June 21, 2018

Field Lab Radiation Still a Concern


After nearly a decade of environmental activist work on the continued cleanup of the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL), the efforts of Topanga resident and realtor William Preston Bowling and West Hills resident Christina Walsh are beginning to pay off as their museum is fast becoming the center for research on chemical and nuclear dangers in the local community.


Field Lab Radiation Still a Concern

A night-time photo of the Santa Susana Field Lab in Simi Valley.

Bowling and Walsh opened the Aerospace Cancer Museum of Education (ACME) on May 9, 2008, with a generous grant from the Annenberg Foundation to inform and educate the public about the former nuclear and rocket test site located southwest of Simi Valley just north of the San Fernando Valley.

Located in a former coffee house in Chatsworth, Bowling said ACME opened as a center where community members can also learn about the historic cleanup initiatives recently directed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and brought forth in Senate Bill 990 by former State Senator Sheila James Kuehl and California Assembly member Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica).

“Christina and I founded ACME to educate the public of a Nuclear Research Facility in their own back yard,” Bowling said. “The Santa Susana Field Laboratory is a half-century-old facility and the site of many accidental releases of radiological and chemical contamination that will continue to impact the health of the San Fernando Valley unless more people get involved to help prompt government-regulated cleanup initiatives.”

To commemorate their first anniversary, Walsh said they would host a barbeque at the museum on Saturday, May 9, from noon to 6 p.m. and inaugurate the ACME Art Space next door with a display of “nuclear and chemical art for thought-provoking discussions.”

“When people walk in, they are just overcome with the amount of information; they can see the maps, see the documents,” Bowling said. “It makes your head spin.”

Bowling said he met Walsh at the Topanga Film Festival when she attended as part of her work on the site. “In 2005, I made a film about Rocketdyne, H2 Oh No, a 10-minute short I did on the SSFL and it was chosen to be one of a dozen films out of hundreds to be screened at the 2005 Topanga Film Festival,” he said.

(Look for it on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3X2Z9FXuLw.)

“I had no idea how something like that could have happened,” Walsh said after becoming aware of the field lab while attending local meetings in 2001. A business consultant, she started www.cleanuprocketdyne.org/ to inform the public about the dangers at the site.

As a result of their efforts, the City of Calabasas Environmental Commission selected ACME as a recipient of the Carl Gibbs Environmental Excellence Award in February. According to Environmental Services Supervisor Alex Farassati, Ph.D, ACME was chosen as a symbol of commitment to the environment that founders Bowling and Walsh have shown over the past year. ACME has also received awards from the offices of Brownley and senators Fran Pavley and Kuehl.

“The Aerospace Cancer Museum of Education is an absolute gem,” said Brownley. “It is the only place where all of the scholarly research and history of the Santa Susana Field Lab has been compiled and where people can come to debate the challenges and solutions to the clean-up. ACME’s support and defense of AB 990 will ensure the surrounding community will be kept safe from environmental harm for years to come.”

Oak Park Concerns

It was standing room only on Wednesday, April 29 as more than 150 residents of Oak Park crammed into the May Boyar Park recreation building in Oak Park for a public informational meeting where Bowling and Walsh tried to address their concerns regarding a possible cancer cluster in their midst.

“I started seeing how much cancer was out here,” said Oak Park resident Cheryl Zelico. “I found it alarming that every person I ran into had someone with cancer on their street. Zelico felt it was time to take some action and contacted ACME. According to Bowling and Walsh, environmental and epidemiological studies previously found that the employee cancer deaths at Rocketdyne—the rocket-research company that operated at the field lab for more than 40 years—were the result of human exposure to dangerous chemicals.

The nearly 3,000-acre site, which is currently controlled by the Boeing Company and NASA, lies in the hills between the Simi and San Fernando Valleys and within five miles of Oak Park.

In 1959, the Santa Susana Field Lab south of Simi Valley was the site of the worst nuclear meltdown in the United States. According to an independent study conducted in 2006 by the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Advisory Panel, it released more than 240 times more radiation than a similar meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979.

Walsh told the Oak Park crowd that the nuclear reactors at the field lab were not covered due to Cold War security concerns, so the cloud was not contained and subsequent contamination in nearby wells is being linked to hundreds of cancers in the area. After the presentation, most people in the audience were stunned and terrified by the statistics and bombarded Bowling and Walsh with their concerns about how to protect their children.

Walsh encouraged the residents of the affluent suburb to organize a letter writing or e-mail campaign expressing their concerns over possible soil and groundwater pollution to their local legislators. She also told them to log onto www.stoprunkledyne.com or the ACME Web site, http://acmela.org, to learn more about the issue.

“Use your voice; you would be amazed at the power of just one letter,” Walsh told the group. “There are more than 100 concerned people here, they will definitely listen to you.” Zelico was pleased to see that her neighbors were concerned enough to exchange e-mails to organize a grass roots campaign. “We have to start somewhere and this is the best way to do it,” she said.

For Bowling this was business as usual. He said they speak to audiences at least once a week, including Cal State University, Northridge, Moorpark and Oxnard colleges, as well as many civic and chamber organizations.

“Every talk is different, everyone has a different focus,” Bowling said. “The Woodland Hills Rotary Club was concerned about nuclear waste disposal.”

After their presentations, Bowling and Walsh invited anyone concerned to visit their museum and see for themselves the millions of recently unclassified documents detailing the long history of Rocketdyne and NASA.“The long fight between those responsible for polluting the Santa Susana Field Lab and those trying to protect the community from its toxic legacy has been affected for the better by ACME’s arrival on the scene,” said Dan Hirsch, president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a well-respected environmental activist who first made the public aware of the 1959 meltdown after the government denied it.

Hirsch responded to the effect ACME has had during the past year: “On the one hand, carcinogens at SSFL, with cleanup resisted by the polluters; on the other hand, a cancer museum below, designed to highlight the victims of irresponsible polluters and mobilize the community to push for cleanup.”

Bowling added that due to their collaborative efforts with the government and regulatory agencies, they have earned some measure of respect from NASA, Boeing, the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. “We have also been the recipient of the entire nuclear collection from Physicians for Social Responsibility,” Bowling said.

Lenny Siegel has been Executive Director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight since 1994. He is one of the environmental mov