The truth of the ‘Woolsey Fire’

June 26, 2019

From the July-August 2019 issue of News & Letters

“The Santa Susana Fire” should be the name of the California wildfire called “Woolsey.” A photo, shot from a helicopter for CBS-LA, records the origin of Woolsey fire to be at Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL). That lab’s impact on the dangerous chemicals and isotopes released by the fire are just the latest in an historic string of insults perpetrated by SSFL on the environment of southeast Ventura County and Simi Valley (see: “A failure of governmental candor: The fire at the contaminated Santa Susana Field Laboratory,” by Daniel Hirsch  ( and “Woolsey Fire Aftermath” by Martin Fleck in Physicians for Social Responsibility report Vol. 41, No 1, Spring/Summer 2019. )

Public/private responsibility for SSFL and its string of accidents—including a nuclear fuel meltdown—passed through the hands of several large defense contractors, all of whom, when “ordered” to clean up the site, kicked the can down the road. No one was prosecuted, in spite of the law.

SSFL was an “experimental” place. Its 10 low-yield nuclear reactors (four of which were accident sites) had no containment structures. Accidental and routine emissions were vented directly into the atmosphere or the water. In addition SSFL fabricated fuel using plutonium and uranium, tested tens of thousands of rocket engines, and, in the “hot lab,” de-cladded highly irradiated spent fuel from other U.S. reactor sites for examination.


Satellite image of the so-called “Woolsey Fire” taken on November 9. Photo: NASA MODIS (TERRA Satellite) – NASA Worldview.

Toxic waste at SSFL was burned in barrels ignited by rifle fire or in open pits. It included: “A million gallons of trichlorethylene, a [carcinogen]…flush[ed] rocket engines…then percolate[d] into the ground and groundwater…dozens of other…chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds and semi-volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and perchlorate contaminated soil…and water…the EPA found…contaminat[ion] with radionuclides, including strontium 90, cesium 137, and plutonium 239.”

In the word of Dr. Robert Dodge, “These toxic materials are in SSFL’s soil and vegetation, and when it burns and becomes airborne in smoke and ash, there is real possibility of heightened exposure for area residents.”

Lab workers who were to test soil, water and vegetation samples for radiation drove off the isotopes in question by heating the samples before testing. Vegetation was washed to remove contaminants, then tested. Water? Filtered before testing to get rid of pollutants. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Community leaders and elected officials pushed for independent measurements, which the Energy Department kept promising but kept resisting.”

The State of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) conflated polluters with clients and regarded the public as the enemy of both.

“Given that our state toxic agency was responsible in part for the site still being contaminated, it is not surprising that it dismissed health concerns from the fire related to SSFL,” said Denise Duffield, Associate Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA.

Public health studies reveal higher death rates for workers and elevated cancer rates among those living within a two-mile radius as opposed to five miles from Santa Susana: 60% greater for some cancers.

After this sordid history was made public, grassroots protest produced a law and a promise of cleanup that was to have been completed “by 2017.” At the end of 2017 the cleanup had not yet started.


After the fire the DTSC issued a statement saying no contamination had been released from SSFL by the fire. When asked for data, none was forthcoming. The smoke was not tested, as all samples were taken days after the fire; well-known SSFL contaminants were not included; in response to hand-held radiation monitoring, the benchmarks for risk were set so high (100 to 10,000 times higher than normal standards) that no risk levels were found.

Daniel Hirsch reports that the DTSC was asked in 2000 to consider that a fire at SSFL would sully the atmosphere with contaminants known to be at the site. Answer: such a fire was “completely ‘speculative’ and non-credible.”  But it is exactly what happened as a result of “shoddy environmental controls.”

Oddly, the “by 2017” agreement to clean up the site was rescinded on the same day as the fire.

—Jan Boudart


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *