COMMENTARY | Redeeming Santa Susana: Micro-Steps Up a Mountain

Jeff Ruch

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Redeeming Santa Susana: Micro-Steps Up a Mountain

The long-time Boeing executive looked shocked. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has just rejected his attempt to add some 1,200 documents into the record of a hearing on whether to renew Boeing’s water pollution discharge permit for the Santa Susana Field laboratory, one of the most toxic sites in the country. 

Worse yet, the Board then read into the record the objection filed by PEER, which argued that this last-minute gambit by Boeing violated state law. The executive was taken aback because Boeing had a deal with California Governor Gavin Newsom (who appoints all the Water Board members) that allows the multi-billion corporation to walk away from the Santa Susana mess, leaving more than 90% of the pollution onsite.

It was especially surprising since just last year, this same Water Board unanimously passed a memorandum of understanding that would eliminate the need for Boeing even to have a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit at all.  

Beyond the procedural defeat that prevented Boeing from larding the record with documents without a chance of rebuttal, the Water Board then tightened Boeing’s NPDES permit to address two issues that PEER had raised:

  • The absence of any monitoring for the release of toxic PCBs. Santa Susana sits atop the headwaters of the L.A. River, a largely channelized water body flowing through downtown L.A. to the Pacific. The L.A. River has levels of PCBs 100 times health limits at its mouth, meaning that no one of any age can safely eat a single fish caught there; and  
  • The lack of any monitoring or discharge limit for PFAS, the family of “forever chemicals” that were widely used at Santa Susana for decades.

While these were unexpectedly welcome developments, the overall benefits remain murky. Formerly owned by Rocketdyne, Santa Susana hosted decades of rocket experiments and nuclear experimentation. A research reactor even suffered a core meltdown there in the late 1950s. The story of Santa Susana is perhaps best told in the award-winning documentary “In the Dark of the Valley.”

Despite this deeply profound pollution at a place just ten miles from downtown L.A. and surrounded by more than 700,000 residents, Santa Susana remains largely un-remediated. 

PEER is now in state court seeking cancellation of the Boeing-Newsom deal to force a long overdue meaningful cleanup. We are seeking not just a cleanup of the soil but of the incredibly contaminated aquifer below the site. That aquifer is connected to the groundwater supplying drinking water to nearby communities and feeding the rich agriculture of Ventura County.  

Over the years, the communities surrounding Santa Susana have registered inordinate cancer deaths, especially the children. Unless we win these larger battles, these communities will continue to suffer while Boeing will be able to wipe this huge liability off its ledgers altogether, leaving this toxic legacy for future generations to address. 

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