The origin of the Woolsey fire is still under official investigation, according to Cal Fire.
“At this time the fire’s origin has not been located and is still under investigation,” said Ralph Swain, Cal Fire Fire Media Information Officer. “We do not have confirmation of how the fire started. That again is still under investigation.”
By Kriss Perras
Currently Cal Fire has the location of the Woolsey Fire listed at longitude and latitude of -118.70128 34.235, which is at about E street and Alfa Road in Area IV of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), or what is commonly known as the Rocketdyne property, a former nuclear and rocket engine testing site.
The DTSC documents library shows, “the more recalcitrant compounds (either original compounds or degradation products) [are] in the soil at present.”
DTSC Documents Library
According to a Southern California Edison (SCE) Incident Report filed with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on November 8 at 2:22pm, the Chatsworth Substation located on the SSFL property was tripped two minutes before the Woolsey fire was reported. A few hundred yards on one side of the Chatsworth Substation is the E Street and Alfa Road location of the fire, and on the other side of the Chatsworth Substation a few hundred yards the other direction is the site of the 1959 partial nuclear meltdown from the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) – see map below. That means the E Street and Alfa Road fire was on the SSFL property about 1,500 yards from the site of a 1959 partial nuclear meltdown. The Chatsworth Substation was originally built to provide electricity from the SRE.
“The Woolsey Fire likely released and spread radiological and chemical contamination that was in SSFL’s soil and vegetation via smoke and ash,” said Dr. Bob Dodge, President of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, a group that has seen many cancers as a result of the contamination from the SSFL site, some previous employees of Atomics International and others residents from the surrounding area, in a statement to the media. “All wildfire smoke can be hazardous to health, but if SSFL had been cleaned up long ago as DTSC promised, we’d at least not have to worry about exposure to dangerous radionuclides and chemicals as well.”
The DTSC is the California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC). It is the agency responsible for testing the soil, vegetation and air for toxic substances and restoring them to a safe state.
The DTSC confirmed the Woolsey Fire burned through portions of the SSFL property, multiple times through a series of news releases still available on their site. They assessed “the site that previously handled radioactive and hazardous materials was not affected by the fire.” Here they are referring to the SRE site itrself, which in fact did not burn, but they are not admitting to the major burn to the majority of the rest of the site. Radiation levels were taken and nothing beyond “background levels” were found, and “no elevated levels of hazardous compounds other than those normally present after a wildfire” were found. Even in an abundance of caution it is difficult to accept such conclusions given the amount of evidence in the DTSC documents library detailing the severe contamination to the SSFL site.
According to documents found in the DTSC documents library regarding the SSFL, the site was established in 1947 by North American Aviation for testing liquid-propulsion rocket engines. SSFL was divided into four different areas, and the DOE performed research in a section of Area IV named the ETEC. During the ETEC’s operation, the soil was contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorinated dioxins/furans, and heavy metals.
According to documents found in the DTSC library, a 90 acre portion of Area IV of the SSFL site was leased to the Department of Energy (DOE) for nuclear energy and other research. It was called the Energy Technology Engineering Center (ETEC). After closure of the ETEC, the DOE was responsible for cleanup of the soil. Most soil clean up concentrates on a single contaminant. This site had and has multiple contaminants. It therefore required a study to determine if phytoremediation would work.
“Phytoremediation is the use of plants to contain or remove pollutants from the environment, or render them harmless through one or more biological mechanisms (Cunningham and Berti 1993; Salt, Smith, and Raskin 1998; Pilon-Smits 2005).”
The DTSC documents library shows, “the more recalcitrant compounds (either original compounds or degradation products) [are] in the soil at present.”
Some further site history within the DTSC documents library details Area IV of the SSFL was used for energy and liquid metals research from the mid-1950s until approximately the year 2000. The ETEC also served as the DOE’s Liquid Metals Center of Excellence where ten small nuclear reactors were tested during ETEC operations—so that’s 50 years of nuclear reactor testing on the soil and vegetation. Area IV had a variety of chemicals used during the operation of research including PCBs used in electrical components, hydraulic fluids, fuels that ran auxiliary generators, heated water for steam, metals such as silver for photograph development and mercury for cooling the nuclear reactors. Onsite waste burning and a 2005 wildfire produced dioxins/furans, and releases of PCBs, metals, fuels and lubricants contaminated the Area IV soil. Solvents from transformers, storage tanks, drums and leach fields also contributed to contamination.
