Advocates Fear Radioactive Waste From One of California's Most Toxic Sites Could Contaminate More Communities

Since 2015, the NBC4 I-Team has been exposing how contamination from the former Santa Susana Field Lab, northeast of LA, poses potential health risks to people living nearby. Now, advocates are worried that toxic waste will end up in unlicensed landfills in communities that have no idea it is there

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Thirteen-year-old Gracie Bumstead, who grew up four miles from the former Santa Susana Field Lab, is a survivor: she's now cancer-free after battling a rare form of leukemia since she was 4 years old.

Gracie's mother, Melissa, believes radioactive and chemical waste from the nearby former nuclear and rocket test site, in the hills northeast of Los Angeles, caused her daughter's cancer and caused a cluster of other cancers among neighborhood kids, though that can't be definitely proven.

"This is the type of contamination that causes children to get sick," Melissa Bumstead told the NBC4 I-Team.

Bumstead heads a group called Parents Against Santa Susana Field Lab, which has been fighting for a full cleanup of the contamination at the lab.

Since 2015, the I-Team has been exposing how chemical and radioactive waste, from years of secret nuclear accidents and rocket tests, still contaminates the ground and the buildings at the field lab, and has been migrating to nearby communities.

"It's coming to us through the wind, it's coming through the rain, it's coming through the groundwater," Bumstead said.

Now, Parents Against Santa Susana Field Lab and other groups are worried the contamination from the lab will end up in communities far beyond the area.

That's because the field lab's owner, Boeing, is making plans to tear down five remaining radioactively contaminated buildings at Santa Susana, which housed nuclear reactors and a radioactive plutonium facility.

This week, four consumer and environmental groups went to the California Court of Appeal to compel the state to require Boeing to dispose of toxic debris from the buildings in landfills which are licensed to take it.  

"They [the state of California] are now saying Boeing can take those structures and that debris anywhere they want to and endanger the public further," said Liza Tucker with the group Consumer Watchdog, one of the groups that filed the suit.

That suit claims that the California Department of Toxic Substances Control's current position would allow Boeing to dispose of the radioactive buildings anywhere it wants, including landfills and metal recyclers not licensed to take it.

"If this radioactive material goes to unlicensed disposals or recyclers, it could wind up in all kinds of products, from the zippers in your jeans, to your eyeglasses, to hospital equipment and playground equipment," Tucker said.

The appeal court judge is weighing the matter and is expected to decide in the coming months.

Another lawsuit is playing out in a different court. Parents Against Santa Susana Field Lab and a public employees group are suing Boeing and the state to get them to gather more public input on a cleanup of the entire field lab, in the hopes Boeing will clean up all the contamination.

Last May, the state and Boeing announced a cleanup deal that some experts say would leave 95% of the contamination at the lab in place.

"We're going to court because we're hoping to force Boeing to come back and reevaluate the type of cleanup," Bumstead told NBC4.

The I-Team reached out to Boeing and to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, but neither wanted to comment on these lawsuits. 

Boeing's own documents, examined by the I-Team, say debris from the buildings at the field lab would be sent to "Class One landfills," which experts say are not licensed to take low-level radioactive waste.

Parents Against Santa Susana Field Lab say they'll never give up the fight to get a safe and full clean up of the field lab's contamination.

"We'll never give up. But I'm hoping we'll do it before my children have to pick up the fight," said Melissa Bumstead.

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