As a New York City transplant transplant to LA some years back, I dreaded having to drive. I found an apartment a block from a major intersection where I can walk to most of what I need and have pretty good—at least for LA—access to public transportation. But once I got used to being behind the wheel, having a car liberated me. The New
York subway system is such a gift to humanity, it ought to be recognized as such
by UNESCO, but without a car, New Yorkers are confined to urban life. In Los
Angeles, a short drive takes me to canyons, mountains, desert where I can cross
paths with coyotes or turn back on sighting mountain lion tracks. (I also once
cut a hike short when I encountered a Charles Manson lookalike not far from
where The Family once lived.)
Some of my favorite trails are up through the sandstone and shale rock formations and cliffs in the northwest corner of LA at the Ventura County line. I long thought if I could
ever bring myself to leave the center of town, this is where I’d want to be, in
one of the residential communities tucked among the cliffs or at the base of all
this fabulous sedimentary rock that was deposited 65-85 million years ago. I did
wonder if I’d be able to find congenial company in an area where it seemed the
main employers were the adult entertainment industry and various defense
contractors. I haven’t met any porn stars, but whenever I headed up Woolsey
Canyon Road to Sage Ranch Park, it was impossible to miss the Boeing checkpoint
People think of Southern
California as beach and Hollywood glitz (and Hollywood liberals) but a lot of
our economy is based on the military-industrial complex and one day in June
2006, I joined with Physicians for Social Responsibility to visit contractor
sites and talk about how the production of weapons can be as lethal as their
use. So there we were one sunny day at a vista point in Sage Ranch Park where I
liked to wander through chaparral and coastal sage, where yucca plants raise big
white candles straight out of the rock, high in the air and I could watch hawks
overhead and lizards doing pushups half in, half out of the shadows and spot the
tiny pink flowers holding up their tiny heads through sandstone cracks and
clefts. But now we were looking down at the Boeing complex which has been
through various operational hands. The property is well known as the Santa
Susana Field Laboratory, a former nuclear-energy and rocket-testing facility
where, in 1959, a nuclear reactor which had no containment dome whatsoever had a
partial meltdown more severe than what happened at Three Mile Island. The
accident—30 miles from downtown LA—was covered up for twenty years until a
graduate student at UCLA came across documents from the site.
For years before the LA Times or any other mainstream media covered the story, a freelance environmental investigator named Michael Collins was reporting on the meltdown and other accidents at the site. He reported that contamination also came from tests of rocket engines and the burning of radioactive materials in the open. His stories ran in a free weekly giveaway newspaper and on his site. Community activists investigated too, and learned about perchlorate simply dumped out on the ground or burned as waste.
I won’t even try to unravel how the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) was and then wasn’t considered a Superfund site, how it’s not the EPA’s responsibility but the Department of Energy’s, how it may or may not have been political machinations by the Bush administration that prevented any cleanup, and how the site was more recently
targeted for remediation under a comprehensive Consent Order issued in 2007.
The site and its history became part of my recently completed novel—much easier to treat all this in fiction than to have to stick to the facts. But I live here. Facts matter.
Right now, groundwater at the site is being studied for contamination, and Boeing, the Department of Energy, NASA, and the California Department of Toxic Substance Control have joined together to offer a series of lectures so that the public will be
intellectually equipped to understand and comment on the Groundwater
Investigation Report once it’s released.
This, incidentally, is one of the reasons I love living in LA. If you’re not trying to become a movie star, people welcome you without hesitation into their specialized worlds. I’ve been invited to attend symposia on germline engineering, primate behavior,
nanoscience, and public health. I’ve attended whole-day seminars on military law
and immigration law alongside law students getting course credit and attorneys
fulfilling their continuing ed requirements. Los Angeles is a dilettante’s
utopia. So now I am learning about groundwater, the water below the earth’s
surface, the stuff you can’t see. (And if you will consider the graph of
Corehole C-7 Characterization DFN™ Data Sets, we will pretend that I understand
it and am not explaining it only because I assume you won’t.)
On Saturday, April 30, I was allowed past Boeing’s checkpoint for the first time as part of the hydrogeologic tour of SSFL. I snapped a quick photo from the outside, as cameras
weren’t allowed at the site.
We were warned to watch out
for rattlesnakes, ticks, spiders, and poison oak, then wearing our name badges
and Groundwater U bandanas we boarded buses that took us throughout almost
2,850-acre site. At stops along the way, we (and display posters) were buffeted
by 40 mph wind gusts as professors on the Groundwater Advisory Panel along with
Ph.D. candidates from the University of Guelph in Ontario—yes, Doug, we
Californians are relying at least in part on Canadian expertise—explained how
they are trying to learn how the contaminants got to where they are and to
figure out where they are going.
e saw equipment used to drill to a depth of 419′ to extract 5′ long continuous core samples of rock which are studied for physical characteristics, crushed and tested for
contaminants, especially trichloroethylene (TCE), the industrial solvent that
was in constant use at the rocket testing site. The current studies find it
mostly at a depth of 100-200′. What looked like Tibetan prayer flags flapping in
the high winds turned out to be little Home Depot tags in blue, green, and red
stuck in the sampling trays to draw our attention to specific core samples,
showing shale, sandstone, and fractures.
