Los Angeles, CA — A year long, two-part investigation by NBC affiliate NBC4 Southern California revealed last week that the United States government hid what experts call “the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history.” Part 1 detailed how the catastrophe occurred and how the leaked radiation might be affecting the health of nearby residents. Part 2 investigates how in 1996, the Boeing Company — a behemoth corporation with deep roots in America’s military industrial-complex — acquired ownership of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL). And how since, the corporation has resorted to bribery, manipulation, and deceit — all to avoid cleaning up a mess it is legally obligated to remedy.
The Boeing Company
Though Rocketdyne, the last owner of SSFL before Boeing acquired it, eventually settled with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute over the toxins that seeped into its property, the stalled cleanup now rests with Boeing (to this day, the Department of Energy still leases a portion of Area IV while Area II is property of the federal government and is operated primarily by NASA).
Linda Adams, former head of California’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), attempted to initiate a full-scale cleanup in 2007 when she was in office. She was fully aware of the massive contamination that remained at and around the facility: “Those chemicals don’t stay on the mountain. The population is below the site,” she said.
Around the same time, State Senator Sheila Kuehl attempted prioritize a cleanup. “There are cancer clusters of various kinds of exotic cancers all around this site,” she recalled telling her legislative colleagues. Kuehl co-authored S.B. 990 in the California legislature, which asserted even though Boeing did not own SSFL at the time of the accident, its present possession obligated it to clean up the area. The bill passed in 2007 and then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law, placing responsibility for cleanup primarily on Boeing but also requiring NASA and the Department of Energy to fund the cleanup since they both used the facility over the years.
Ultimately, a high court invalidated S.B. 990 shortly after it took effect, ruling Boeing did not have to execute a cleanup because the requirements were too stringent. Eventually, the EPA — under Adams — stepped in to draft agreements for the Department of Energy, NASA, and Boeing to commit to a cleanup. Boeing was the only entity that refused to sign. Instead, NBC4 reported, “they are operating under an older 2007 order from the DTSC that allows the DTSC to determine the cleanup levels for the site. Something they have not yet done.”
According to Adams, Boeing hired “a large army of lobbyists … to do everything they could to stop a cleanup to that level.” The lobbyists included “Peter Weiner, a former environmental aide to Gov. Jerry Brown, Winston Hickox, a former head of the California EPA, and Robert Hoffman, the former chief lawyer of the Department of Toxic Substance Control. All three left government service and have worked on behalf of Boeing to kill a full cleanup of Santa Susana.”
NBC4 details Boeing’s intricate web of influence, which “[includes] campaign donations of $29,500 to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, $17,500 to Gov. Jerry Brown, $11,300 to Sen. Barbara Boxer and $4,000 to California Sen. Kevin De Leon, the current Senate President Pro Tempore and the Chairman of the Committee that confirmed Barbara Lee as Director of the DTSC [Department of Toxic Substance Control].” The DTSC is the entity tasked with forcing Boeing to conduct a cleanup.
Barbara Lee, appointed last October, is still the director of the California DTSC and has admitted “[t]he site has a lot of contamination.” Even so, the DTSC may not require Boeing to provide the large-scale cleanup that S.B. 990 required. “I don’t believe there is a current exposure to communities,” Lee told NBC4’s investigative team. The DTSC is solely responsible for setting the terms of the cleanup, but because Lee was appointed by lawmakers bought out by Boeing, there is little doubt as to why it has not yet occurred.
“I don’t know how anyone could be saying that,” Adams said of Lee’s claims there was no exposure to communities. “All the evidence I’ve seen shows there is a threat.” She became emotional in her interview with NBC4, saying she feels she let the community down by failing to launch a cleanup effort before she stepped down in 2009.
Medical and Media Manipulation
In 2012, Boeing tasked a PR team with a strategy to “target media,” including “KNBC,” so as to perpetuate the myth that the “site poses no risk to human health today.” This tactic flew in the face of the 2007 ATSDR-commissioned study that suggested the exact opposite.
Boeing was untruthful about the results of that University of Michigan study, which found rates of cancer were 60% greater than in other regions. The study examined health data from 1988-2002 within a two to five mile radius of SSFL. Boeing promptly distorted the study and asserted it found no proof of health side effects due to radiation. Though the study’s authors cautioned it could not draw definite conclusions and noted the study’s limitations, Dr. Hal Morgenstern, who led the analysis, accused Boeing of manipulating his work.
Morgenstern contacted California State Senator Joe Simitian, Chair of the Committee on Environmental Quality, to assert this concern: “I would like to make it clear to your Committee that Boeing’s claim made about the conclusion of our study is false. We did not conclude that there was no excess cancer in the communities surrounding SSFL. Furthermore, Boeing’s quotes from our report were taken out of context, and they failed to report our specific findings that contradicted their claim,” he wrote in a letter. Morgenstern noted that cancers such as thyroid, bladder, and lymph tissue were both tested for and found.
As he told NBC4, “There’s some provocative evidence…It’s like circumstantial evidence, suggesting there’s a link.” Even if the results are not conclusive, however, few — save Boeing and the government agencies attempting to shirk accountability — can deny they warrant further study.