DTSC documents show the contaminants in the soil in Area IV vary depending on the sub-areas. The sub-areas of Area IV that contain most of the contamination are primarily loamy soils, either Saugus sandy loam with 5 to 30 percent slopes, or Zamora loam with 2 to 15 percent slopes (HydroGeoLogic Inc. 2012). The contaminants of interest (COIs) at SSFL Area IV fall into five general categories: “Petroleum hydrocarbons, Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), Chlorinated dioxins/furans and Heavy metals.” At the bottom of this article is a definition of each of these contaminants.
Further research in the DTSC documents library showed many of the native California species growing in contaminated soil at Area IV were found to uptake through their roots and / or foliage the contaminants PAHs, chlorinated dioxin/furans, silver, cadmium and lead. IN the same manner of phytoremediation works, native plants too can uptake contaminants into their roots and foliage. The Woolsey Fire burn had toxins in it by virtue of the fact it burned through toxic soil and vegetation. We do have to wait for the official results to find out how much toxin and what types, but it is clear the Woolsey Fire burned through toxic soil and vegetation just by open source information viewing of the Ariel maps of the fire damage. It may or may not be the feared radiation ash, but it was a burn on what has already been documented as contaminated soil and vegetation by the DTSC. That information too is open source on the DTSC site in the documents library for previous studies.
As readers can see in the associated before/after maps, most of Area IV burned during the Woolsey Fire. The only part that didn’t burn is where the SRE buildings were located and the oblong section along the left side of the map in Area IV. Otherwise almost the entirety of Area IV did burn in the Woolsey Fire, along with much of the SSFL site.
“Though we must wait for the fire authorities to conclude their investigation, it is ironic an electrical substation built for a reactor that melted down six decades ago may now be associated with a catastrophic fire that began on the SSFL site that is still badly contaminated from that accident and numerous other spills and releases,” said Denise Duffield, Associate Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles.
The SSFL property has been in the news and the subject of controversy more than once. The first time in 1959 it was the subject of a major nuclear catastrophe, and nobody knew it happened. The employees were told at that time they were forbidden to tell anyone what happened. In the 1970s major news reports exposed the corruption behind the secrecy, and the fact the SSFL site suffered a partial nuclear meltdown from its SRE. In 1989, press reports revealed an internal DOE study showing widespread radioactive and chemical contamination at the SSFL site. The news reports alarmed neighboring communities who were experiencing elevated levels of bladder cancer.
LA’s Secret Meltdown: Nuclear Cowboys
According to the documentary film L.A.’s Secret Meltdown: Nuclear Cowboys, the 1959 partial meltdown resulted in an estimated 300-1800 deaths and is the suspected source of elevated cancer rates in adjacent suburban neighborhoods. One of the most shocking statistics reported in the documentary, and other sources, is the estimated amount of contaminants released is over 400 times that of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. The documentary exposes how highly radioactive gasses were sent over parts Los Angeles for at least two weeks. The film documents accounts of former employees and their resulting cancers from working for Atomics International, and the company’s crackdown on keeping employees silent over the partial reactor meltdown.
A UCLA researchers’ radiation study released in June 1997 found exposure of SSFL workers to external radiation was associated with an elevated rate of dying from cancers of the blood and lymph systems and from lung cancer. The study found radiation risks about 6-8 times higher than those of from A-bomb survivors, and they found cancer rates were impacted more by radiation workers received at older than at younger ages. The study was titled Epidemiological Study to Determine Possible Adverse Effects to Rocketdyne/Atomics International Workers from Exposure to Ionizing Radiation. A Second UCLA study was released in 1999 which had been conducted on the rocket test workers. It found a correlation between exposures to chemicals used at the rocket test stands, particularly hydrazine, and the rates of dying from cancers of the lung, blood and lymph system, and bladder and kidney.
Those concerned with trying to limit exposure to generations now and to come cite migrating contaminants from the SSFL property as the reason to ensure the site is cleaned up. ICYMI, migrating contaminants means contaminants that make their way off site by means of rain, wind or other avenues, like the shoes and clothing of employees who worked or work there. One man in the Nuclear Cowboys documentary cited how his wife and only son both died of different types of cancer likely caused by him tracking contaminants from the site to his home, he being unaware of the fact he was doing so at the time in the 1960s never having been warned by his employer of the contaminants.
