Residents Accuse NASA of Reneging on Agreement to Clean up Toxic Mess at California Rocket Test Site

Santa Susana Field Laboratory in California.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA is planning to spend tens of billions of dollars returning astronauts to the moon and searching for life on Mars and other worlds, but when it comes to cleaning up a toxic mess it created here on Earth, the space agency says it just can’t afford it.

NASA has finalized a plan to conduct the least extensive and least costly cleanup of contaminated soil and water at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) in southern California. The space agency tested rocket engines there for decades before closing the facility in 2006.

The decision, which NASA announced in the Federal Register on Friday, has angered local residents who say the space agency is reneging on its commitment to do a full cleanup of the heavily polluted site in Ventura County. They fear toxins left in the soil will leach into local groundwater and endanger the health of residents.

The 2,668-acre (1,080 ha) laboratory is divided into multiple areas. Rocket engine testing began in the 1949 prior to the formation of NASA. The U.S. Department of Energy (Boeing) used the another portion of the laboratory to conduct nuclear power research. Boeing also has part of the property.

NASA agreed to clean up more than 450 acres of SSFL by 2017 in a consent order it signed with the state of California in 2010. DOE and Boeing are responsible for cleaning up the rest of the laboratory site. No work has begun yet.

A full clean up would restore conditions on the site to what they were before the laboratory was built. To save money, NASA has decided to clean up the site to a far less extensive degree to allow for recreational use.

In a March 2019 report, the space agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) said a full site cleanup would cost $500 million over 25 years. A recreational cleanup would cost $124 million and could be completed in four years.

“We question the reasonableness and feasibility of the Agency’s current agreement to clean the soil to a Background level,” the report said. “This cleanup approach is not based on risks to human health and the environment or the expected future use of the land—the standard practice for environmental remediation at similar sites.”

In a separate report issued in November 2019, OIG said the $377 million saved on the Santa Susana cleanup could be put to better use on other NASA properties. The space agency faces billions of dollars in deferred maintenance, repairs and environmental cleanup at its far-flung facilities.

A group of organizations dedicated to cleaning up Santa Susana denounced NASA and the Trump Administration over the decision. They said a recreational cleanup would leave 84 percent of existing toxins in the soil.

“The decision is to violate a legally binding 2010 federal-state agreement that required returning the site to the condition it was in before being polluted. Instead, NASA now plans to walk away from cleaning up the great majority of the contamination, leaving it to continue to migrate offsite. Half a million people live within ten miles of the site,” the groups said in a statement.

“NASA’s property is contaminated with very hazardous materials, like trichloroethylene, perchlorate, PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals that can cause cancer and other illnesses. NASA now admits the place is even more contaminated than it previously knew, but instead of keeping its word and cleaning it all up, NASA is just going to walk away and leave most of the pollution. It’s outrageous,” said Denise Duffield, associate director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles.

It is unclear what the state of California will do regarding NASA’s decision. It could insist the space agency conduct a full cleanup of the site.