Will De León Hold Top Regulator Accountable For Cleanup of Boeing's Toxic Site?

When Barbara Lee came up for confirmation as Director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control in July, 50 groups begged the California Senate Rules Committee and Senate pro Tem Kevin de León to put off a vote until Lee, who had been in office six months, took action to punish serial hazardous waste polluters, deny them permits, and force them to clean up communities under toxic assault.

The Rules Committee confirmed her anyway, but she got fair warning.

"There is this real perception that branch chiefs are very cozy with industry and therefore being too lenient," said de León. "We are looking for a change agent, a provocateur, not a protector of the status quo. We are looking for a disruptor."

The Senate leader said the Legislature would gut DTSC's budget next year if she failed to reform the deeply troubled agency. "You have to have accountability...at a minimum we need a stick," he said. 

Based on a hard-hitting NBC4 investigative series on Boeing's derailing of the cleanuip of the Santa Susana Field Lab in Simi HIlls, it's time for that stick. 

That's because Ms. Lee is oblivious to the very problem that de León identified -- her top managers work to protect polluters more than the public. In this case, Boeing. Ms. Lee is going along for the ride, agreeing with Boeing that contamination underneath a former Cold War government lab on a Simi Hills mountain is no threat to residents who live beneath. Indeed, it’s practically ready to turn into a playground. 

But all the evidence points the opposite way: a radioactive and chemically contaminated nightmare. During the Cold War, chemical spills from 30,000 rocket tests soaked into the ground and water. Nuclear accidents and fires, including a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959, deposited contaminated fallout. Workers vented radioactive gas to the atmosphere for weeks.

Boeing is downplaying the extent of the risks to thousands of area residents that live beneath the site. Dozens living nearby suffer from cancer, and a federal study in 2007 established a 60 percent higher cancer risk among people living within two miles of the site compared to people living further away. 

Ms. Lee essentially sided with Boeing in the NBC series' second story last week. 

Boeing, which owns the majority of the site, has spent time and money hiring the best government-officials-turned-fixers that money can buy to overturn a state cleanup to the strictest standards for protection of human health. The government’s contractor at the site is pushing the idea that it’s safe to leave most of the contamination behind.

You would think that Ms. Lee, who at her confirmation hearing said that she was committed to bringing “daylight” to the agency, would quickly see through this charade. But, Boeing and her own top managers appear to be running circles around her.

In the NBC story on Boeing and its lobbyists, Lee claims that contamination from Santa Susana does not threaten anyone, though government documents and studies confirm contamination has spread to soil and groundwater outside the site’s boundaries. 

"I don't believe there is a current exposure to communities," she told the NBC I-Team

Former Cal EPA Secretary Linda Adams, who has worked for both Democratic and Republican governors and nearly won the battle for a thorough cleanup under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger until it was reversed under Gov. Jerry Brown, was aghast. 

"I don't know how anyone could be saying that," Adams said. "All the evidence I've seen shows there is a threat." Contamination doesn’t stay at the top of a mountain, she said. It rolls downhill exposing the population beneath. 

How Ms. Lee could equivocate on the amount of cleanup that needs to be done defies belief. Then again, she’s minimized and ignored the health threats from the mess that lead battery recycler Exide left behind in East Los Angeles. She essentially told CBS News that there was no public health emergency until kids were dropping in the street from lead poisoning. After claiming that only one property needed cleaning up quickly, Ms. Lee reversed position and admitted up to 10,000 homes near Exide could potentially need cleanup.

Ms. Lee has also taken no action to resolve a 2013 lawsuit against the DTSC filed by Consumer Watchdog, Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA, Committee to Bridge the Gap, and the Southern California Federation of Scientists. The groups sued DTSC and the Department for Public Health for allowing demolition of radioactively contaminated structures from the nuclear portion of the site and disposal of the waste in sites not licensed for radioactive waste disposal.

In the fight for proper cleanup, emails surfaced showing that Boeing used government officials turned fixers to pressure DTSC higher ups to allow the illegal disposal of radioactive debris from the site in unlicensed landfills and at recycling facilities in the area. A judge granted a preliminary injunction against Boeing’s removal of any more radioactive debris pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

When government appears to be in bed with the polluter, saving it money at the expense of public health, that’s not a win for anyone’s constituents in Simi Hills, East LA, or anywhere else that people are sick and dying because government looks the other way.

Capitol Watchdog is owned and operated by nonprofit Consumer Watchdog. For more information about Consumer Watchdog visit http://www.consumerwatchdog.org