The SSFL property is now owned by both the Federal Government GSA Real Estate Services and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) operates and is responsible for the cleanup for a portion of the property. Before the 1970s it was run by the United States Air Force. Boeing operated the property in the 1950s under the Rocketdyne Propulsion and Power Division of Boeing. At the time of the 1959 partial meltdown, it was operated by Rocketdyne, and according to Boeing, other various Boeing Heritage companies such as North American Aviation, Rockwell International, Atomics International and beginning in 1973, NASA began to hold operations on site when it acquired land from the US Air Force. Beginning in 1996, Boeing states it purchased Rockwell’s aerospace and defense units which allowed it to officially acquire the Santa Susana property. Here we are again in 2018 at the doorstep of the SSFL with questions: Were toxins and hazardous chemicals released when the property was burned during the Woolsey fire? Was the SSFL property the origin of the Woolsey fire? Why is there electricity still flowing to a Substation originally built for a 1959 SRE that had a partial nuclear meltdown? This article attempts to answers these questions with the appropriate authorities.
Southern California Edison (SCE)
The Chatsworth Substation is currently part of the electrical grid and that is why there is power to it, said the On Call Media Information Officer in a brief statement. She was not able to say how power was still running through it when asked why the Chatsworth Substation built for the 1959 SRE was still being used for the modern grid.
SCE made a commitment to get back to Topanga Journal with a subject matter expert to answer more in depth some of the questions raised in our interview. As far as the origin of the fire and cause, the Media Information Officer said it was premature to have answers on that subject at the moment. SCE never returned the phone call in the time frame promised and before we went to print.
The California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC):
In an interview, when asked about how previous employees stated from the 1959 partial meltdown during the SRE period that there was a 2 mile contaminated perimeter around the SRE building that was effected during the partial meltdown, including the area of E street and Alfa Road known as the origin of the Woolsey Fire, and if the DTSC would say what the test results were for this area for radiation and hazardous materials and any other dangers to the public, Abbott Dutton, Media Relations Manager from the DTSC Office of Communications said, “The fire did not extend to the former Radioactive Materials Handling Facility, Hazardous Waste Treatment Facility, and Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) area, and other buildings in that area. The fire did not burn SSFL facilities that previously handled radioactive and hazardous materials.”
When asked what type of tests the DTSC ran on and around the SSFL property and when those results would be available to the public, Dutton said, “DTSC will provide a public report soon on these testing results when all analyses are completed.”
As for the types of testing and what agencies performed those tests, Dutton said, “DTSC, in coordination with a multi-agency response team, took measurements and samples for radiation and hazardous compounds from November 11 to November 14 on the SSFL site and offsite. In addition, a team of DTSC scientists and investigators also took real-time measurements for radiation and hazardous compounds, and collected soil, ash, and air samples, from November 11 to November 14, both onsite and offsite. Monitoring is ongoing.”
Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles
According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Panel, a watchdog group that consists of numerous experts, there has been more than the one nuclear reactor accident on the SSFL site other than the famous 1959 partial meltdown exposed in the 1970s. The Physicians group states there have been “tens of thousands of rocket engine tests,” and “sloppy environmental practices that have left SSFL polluted with widespread radioactive and chemical contamination.”
“Government-funded studies indicate increased cancers for offsite populations associated with proximity to the site, and that contamination migrates offsite over EPA levels of concern. In 2010, DTSC signed agreements with the Department of Energy and NASA that committed them to clean up all detectable contamination in their operational areas by 2017. DTSC also in 2010 committed to require Boeing, which owns most of the site, to cleanup to comparable standards. But the cleanup has not yet begun, and DTSC is currently considering proposals that will leave much, if not all, of SSFL’s contamination on site permanently,” states PSR in a media statement dated November 9, 2018.
As of the writing of this article the Woolsey Fire has burned 96,949 acres and is 98 percent contained. That is the size of the city of Denver in square miles. It has destroyed 1,500 structures and damaged 341. It has taken three lives and injured three firefighters. Total fire personnel dedicated to just the Woolsey fire is 1,811. The number of engines previously working on this fire are was 265. The number of fire crews was 23, helicopters were nine, dozers were eight and water tenders were six. The fire crews were from two counties, going across Ventura and Los Angeles Counties.
Definition of Contaminants Per the DTSC Documents Library:
Petroleum Hydrocarbons: Petroleum hydrocarbons (PHCs) is a term that describes a class of chemicals that originate from crude oil and is a mixture of hundreds of compounds that are primarily formed from carbon and hydrogen. Santa Susana Area IV was contaminated with PHCs through onsite use and disposal of petroleum based fuels (Department of Energy 2003). PHCs can cause nerve disorders, affect the blood and immune system, affect reproduction, and can cause cancer (ATSDR 2014).
