July 20, 2008

EPA Set to Take Charge of Survey at Field Lab

By Teresa Rochester, Ventura County Star, Calif.

Jul. 20--The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to take control of a long-sought survey of radiation contamination at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a sprawling hilltop facility south of Simi Valley.

The survey, which will focus on an area where nuclear testing took place and an adjacent buffer zone, was supposed to be a joint effort of the EPA and the Department of Energy.

But requests from members of California's congressional delegation that the EPA take the lead -- and a scathing July 2 letter from the environmental agency, charging the Energy Department with a lack of transparency and threatening to pull the EPA's participation -- have resulted in a solo project.

"We thought we had an agreement up until the middle of June," said DOE's Federal Project Director Thomas Johnson. "We responded by saying OK, it's yours to perform."

While the EPA will take up the work, the agency would like to see the former rocket engine and nuclear test site determined as a Superfund site.

"It is still EPA's position that the most effective and efficient mechanism for ensuring a comprehensive site characterization and cleanup occurs is to place the site on EPA's National Priorities List," said Michael Montgomery, the EPA's Superfund Branch chief for the Pacific Southwest region.

Community members and environmental activists have long called for the EPA's participation in the cleanup of the site. It was home to a nuclear reactor meltdown, and lab watchdogs have been wary of the DOE's participation in the cleanup of contamination caused by its contractors.

DOE is compiling a court-mandated analysis that will outline the scope of the contamination and options for cleaning it.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said that a stringent cleanup of the site needs to be completed to protect the health of the community.

"Independent EPA oversight is a critical part of reaching that goal," she said. "The recent agreements that EPA will take a lead role at the site is a step forward, and I will continue my focus on this site until all the work is done."

Other members of Congress also applauded the move to have EPA conduct the radiation survey.

"I am pleased that the EPA is taking responsibility for this effort, and I expect the agency to conduct a thorough survey," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement. "The threat posed to surrounding communities from the chemical and radiological contamination of this site is simply unacceptable."

Congressman Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, said in an interview Friday that it was important for an outside agency to conduct the work. He added that the EPA's presence would make community members "feel much more comfortable."

Final details of an agreement spelling out the EPA's role, and the DOE's promise to give the agency money to get the job started, are being hammered out. An investigation into background levels of radiation and the planning process for other components of the survey are part of the plan. Funding, beyond $1.5 million the Energy Department will give to the EPA for the initial work, is not part of the agreement.

Officials said both agencies would work together to secure the money through the annual federal appropriation.

The appropriation bill, which became law last December, allotted $13 million to the Energy Department for cleanup work at the field lab. It required that a portion of the money be used to conduct the survey.

Negotiations between the two agencies on how to split up the work began early this year. By early June, both sides reached an agreement which would have placed the EPA primarily in a position to oversee work done by the DOE.

The environmental agency was uneasy in the role but agreed to the plan until "recent events (demonstrated) a significant lack of transparency in DOE's interactions with EPA and the public," Montgomery wrote in a July 2 letter to the DOE.

Montgomery wrote that the Energy Department had said it would use the EPA's strictest standards when it screened for radiations levels. However a DOE report, conducted by a contractor to determine what additional sampling needs to take place, contains screening levels that far exceeded EPA's standards. The revelation caused an uproar at a recent community meeting.

Also an issue was the DOE's plans to use the field laboratory's owner, Boeing Co., to conduct some of the radiation testing. Montgomery also cited an assertion from DOE that it could give the agency only $500,000 for the survey work.

"It was somewhat of a surprise," the DOE's Johnson said. "Particularly, the contents of the letter were a surprise."

Johnson said there had already been a number of discussions on turning the survey over to the EPA.

Stephanie Jennings, who is overseeing the compilation of an environmental impact statement that will document the contamination at the site and how best to clean it up, said its contractors' report will be revised using the strictest screening levels.


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