Though Boeing claims it will conduct a full cleanup based in “science,” Dan Hirsch, a nuclear policy instructor at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), doubts the company’s sincerity. He explained Boeing’s latest proposal to detoxify the site: “…they want to clean up almost none of it…Boeing is proposing that they only have to clean up something on the order of a few percent of the contamination.” He continued that “[b]y Boeing’s own estimate, if someone lived up there, every third person would get a cancer from the contamination,” said Hirsch. “I know of no site in the country that has risks that high.”
Liza Tucker, who runs ConsumerWatchdog.org, suspects Boeing is attempting to skirt paying millions of dollars to detoxify the site. Rather, they are spending money on lobbyists and legal cases to avoid responsibility. “As far as I’m concerned,” Tucker said, “Boeing is running the DTSC right now.” Lee, on the other hand, dismissed any suggestion that Boeing has colluded with her agency: “I haven’t seen it. and I’ve looked for it.” She claims soil tests have been conducted but refused to share them with NBC4. Instead, her department directed the journalists to older studies claiming the contamination off-site was insignificant.
Similarly, the Department of Energy, NASA, and Boeing told NBC4 they are all working to remedy the situation. They all declined to speak with NBC4, providing written statements instead. The DOE said it has conducted tests on soil but failed to explain why, as NBC4 asked, it has failed to publicly admit that radiation was leaked into the atmosphere above Los Angeles. NASA noted its agreement with the California EPA to help clean up. While touting its own efforts, Boeing audaciously cited tests from the Department of Toxic Substance Control, the department they have evidently purchased through the state legislature, to argue there have been no adverse health effects.
Notably, in NBC4’s video presentation on the investigation, one of its reporters attended a public meeting to question John Jones, the Department of Energy’s project manager for the SSFL. “Will anyone from your agency talk to us at all?” reporter Joel Grover asked. “My public people have talked to you. I’ve said all I’m gonna say,” Jones replied, with noticeable agitation. “You’ve said nothing,” Grover countered. Jones paused for a moment, then simply said, “Thank you for your time.”
To its credit, the ATSDR (under the CDC) agreed last week to conduct further studies of the health effects of the 1959 leak. However, it only agreed after local resident Abe Weitzberg gained the number of necessary signatures on a petition demanding the effects be studied. Some residents expressed concerns that studying the health effects might detract from their 30-year effort to cleanup to region (an effort launched in the 1970s when the severity accident was first revealed). Though Weitzberg personally does not believe people have been affected, as a resident who used to work at the SSFL, he wants the issue resolved. There is no set date for the studies to commence.
Coincidentally, the agreement from the ATSDR to conduct the studies comes as California’s DTSC is close to finishing its report and guidelines for the official cleanup Boeing was ordered to conduct under S.B. 990. It also coincides with the release of NBC4’s investigation last week.
According to Hirsch, as of 2009, various agencies and Boeing had already spent $250 million in an attempt to clean up the site. But Hirsch, who runs the Committee to Bridge the Gap, believes it is still not enough and continues to call for a full cleanup of the area.
The Boeing Corporation may not have caused the spill, but it has long been a key player in the military-industrial complex. In 2011 alone, it sold a total of $67.8 billion worth of arms. Considering its massive budget, it is baffling why the corporation would rather dedicate its resources to blocking a cleanup rather than paying for one as it is obligated to by law. Of course, this is a symptom of rampant corporate collusion with government. Though the DTSC will soon release its guidelines for cleanup, its obligations to lobbyists make it doubtful they will be as stringent as local residents and activists hope.
America’s worst nuclear disaster happened in 1959, two years before President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of an emerging military-industrial complex that would entangle the nation in endless war. While he was still president, corporations were laying a foundation of corporatocracy and militarism that would allow Boeing to amass monumental power throughout the 20th century. It is that power and influence, fueled by war and the profits it yields, that has made a full cleanup impossible.
After countless lies, cover ups, and overwhelming collusion, however, instead of taking responsibility for the cleanup, Boeing has added insult to injury by moving to construct a recreational park near SFFL.
NBC4 noted its difficulties in obtaining information for its two-part investigation. The investigation included multiple Freedom of Information Act requests that produced over 15,000 pages of documents. NBC4 specifically noted that “many of the original documents have been lost, destroyed or withheld,” implying there have been concerted efforts to keep the truth suppressed. It continued that “Dr. Jan Beyea, who studied the 1959 accident for California’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory Advisory Panel, wrote in a paper that ‘had there been a large release [of radiation] kept secret at SRE, it would have been consistent with earlier behavior in the United States.’”
Though details of the disaster have slowly emerged throughout the years, NBC4’s year-long investigation pieced together details about not only the severity of the spill, but the sordid channels of corporate influence and manipulation that have riddled attempts to initiate a cleanup. Unsettlingly, at the time of this article’s publication, NBC4’s investigation has received little attention from the media — a puzzling reaction to a detailed report on the worst nuclear disaster in the nation’s history.
As Krista Slack, local resident and cancer sufferer told NB4C, “The government needs to take responsibility when it makes a mistake.” 56 years later, the government and its corporate partners continue to endanger the very people they claim to protect with weapons they demonstrably cannot contain.
Editor’s note: If you were involved with or have any additional information on the disaster at SSFL, please contact the author of this article (who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and takes special interest in reporting further) at [email protected]. This is Part 2 of our investigation into the nuclear disaster at SSFL. Read Part 1 here.