Polyaromatic hydrocarbons: Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a subset of PHCs that are of particular concern due to their stability and persistence in the environment. They are composed of two or more benzene rings fused together, hence the “polyaromatic” part of the name. Most PAHs have a high affinity for soil (not water) as indicated by high octanol-water partitioning coefficients (Kow). For example pyrene, a four ringed PAH, has a log Kow of 4.88 compared to a log Kow of 2.18 for benzene. PAH contamination was introduced to Area IV through open burning of wastes, burning of rocket and vehicle fuels, and incomplete combustion of vegetation during the 2005 wildfire (Boeing 2005). Many PAHs are reasonably expected to be carcinogenic and suspected to cause birth defects (ATSDR 2014).
Polychlorinated biphenyls: PCBs are man-made chlorinated organic compounds. The structure of PCBs consists of two benzene rings attached by a single bond with a varied amount of chlorines attached to carbons in the benzene ring. Each PCB with a different arrangement and number of chlorines is referred to as a congener (Figure 2.2). PCBs are often known by their industrial trade names, the most common being Aroclor (EPA 2013b). PCBs are known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) because of their high thermal and chemical stability due to their highly chlorinated aromatic structure Campanella et al. (2002). A high log Kow (4.46 – 8.18) causes PCBs to accumulate in soils and sediments. In general, the more highly chlorinated the congener, the less water-soluble and volatile it is (Campanella, Bock, and Schröder 2002). Highly chlorinated PCBs are also harder to biodegrade. PCB congeners with 5 or more chlorine atoms must undergo
anaerobic reductive dechlorination to 3 or less chlorine atoms before they can be aerobically degraded (Aken, Correa, and Schnoor 2010). PCBs were used as coolants in transformers and electrical equipment in Area IV because of their insulating properties. Chronic exposure to PCBs can have serious neurological and immunological effects on children and they have been determined to be probably carcinogenic to humans by the EPA and International Agency for Research on Cancer (ATSDR 2014).
Chlorinated Dioxins/Furans: The term “dioxin” is often used to refer to polychlorinated dibenzo- p-dioxins (PCDDs), which have similar physical and chemical properties as PCBs. The dioxin molecule is a central part of PCDDs which are the compounds of primary concern. Compounds that contain furan such as polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs) are very closely related to PCDDs and are often grouped together in discussion because of their similar structure and chemical properties (EPA 2011). In this report the term “dioxins/furans” refers to both PCDDs and PCDFs. PCDD/Fs consist of a dioxin or furan center that links two benzene rings together that have 8 or less chlorine atoms bonded to the carbon atoms of the benzene rings (Figure 2.3). PCDD/Fs are even more hydrophobic than PCBs having log Kow values from 7-10 which cause them to bind tightly to soil (Campanella, Bock, and Schröder 2002). Like PCBs, the compounds with different number and positioning of chlorines are referred to as congeners. They also follow the same trend that the more highly chlorinated the congener, the less water-soluble and volatile it is (Campanella, Bock, and Schröder 2002). They differ from PCBs in that they are formed through both natural and industrial combustion processes (Lemieux, Lutes, and Santoianni 2004; ATSDR 2014). The most toxic congener is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) and all other dioxin toxicity is evaluated relative to this congener (ATSDR 2014). In several animal studies exposure to TCDD has been shown to cause liver and immune system damage and the World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that 2,3,7,8-TDD is a human carcinogen (ATSDR 2014).
Metals: Metals are elements which are non-biodegradable and tend to accumulate in the environment and living organisms. Metals exist in either an elemental or oxidized state. For example, Hg can exist in the elemental form (Hg0), the oxidized form (Hg+), and the oxidized form (Hg2+). Thus metals can be transported through the environment by dissolving into water or forming inorganic/organic compounds. Most metals do not volatilize readily, but mercury is the one exception and is often released into the atmosphere when mercury-containing coal is burned (EPA 2013a). Some of the metals that have contaminated Area IV are silver, cadmium, copper, mercury, lead, zinc, nickel, and chromium. Mercury is known to disrupt the nervous system, damage the brain, kidneys and lungs, and cause changes in vision and loss of memory in humans (ATSDR 2014). Other metals have similar toxic effects on humans. Metals are also extremely toxic to microorganisms in the environment and can also cause mutations, sickness, and death to plants at high concentrations (Giller, Witter, and Mcgrath 1998; Patra et al. 2004).
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