Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 31 No. 21
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May 22, 2020

California, DOE Reach Accord on Demolishing Santa Susana Buildings

By Wayne Barber

The Energy Department has reached a deal with the state of California to tear down and remove 10 contaminated buildings at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) in Ventura County.

Eliminating decaying buildings within the Radioactive Materials Handling Facility Complex should avoid a release of hazardous substances and minimize risk to the public in the event of wildfire, the state said in a Wednesday press release.

The 2-acre RMHF Complex is part of DOE’s former Energy Technology Engineering Center at Santa Susana. It was completed in 1959 to handle nuclear fuel.

Contamination at the buildings includes radionuclides, heavy metals, solvents, oils and greases, lead-based paint, and asbestos-bearing materials

“The surrounding communities have waited a long time for decisive action at the Santa Susana Field Lab and today’s Order represents a new and important chapter towards the full cleanup,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in the release.

Removal of the building debris will be carried out under requirements of the 2010 Administrative Orders on Consent, which govern the cleanup of Santa Susana. The debris from all 10 structures will be shipped out of state, according to the release. 

There is no demolition schedule in the order that “memorializes” the parties’ existing understanding that DOE will remediate the radioactive materials handling area under the oversight of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. The order was signed Wednesday by DOE Senior Advisor for Environmental Management William (Ike) White and Department of Toxic Substances Control Deputy Director Grant Cope.

The order is approved by the DTSC and does not need court approval, a state spokesman said.

Within 10 days of the order’s signing, the federal agency must file its demolition plan with DTSC, which will then have 15 days to submit comments. The demolition plan is expected to be approved by the the state within 30 days.

The Energy Department expects to begin work within three weeks and finish the demolition and removal within six months, said DTSC spokesman Russ Edmondson.  

Neither the news release nor the accompanying legal order discloses where exactly the low-level or mixed-waste will be sent. An Energy Department spokesman said only that it will go to a licensed commercial disposal site.

The agreement does not address soil remediation at ETEC.

The DTSC is the state agency overseeing remediation at the entire 2,850-acre Santa Susana site by three organizations – DOE, NASA, and Boeing.

Last October, the Energy Department issued a record of decision outlining its plans to tear down its 18 remaining buildings at ETEC. But California officials reminded DOE that the state must sign off on any demolition plans.

Only 10 of the 18 buildings are covered by the agreement, “and they aren’t even removing the building slabs,” which must happen prior to soil remediation, Denise Duffield, associate director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, said in an email.

The order only addresses the 10 buildings inside the RMHF complex, which was used for the processing, packaging, and shipment of radioactive and mixed wastes, a DOE spokesperson said in a Wednesday email.

The federal agency will continue to work with the state to enable removal of the eight other DOE-owned buildings on the site, the spokesperson said.

The Energy Department has funding in place during the current fiscal year for the demolition, the spokesman said, apparently referring to a two-year extension of an existing contract signed last fall and valued at between $7 million and $9 million by North Wind Group.

The order notes that the area around Santa Susana, including the 90-acre ETEC, have been subject in the past to wildfires. During the 2018 Woolsey Fire, one of the RMHF facilities was in the burn area but was undamaged except for scorch marks. As long as there are buildings around, fires in the future hold the potential to release radioactive or hazardous substances.

“Out of an abundance of caution, complete removal of the buildings is necessary,” according to the order.

The stated reason for the order is “ironic,” given that “the site has ALWAYS been at risk for fires” but the Energy Department downplayed any contamination risk from the Woolsey Fire at the time, Duffield said.

The Woolsey Fire touched about 80%,  or 2,280 acres, of SSFL’s total land, including about 39% of the 290 acres comprising Area IV, which includes ETEC, according to the order.

The Energy Department has said it won’t have a hard estimate for its remaining work at Santa Susana until DTSC issues its program management plan, a road map for cleanup. That document was expected out last year and the state agency has said public comments must be addressed beforehand.

Cleanup of the site was at one time expected to be mostly done by the end of 2017.

The complex is located about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The Energy Department once operated 10 small reactors on its portion of the site for nuclear energy research.

“This agreement demonstrates that DOE and the state of California can work together to move the ETEC site to final cleanup and completion,” Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said in the press release.

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