The Santa Susana Mountains in Southern California. The Brandeis-Bardin Institute is located in the foothills of the mountains. Photo from Wikipedia

Government agencies at odds over chemical cleanup near Camp Alonim


new draft report from the U.S. Department of Energy has revealed a division between federal and state officials over how thoroughly to clean up contamination from the shuttered Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a former nuclear and rocket testing center in the Simi Hills that abuts a popular Simi Valley Jewish youth camp.

The report does not include any mention of the removal of low-level chemicals in soil in a remote area of the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University in Ventura County. Camp Alonim is located on the campus.

The department in December said it was considering such a removal, but a federal official now says the levels of pollutants on the campus are so low that they do not warrant cleanup.

Meanwhile, state officials, when questioned about the draft report from the Department of Energy (DOE), say they intend to hold the federal agency to a more stringent 2010 cleanup agreement that it made with the state. California toxics regulators are in charge of the cleanup.

The outcome could determine whether any soil containing chemicals would be removed from a little-used area of the Brandeis-Bardin campus, which sits downhill from the field laboratory.

The federal government conducted nuclear reactor tests on a portion of the Santa Susana site in the 1950s and ’60s, and a series of accidents, including a partial meltdown of one reactor, occurred there.

The DOE, which is responsible for cleaning up waste from the Santa Susana property, in January issued the lengthy draft environmental impact report that details how to remove polluted soil and groundwater, and clear away old buildings from the 290-acre site where the testing occurred.

All three cleanup options listed in the report differ from a more stringent 2010 cleanup pact that the DOE struck with the state of California. That pact would have to be revised to make any of the alternatives feasible, the draft report states.

The DOE’s proposal spurred a pointed response from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) that stated federal officials would be held to comply with the pact, known as an administrative order of consent (AOC).

DTSC will hold DOE accountable for complying with the 2010 AOC,” Russ Edmondson, a DTSC spokesman, said in an email. The DTSC staff is reviewing the DOE draft and expects to submit comments, he said.

The toxics regulators are preparing a state draft environmental impact report for how to remove contamination there. Still unclear is whether or how that report would mesh with the DOE draft report.

At a crowded Feb. 21 public hearing in Van Nuys, residents who live near the Santa Susana site called on federal officials to abide by the 2010 state agreement. Some said they worried that contaminants left behind could move downhill into their neighborhoods.

More than 1.41 million cubic yards of soil at the site exceed the state cleanup standards in the 2010 pact, according to federal officials. Of that soil, the DOE plan would leave at Santa Susana between 480,000 cubic yards and 1.27 million cubic yards of soil, according to figures in the report.

The DOE already has completed some cleanup work and has removed more than 200 buildings at the site, with 18 remaining, the agency reported in January.

Public comments on the draft DOE environmental impact statement are due by March 14.

The Jewish Journal reported in December that the DOE had verified what it called low levels of chemicals in soil in a steep, rugged area of Brandeis-Bardin. No radioactive waste was found.

The chemicals, including metals and hydrocarbons, were found in soil around seasonal stream beds that run north from the former nuclear testing site through a land buffer to the campus.

The chemical levels posed no risk to human health, according to DOE and state officials.

American Jewish University (AJU) spokesman Rabbi Jay Strear cited those findings in emphasizing the safety of the camp, saying that the chemicals could have come from past brush fires and the use of herbicides and pesticides for agricultural purposes.

Even so, under the 2010 pact the chemical concentrations still could require cleanup or other treatment. In December, the DOE said it was weighing whether to remove the soil where the chemicals were detected or try other treatments.

John Jones, director of the DOE’s Energy Technology Engineering Center Closure Project, the unit tasked with handling the site cleanup, said in a Feb. 21 interview that his agency “absolutely” does not plan any cleanup on the Brandeis-Bardin property because the levels of chemicals there are too low to merit such an effort.

Strear said AJU officials are studying the DOE draft.

“Based on this evaluation, we will determine whether or not to submit comments on the document to the DOE,” Strear wrote in an email response to a request for comment.

Federal officials still need to review public comments on the draft and complete the final environmental report before it can be approved, a process expected to last into 2018.

Editor’s note:  The U.S. Department of Energy has extended its deadline from Tuesday, March 14, to April 13 for public comment on its draft environmental plan to clean up the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

Comments on the DOE draft can be submitted online at ssflareaiveis.com/comment.aspx or via mail to Stephie Jennings, NEPA Document Manager, SSFL Area IV, EIS U.S. Department of Energy, 4100 Guardian St., Suite 160, Simi Valley, CA 93063.


DEBORAH SCHOCH has reported on environmental health issues during 18 years as a Los Angeles Times staff writer and as senior writer at the USC Center for Health Reporting. She can be contacted at Deborah.Schoch@icloud.com.

+