Peter Pehme, a Canadian geophysicist (who, as a non-US-citizen must be escorted when he shows up to conduct his specialized testing) showed us the methods he’s developed using temperature profiling, gamma probes and pulses of energy and TV probes outfitted with magnetometers in his quest to figure out which fractures in the rock are
moving water, and how much, and in what direction—in other words, to understand
“contaminant transport and fate.” (I know this is serious business, but writers,
don’t you just love the language?)
We learned shale, with low porosity, serves as a barrier. Sandstone acts more like a sponge, soaking up chemicals. It holds onto the contaminants—which is good for the groundwater, but not good if the goal is getting the toxic stuff out.
We stood in a meadow looking at green rolling hills. This is where the nuclear reactors once stood. The notorious burn pit was nearby.
We drove past big corrugated metal industrial barns with silos and cranes and huge white spheres on stands, past pipelines and transmission lines and into verdant Bell Canyon, a wonderland of the most fantastical rock formations yet and willows and oaks and wildflowers lining gullies leading down to the seeps, where groundwater comes up
to the surface and can at last be seen. Bell Canyon is the “undeveloped area” of
the site as no operations were ever carried out here. “Paradise,” whispered a
woman standing behind me. Not quite. Monitoring has found volatile organic
contaminants (such as TCE) in some of these seeps. After rains, the TCE becomes
diluted and isn’t detected. At times, the water in the seeps start to bubble and
the TCE volatilizes and gets into the air so the water shows no contamination.
Innovative portable drills are being carried into less accessible locations to
drill monitoring wells that check for plumes of bad stuff that might travel.
Next stop we met Debbie Taege, the lead engineer for the Groundwater Extraction and Treatment System. (It was heartening, by the way, to meet her and other women on the site—Beth Parker and Amanda Pierce—with degrees in engineering and the sciences.) Taege has been on-the-job for two years now, ever since the cleanup operation
She showed us how water pumped from the site goes through a prefilter to remove sediment and then passes through a series of vessels, each well higher than my head. First, metals in the water have to be removed so they don’t clog up the works. Using aluminum silicate and dissolved oxygen, metals can be precipitated and filtered out.
Other metals, like iron, manganese, and zinc are caught using tiny plastic beads
with a reactive surface—creating waste materials that must then be disposed of
(safely, I hope). The water then moves through trays where air passes over to
turn some of the contaminants to vapor. The water and contaminated air then pass
through activated carbon which absorbs the bad stuff. The clean air is
released, but the water isn’t done yet. Peroxide starts the breakdown of larger
contaminants and then UV light agitates them more until they break up into safe
compounds so that the treated water now meets or exceeds drinking water
Actually, Taege explained, it’s too clean. Wildlife needs some minerals to survive so she next adds some calcium and other elements before releasing the water back into the
(One tour participant who had many complaints about the federal government objected to the cost of such elaborate treatment: “Why does it have to be cleaned up if no one is going to drink it?”)
Taege loves her job. “It’s a great group of people to work with,” she said. “We’re all
Surely there was terrible damage done more than fifty years ago and workers and nearby residents then suffered cancers and hormonal disturbances and mysterious rashes and central nervous system disorders because of what happened here. But this—to our great
good fortune—is not Fukushima. Maybe the danger is over, gone. But Christine
Rowe of the West Hills Neighborhood Council wanted to know if seeps in the
neighboring residential communities had been tested. Turns out, the water was
indeed tested—but not for contaminants.
As we returned to the bus, I looked at the spectacular view I could only enjoy because I was wearing a Boeing badge and in the company of an escort. What a shame, I thought, the public has no access to this. “That may change soon,” said my escort.
Boeing has no use for beautiful Bell Canyon. When it looked like the company wanted to unload the property—for what? public parkland? a new housing development? farming?—the California legislature in 2007 passed SB 990 to make it illegal for Boeing to
transfer or lease any part of the site without strict clean-up exceeding the
federal requirements. But earlier in the week, just days before I visited SSFL,
a federal judge threw out the California law as unconstitutional and unfair to
Boeing. The state is appealing the decision.
In the meantime, the rocks I love are being studied for their role in holding contaminants, in holding or blocking the flow of groundwater, but none of the experts we met with knew of any studies being done on the air or the soil. I wanted to be reassured but the wind blew hard and it occurred to me I should have used the Groundwater U bandana to shield my nose and mouth.
At home I shower and wonder if I’m washing radioactive dust from my skin and hair. The dirt goes down the drain as waste water, out into the world.