Rewriting California's Toxic History

Trying to rewrite history seems to be a habit for the state’s toxics regulators.
In November 2014, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) briefly posted a document on its website that questioned if a partial nuclear meltdown happened at the Santa Susana Field Lab in 1959 despite overwhelming proof acknowledged by DTSC, the legislature, and the courts, that it did. The information was quickly removed. 
In July 2015, the DTSC posted information denying unacceptably high concentrations of lead on the ground in East Los Angeles communities within two miles of the now-closed Exide battery recycling facility, though its own test results showed that was the case. That document also soon disappeared from the website. 
The truth appears to be elastic at the scandal-plagued and reform-resistant agency. These types of toxic messes can take decades, and hundreds of millions of dollars, to clean up after poisonous substances are released. Distorting the facts can help limit cleanup costs to companies that always have the Governor’s ear, and the state from accepting blame for the true extent of the problem.
Take the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL) in Simi Hills. Back in the 1940s, it was an isolated government lab that tested rocket engines and small-scale nuclear reactors. In 1959, one of its reactors suffered a partial nuclear meltdown and vented radioactive gases into the atmosphere for weeks. 
In 2007, California passed a law compelling thorough cleanup of the chemically and radioactively contaminated site by two federal agencies and Boeing, citing studies that suggested the accident “may have caused hundreds of cancer cases in the Los Angeles area.”
Boeing succeeded in overturning the state law, though legal agreements signed by DTSC and federal agencies still obligate them, and Boeing as their contractor, to clean up to the highest standards. Today, under a different administration, DTSC is singing a different tune.
The document DTSC briefly posted in July was titled, “Was there a meltdown at the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL)?” The two-page document stated that the accident really didn’t qualify as a “meltdown.” 
But DTSC was lying when it posted the document, based on its own court brief defending the state law: “In July of 1959…a serious accident occurred in a sodium reactor at the SSFL, where one-third of the fuel being used in the reactor experienced a ‘partial meltdown.’ Radioactive gases were vented to the atmosphere over a period of weeks.” DTSC maintained its right to regulate materials under the Atomic Energy Act “for the protection of the public health and safety from radiation hazards.” (Emphasis DTSC’s.)
More recently, in July, CBS News revelations broke about far more extensive contamination in residential neighborhoods around Exide Technologies than previously identified and slated for cleanup. The lead battery recycler that state and local regulators allowed to spew lead and arsenic all over East LA for decades is now shuttered. But it has left an extensive lead footprint behind.
DTSC had test results in April showing a far wider toxic zone of high lead levels. But its new Director Barbara Lee never informed all affected community members or unveiled a revised cleanup plan. CBS mapped the DTSC’s own sampling results to show dangerous, hazardous waste levels of lead in an area potentially involving thousands of homes. No level of lead exposure is safe, particularly for the unborn and for children whose IQs can be permanently damaged. According to DTSC protocols for an initial, much smaller cleanup area, such high levels of lead demanded immediate cleanup.
Ms. Lee refused to talk to CBS, instead issuing a statement that said there was no public health emergency until children were essentially showing signs of acute lead poisoning.  
On July 23, Ms. Lee appeared at an Exide community meeting in Boyle Heights and denied there was cause for concern. Many had seen the CBS story and confronted her. “What am I going to do?” said homeowner Terry Cano. “Oh, it’s ‘not an immediate problem,’ but ‘Son, you can’t go outside and play….’ I mean, give me a break.”
On July 29, DTSC sent a document link to an expanded mailing list, only deepening the anger. Entitled, “Information about Exide Technologies’ Expanded Area Sampling,” the document claimed about 99 percent of the samples in the wider test area had lead concentrations below levels needing immediate cleanup as defined by DTSC—a lie based on DTSC’s own sampling results.
The document was abruptly withdrawn later that day. The link to the document on DTSC’s website now says, NOT FOUND
Instead, DTSC sent out an email saying that the document was taken down “because it summarizes information in a way that caused concern within the community during that meeting.” (Emphasis mine.) The email disingenuously concluded, “Our focus continues to be protecting the public, especially those who are most likely to be affected by lead contamination—our children.” 
The phrasing suggests that DTSC is hell bent on presenting the information in a way that the public will swallow in order to limit the cleanup. Otherwise, still more testing could prove that lead contamination goes beyond even this expanded area and involves lead pollution from other facilities too.
I guess it’s easy to see why DTSC would want to rewrite the toxic history of California.

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