Bloomberg Law
Free Newsletter Sign Up
Bloomberg Law
Free Newsletter Sign Up

California, NASA Clash Over Cleanup at Nuclear, Rocket Site

Jan. 17, 2020, 5:47 PM

California’s toxics agency is opposing a revised NASA cleanup plan to remove contamination at a former rocket and energy research site where a partial meltdown happened decades ago, calling the federal agency’s proposal irregular, infeasible, and legally deficient.

It’s the latest fight in a long tussle over the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a 2,850-acre site in Simi Valley near Los Angeles, where an estimated 17,000 rockets engine tests occurred. The lab, which operated from 1948 to 2006, was also home to 10 nuclear reactors where the Energy Department and what is now the Boeing Co. did energy research.

The site experienced a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959, but evidence wasn’t revealed until 20 years later. Cleanup work has been ongoing since the 1960s.


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration agreed to a consent order in 2010 with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control requiring soil remediation of the site, which was contaminated with 16 radiologicals like cesium-137, and 116 chemicals.

A final environmental review was completed in 2014, but the space agency issued a separate draft cleanup plan in October based on new data showing more contamination.

The draft plan provides options for how much soil would be excavated. One option, the one that reflects the agreement in original administrative order on consent with the state, calls for excavating 870,000 cubic yards, an increase from the 500,000 cubic yards estimated in the 2014 plan to meet the standard agreed upon with the state. The other options call for removing lesser amounts, down to 176,500 cubic yards. The plan also considers a no-action alternative.

NASA said in the draft supplemental environmental impact statement that it hasn’t chosen a preferred option yet.

In a letter sent to NASA Jan. 8, the Department of Toxic Substances Control asked the space agency to revise its cleanup plans to reflect the original administrative order on consent, known as an AOC.

State Agency Rejects Other Options

“NASA must also be aware that DTSC is not open to considering NASA cleanup alternatives which are non-compliant with the AOC,” the letter said. “DTSC also will not renegotiate the binding AOC soil cleanup commitments to accommodate challenges NASA claims will be posed by the [Santa Susana Field Laboratory] cleanup implementation.”

The letter criticized some of NASA’s options as irregular because they called for decreased cleanup when contamination had increased. It called excavating less contaminated soil than called for in the 2010 agreement infeasible.

“NASA has failed to provide a rational explanation or data to support the [DSEIS] irregularities and unexplained reversal,” DTSC wrote, calling the plan “legally deficient.”

In its draft cleanup plan, NASA said it would be hard to find adequate backfill to support vegetation in areas that were excavated.

A NASA spokeswoman said Jan. 14 that the agency was reviewing comments made about the draft plan and valued input from all stakeholders.

“NASA is eager to work with DTSC and the community to implement a cleanup that is based in science, technically achievable, and is protective of the surrounding community and the natural environment,” Jennifer Stanfield wrote in an email.

NASA didn’t immediately respond to a question about other cleanup sites where revisions to agreements were being sought. DTSC couldn’t immediately say if the space agency had sought changes at other state cleanup sites.

Groups Back Cleanup Agreement

Community, environmental, and justice groups say the 2010 plan reached with the state is adequate and that NASA has no authority to decide how much contamination it must remove.

New estimates pointing to more contamination than previously thought also mean NASA should redouble cleanup efforts, Natural Resources Defense Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles, and Committee to Bridge the Gap said in a comment letter to NASA about its draft supplemental environmental impact statement (DSEIS).

“The decision by the Trump Administration NASA to issue this DSEIS sets the stage for abandoning huge amounts of chemically hazardous material and would consign this important land in Southern California, set in the midst of millions of California residents, to never be cleaned up,” the groups wrote.

The new plan wasn’t a surprise. A NASA inspector general report issued in March said the cleanup would take too long and would be too costly and stringent. The Department of Energy is also seeking to reduce its cleanup obligations.

For its part, the toxics agency plans to issue a final environmental impact report this summer that “fully complies with and implements” the 2010 agreement, DTSC spokesman Russ Edmondson said in an email.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily C. Dooley at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Sylvia Carignan at; Renee Schoof at

To read more articles log in.

Learn more about a Bloomberg Law subscription