• During Santa Susana Field Laboratory’s (SSFL) active days, the Department of Energy was engaged in liquid metals and energy research and NASA tested lunar rocket engines.

file under: Environment, Federal Government, North America, United States

Restoring the Environment and Trust

Cleanup at Santa Susana Field Laboratory

Established after World War II, the Santa Susana Field Laboratory was home to the United States’ pioneering industrial research and development of liquid-propellant rocket engines, nuclear energy and liquid metals research. Inactive since 2000, this once-bustling complex above southern California’s Simi Valley sits dormant, inhabited only by coyotes, rattlesnakes and the occasional mountain lion peering down from the hills.

Working more productively with regulators has boosted the California Department of Toxic Substance Control’s confidence in the project and accelerated completion of the site characterization by several years. 

The site also has been scrutinized by the community due to many years of testing and the use of nuclear fuels, petroleum products, polychlorinated biphenyls, silver and other toxic chemicals that were released over time. Today, a concerted multi-agency and corporate remediation effort is underway. Beginning in 2008, CDM Smith has assisted the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) with environmental restoration services on a portion of the site previously used for nuclear energy research, and in the process has rebuilt regulator and community trust in the project.

Characterizing the Past
CDM Smith’s initial assignment was straightforward: complete a detailed data analysis from previous investigations, identify data gaps and fill them through additional sampling, and prepare a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) environmental impact statement (EIS) for proposed cleanup activities. “That simple scope was obscured by complex site and community realities that mired the cleanup,” says Dee Cartwright, CDM Smith project director. “To help DOE more effectively manage these challenges, we integrated environmental, regulatory and community relations expertise to offer comprehensive solutions.”

Santa Susana Field Laboratory old building before demolitionMany of the SSFL buildings have been removed, including this one in 1998, and CDM Smith has collected soil samples at its location to see what was left behind.

Efforts began with the extremely fast‐track mobilization of a field sampling program, characterizing the soil, groundwater, surface water and the remains of more than 200 buildings spread across 290 acres. CDM Smith quickly developed field sampling and health and safety plans; expedited all quality assurance and technical reviews; and procured an analytical laboratory that met the project’s stringent quality control and detection limit requirements. Within 2 weeks, the team completed all plans, obtained all state reviews and approvals, and mobilized the field team and lab subcontractor. “Some thought that such a rapid start was impossible and that the proposed schedule was an act of deception, but our team proved it to be a reality,” reports John Wondolleck, CDM Smith project manager. “Since 2010, approximately 4,000 samples and 700,000 records have been collected. It’s a major data management exercise.”

Leveraging Strong Relationships
Leveraging its strong relationship and experience with state regulators, CDM Smith also streamlined the state of California document approval process. By seeking regulatory input on documents before submitting them for formal state review and reviewing comments real-time to address comment issues, approval rates increased while review time decreased. “The typical state review schedule of 2 years prior to CDM Smith’s involvement shrank to 6 weeks. Since September 2010, CDM Smith has obtained state approval for two major work plans and 12 sampling plans, some within days of submittal,” states John Jones, federal project director. “Working more productively with regulators has boosted the California Department of Toxic Substance Control’s confidence in the project and accelerated completion of the site characterization by several years.”

Strengthening a Community’s Future
Perhaps one of the project’s greatest successes is offsite in the improved relations with the community, which was doubtful of the site’s safety record and distrusted DOE. “We stopped all technical work for 1 year and put the EIS on hold so we could focus our energy on regaining stakeholders’ trust,” explains Wondolleck. An all‐day community forum allowed nuclear physicists and radiochemists to provide neutral, expert perspectives on the site’s nuclear operations and the greatest concern—a nuclear accident in 1959. Respected university professors were retained for a series of workshops to explain NEPA and the EIS process, as well as address public concerns about proposed cleanup alternatives. “We even interviewed 130 workers who previously operated the facility to clarify the site’s history and do-it-right safety culture. All of this helped to ease the community’s mind,” notes Wondolleck.

Santa Susana Field Laboratory soil samplingHand augers are used for soil sampling in steep terrain or where buried utilities preclude the use of the drill rig.

The forum became a turning point, enabling local stakeholders to express their comments to neutral parties and participate in a subsequent working session to formulate proposed alternatives for the EIS. “This successful public education process helped us revive relationships with community members and may serve as a model for future EIS projects,” notes Stephie Jennings, DOE NEPA lead. Cartwright adds, “We are focused on balancing the project’s technical and public relations aspects through client credibility, community engagement and transparent implementation.”

Characterization is scheduled for completion in December 2013, clearing the way for the EIS and remediation planning for eventual site cleanup, which will help restore the site to a natural habitat in this important migratory corridor. “CDM Smith has helped with the transformation of this project. Through rapid progress and the handling of sensitive stakeholder concerns, DOE has regained the community’s confidence and is productively working for long-term environmental success,” states Jones.

Hopefully the coyotes and mountain lions are watching with approval.