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Did a Secret Nuclear Testing Site Release Toxins During California Fire?

“We’ve always worried about a fire at SSFL. SSFL could have and should have been cleaned up a long time ago.”

Just over two weeks ago, one of California’s two major fires at the time set aflame land that once belonged to a nuclear testing site known as the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in California. Located between Los Angeles and Ventura counties, the fire known as the Woolsey Fire started above the Simi Valley in the Santa Susana Mountains.

Firefighters finally achieved 100 percent containment of the Woolsey Fire last Wednesday, thirteen days after it first began. But could damage from the fire continue due to the release of chemicals at the Santa Susana site?

Facility areas and communities around the Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Lab in the Greater Los Angeles region, Southern California.

How much damage did the Woolsey Fire cause?

During day one of the blaze, the Santa Ana winds pushed the fire in a southerly direction. Approaching the Santa Monica Mountains, the fire reached celebrity houses, ranches and historic movie and TV sets. Named after Woolsey Canyon Road, the Woolsey Fire burned 96,949 acres, destroyed over 1,500 structures and killed three civilians.

Throughout the nearly two-week blaze, the fire wreaked havoc wherever it burned, including Malibu, Point Dume, Solromar and many other surrounding communities. Thousands of residents along the Malibu coast and communities near the Ventura Freeway were evacuated from their homes for days. As the flames continued to spread, residents were gradually allowed to return to their communities to check to see if their homes were damaged or destroyed.

The fire reportedly began on Nov. 8, and blazed until it was 100 percent contained on Nov. 21, 2018. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

What is the Santa Susana Field Laboratory?

Although the fire has been contained, the danger could be far from over. Now known as a site on which an alliance between the U.S. government and private companies secretly tested nuclear bombs, the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) may have released toxic chemicals when a portion of the site was burned, cleanup activists fear.

In a place called Area IV of the 2,800-acre laboratory, SSFL staff and scientists spent decades testing and experimenting with futuristic weapons, advanced rocket systems and nuclear reactors. This research contributed to a multitude of scientific and technological advances, such as launching Americans into space and allowing scientists to have a better grasp of nuclear power.

How did the Woolsey fire affect the nuclear testing site?

Fiery gases stream from Redstone rocket engine as it delivers more than 75,000 pounds of thrust during static test at Rocketdyne's Propulsion Field Laboratory at Santa Susanna Field Laboratory in 1957

Fiery gases stream from Redstone rocket engine as it delivers more than 75,000 pounds of thrust during static test at Rocketdyne’s Propulsion Field Laboratory at Santa Susanna Field Laboratory. 1957 (Image in Public Domain)

However, though the scientists are gone now, years of misusing radioactive materials and harmful chemicals have left a vast expanse of acres full of toxic waste. Thousands of people who live just below the site could be exposed to these dangerous chemicals.

According to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, no contaminants that pose any real threat to people were released. But studies conducted by the EPA and DOE show that there is still a significant amount of radioactive and chemical contamination on the site.

“We confirmed that the SSFL facilities that previously handled radioactive and hazardous materials were not affected by the fire,” the DTSC told the Ventura County Star. “Over the weekend our multi-agency team took measurements of radiation and hazardous compounds, both on the site and in the surrounding community. The results from this initial round of testing showed no radiation levels above background levels, and no elevated levels of hazardous compounds other than those normally present after a wildfire.”

The agency continued that it “is absolutely committed to ensuring the safety of all communities affected by the fires” and that it “will provide updates as new information becomes available.”

Many of the cleanup activists, however, are not convinced that there is no danger.

Activist Melissa Bumstead said in her own news release: “We can’t trust anything that DTSC says. DTSC repeatedly minimizes risk from SSFL and has broken every promise it ever made about the SSFL cleanup. The public has no confidence in this troubled agency.”

Marie Mason, a resident of Simi Valley and co-founder of the Rocketdyne Cleanup Coalition, stated that the fire “may have resulted in even more toxic exposures. We’ve always worried about a fire at SSFL. SSFL could have and should have been cleaned up a long time ago.”

Another activist, Robert Dodge, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles, is also concerned about the possible release of toxic chemicals: “We know what substances are on the site and how hazardous they are. We’re talking about incredibly dangerous radionuclides and toxic chemicals … and heavy metals. These toxic materials are in SSFL’s soil and vegetation, and when it burns and becomes airborne in smoke and ash, there is a real possibility of heightened exposure for area residents.”

How were toxic chemicals released at Santa Susana?

This image depicts an overall view of the vertical test stand for testing the J-2 engine at Rocketdyne's Propulsion Field Laboratory, in the Santa Susana Mountains, near Canoga Park, California. The J-2 engines were assembled and tested at Rocketdyne under the direction of the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Overall view of vertical test stand in 1963. J-2 Engine test stand, Canoga park, California. (Image via Wikimedia)

A former employee of SSFL lived with the secret that he witnessed the release of toxic chemcials at the site over 20 years ago. In 1959, John Pace was working at the Sodium Reactor Experiment when a partial meltdown occurred. The Atomic Energy Commission, a predecessor of the Department of Energy, says that there was “no release of radioactive materials,” but Pace knew differently. He said that radiation was released into the environment for weeks.

In an interview with NBC, Pace said, “They were not able to contain the radiation that was leaking from the reactor.”

When NBC asked what went wrong and how severe the accident was, Pace replied, “It was equipment failure, it wasn’t dealing with the men themselves … it would have been just like the Chernobyl reactor blowing up.”

Who is responsible for cleaning up the SSFL chemicals?

Workers collect soil samples for the EPA study — DOE ETEC−Energy Technology Engineering Center, at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Hills, southern California in 2010.

Workers collect soil samples for the EPA study — DOE ETEC−Energy Technology Engineering Center, at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Hills, southern California in 2010. (Image via US DOE)

Boeing is responsible for cleaning up the Field Lab since they bought the site in 1996 and are still the current owners. NASA will clean up its sections of the site – 41 acres in Area I and 409 acres in Area II.

Although the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) does not own the site, they are responsible for cleaning up Area IV, as well as the Northern Buffer Zone, since they conducted nuclear testing on behalf of the U.S. government.

Boeing claims they have made “significant progress” in cleaning up their portion of the SSFL and “secured the future of nearly 2,400 acres as permanent open space habitat to benefit wildlife and the community.”

The USDOE has spent years creating a “blueprint” for the cleanup by mapping out the locations of contamination and claims they are near finalizing the blueprint.


Leighanna Shirey

Leighanna graduated with a degree in English from Pensacola Christian College. After teaching high school English for five years, she decided to pursue her dream of writing and editing. When not working, she enjoys traveling with her husband, spending time with her dogs, and drinking way too much coffee.

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