know if children and adults who played in storm water were at risk.

"I do not expect that there will be excess risk from this source because of the short duration, and the levels of chemicals detected," he said. But since most people are exposed to chemicals daily from many sources, he added, some may be more vulnerable than others.

Aquatic life forms - fish, snails, even algae and bacteria - would have been impacted by the toxins, Ogunseitan said, especially because some of the chemicals tend to adhere onto sediments or concentrate in the bodies of living things.

This didn't have to happen, said Denise Duffield, associate director of the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. The group is a key player in the push to scour toxins from the old test lab.

"Of course, the tainted storm water runoff could have been prevented if Boeing had fully cleaned up the site as it should have been long ago," she said.

Angry Residents

News of the contaminants found in last winter's rainwater stirred concern among some residents who live near Santa Susana.

Some traveled to Agoura Hills for a May 9 meeting of the Los Angeles regional water board. There, the five storm water experts gave a presentation placing blame for the toxins largely on fire-scorched poles and other fire-related sources, angering those who knew the panel is paid by Boeing.

"That's not an independent panel," said Melissa Bumstead of West Hills. She told the board that her young daughter is a two-time cancer survivor, one of a number of children in the area diagnosed with rare cancers. She held up photos of some of them.

"This is the cost of exceedances," said Bumstead, daughter of Thousand Oaks resident Deva Andrews. "And we ask you to have the courage to do the right thing."

Boeing has been replacing the burned piping with more polyethylene pipe, Boeing spokeswoman Braithwaite wrote NBC4 in an email.

"Boeing promptly replaced damaged portions of our storm water management system after the Woolsey fire, Braithwaite stated in the email. "HDPE piping is an important component of this system and the Company's strong compliance record with the stringent site (state) permit."

Bendable pipe

The expert panel supports that position, calling HDPE piping flexible and capable of bending when temperatures change, the panel's chair, Michael Stenstrom, said in written responses to questions from NBC4.

Steel piping can break and leach contaminants, said Stenstrom, Distinguished Professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of California, Los Angeles. "At present, we are not recommending any other materials."

That decision has puzzled one member of the regional water board, Daniel Tellalian of Los Angeles, who said during the meeting that he saw replacement piping at the site that appeared to be black plastic.

If more fires and heavy rains are in the offing, he asked, are there sturdier materials that would limit the short-term impact?

Board member Fran Diamond asked what panelists saw as good next steps and was told they were trying to remove as much pavement on the site as feasible.

One board member, Charles Stringer, principal with the firm Renewable Resources Group, which has done work for Boeing, left the room before the storm water discussion began.

Stringer is not required to recuse himself from Boeing business before the board but has chosen to do so since he was appointed, state water board staff attorney Sophie Froelich wrote in an email response to a NBC4 question.

No Vote

When it came to the controversial Santa Susana water penalty decision, board members did not have a say.

They were not part of the decision to reduce the fines from $154,250 to $28,000. That's because the types of fines did not require an official vote, Froelich said.

Instead, Boeing wrote the regional board staff on April 15, citing the "grave natural disaster" language in state water code and asking that the fines be waived, according to records provided by Froelich to NBC4 under the state Public Records Act.

Hugh Marley, an assistant executive officer on the board staff, wrote back to Boeing on June 27, granting the company's request based on that language. The regional board had determined, he wrote, that the tainted storm water was "likely due to the effects of the Woolsey fire."

The only fines that could not be waived under the state code were those for dioxins, resulting in the $28,000 in fines, he wrote.

Board member Diamond, contacted by NBC4 by phone, said she did not know the fines were dropped. Why would the board do that, she asked, after so many years of closely monitoring Boeing?

The board's chairwoman, Irma Munoz, and vice chairman, Lawrence Yee, were notified of Marley's letter before it was sent, and board members later got copies of the letter, Froelich wrote in an email to NBC4.

Munoz did not respond to multiple calls from NBC4 requesting comment, and Yee could not be reached.

Electrical outage

By the time Marley sent the June 27 letter, evidence was mounting that Southern California Edison's equipment might have played a role in starting the Woolsey Fire.

The Rosemead-based public utility, in a Feb. 28 annual filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, stated that an outage occurred on its electric system near where the fire reportedly began Nov. 8. SCE was aware of witnesses who saw fire near its equipment at the time the fire was first reported, the filing states.

"SCE believes that its equipment could be found to have been associated with the ignition of the Woolsey Fire," it states.

Thousands of plaintiffs have lined up to sue SCE, according to media reports. They include the County of Los Angeles, which initiated a lawsuit against SCE on April 25, stating that the fire cost it more than $100 million in expenses and damages, including the cost of firefighting.

And what would happen if fire investigators conclude the blaze was caused - not by a "grave natural disaster" - but by humans?

Froelich wrote back: "The board would consider reevaluating its decision."

Expert Panel

Boeing has declined two KNBC-TV requests to visit the site, including one to join a tour of the repaired system in mid-July. That tour "is for community members only," Boeing spokeswoman Braithwaite responded in an email.

The tour was hosted by the storm water expert panel, which has worked on Santa Susana issues since 2007. Its members are generally known in their fields, including Stenstrom and Robert Pitt, a retired University of Alabama professor of urban water systems.

Candidates for the panel were proposed by the consulting firm Geosyntec, and their names reviewed by the regional water board, Stenstrom wrote in an Oct. 13 response to questions from NBC4. Boeing did not veto any names, said Stenstrom, who serves as the group's chair.

"Boeing pays the Panel for their time and expenses," he wrote, adding that he does not know the total budget.

A state water board staff member said in an email that the board does not receive records or information about the amount paid.

Boeing's Braithwaite, in an email, did not say how much money is paid to the experts, but stated, "Boeing is required by regulatory permit requirements to, in addition to other costs and work, retain and fund the expert panel to assist the Regional (Water) Board in directing actions to improve storm water quality."

Based on state records reviewed by NBC4, the water board cited Boeing more than 40 times between 2004 and 2016 for dioxin exceedances in storm water. The board also cited Boeing 20 times for lead above state-mandated levels in the same time period, and for mercury 14 times, ending in 2007, state records show.

Stenstrom, questioned about the dioxin history, said that the panel's initial conclusion is that "the (dioxin) exceedances in this watershed were primarily from soils near treated wood and pavement."

Most metals found after the Woolsey Fire could have been caused by "natural background soils, pavement solids," and cyanide could come from "possibly burned sampling equipment," according to the panel's July 17 slide presentation.

The expert panel's 9,767-page annual report, posted recently on a Boeing website, reflects many of the points made by panel experts at meetings this year.

It chronicles Boeing's work on site since the fire. More than 600 net tons of debris and ash was vacuumed and removed from burned areas, the report says, and 15,700 linear feet of conveyance piping were replaced.

Big Dig

The state toxics agency, DTSC, now expects to produce a final cleanup plan and environmental impact report by the end of 2019, spokesman Russ Edmondson wrote in an email to NBC4.

Those documents are intended to be binding on the three former operators responsible for removing and treating on-site toxins: Boeing, NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Boeing owns 1,081 acres of the former site, including 290 acres that DOE must clean up, plus 1,322 adjoining acres. NASA owns 446 acres.

DTSC regulators are planning cleanup standards thorough enough that people could live on the site, although no such development would be allowed. They cite a 2007 agreement that requires Boeing to meet residential standards.

Boeing has challenged that approach, stating that a conservation pact it entered into in 2017 means that the site only needs to be safe for so-called "recreators," such as hikers, meaning a less rigorous cleanup. Boeing struck that pact with a private land trust.

Now DOE is teaming up with tribal leaders to protect Santa Susana sites with historic significance, the federal agency announced Sept. 19. The DOE land contains some of the most polluted areas at the old laboratory.

Four days later, DOE announced that it would demolish the 18 remaining buildings at the former nuclear testing area, most without state review.

That news triggered a stern Oct. 16 rebuke from DTSC, which said DOE could not tear down the building without its approval. The state agency will hold DOE to the terms of a 2010 agreement, it said in a written statement.

"DTSC will ensure that any building demolition in Area IV and disposal of debris, proceeds in a health-protective manner," the statement said.

DTSC spokesman Edmondson, asked by NBC4 how DOE can be forced to obey the 2010 pact, pointed to its dispute guidelines, including $15,000-a-day fines and ways that the state can challenge DOE in court.

State officials have said the cleanup will finish by the year 2034.

Deborah Schoch is a health and science writer who worked for 18 years as a Los Angeles Times staff writer. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and later helped found the CHCF Center for Health Reporting at the USC Annenberg School. Her first project for NBC4, in June 2018, was also about the Santa Susana site. You can contact her at Deborah.Schoch@icloud.com

NBC4 staff investigative reporter Joel Grover contributed to this report.