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Californians fear cleanup may not restore site of 1959 nuclear disaster

| Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 7:24 p.m.
A field is covered by black tarpaulins to stabilize mercury-containing soil at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Simi Valley, Calif. In 1959, a nuclear reactor partially melted on the site.

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The sun was barely up at a former Cold War rocket test site when crews in hard hats, neon vests and steel-toed boots collected jars of dirt as part of an extensive effort to clean up from a partial nuclear meltdown a half- century ago.

Parties that inherited the toxic mess face a 2017 deadline to restore the sprawling hilltop complex on the outskirts of Los Angeles to its condition before chemical and radioactive wastes leached into the soil and groundwater.

For residents living downhill from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, it would seem like a conclusion to a protracted fight. But many remain dissatisfied that a large portion of the land won't be cleaned to the highest standards.

“I don't care how long it takes, I just want it cleaned,” said 62-year-old Holly Huff, whose family moved into the area a month before the 1959 nuclear accident.

The road to decontamination has been long and costly, as winding as the two-lane path to the lab entrance 30 miles northwest of downtown LA. Decades in the works, the cleanup has been complicated by the web of owners and responsible parties at the nearly 2,900-acre site.

Environmentalists and homeowners three years ago cheered when the Energy Department and NASA agreed to clean their parcels to background levels — the most stringent standard — essentially returning the land to its natural state.

But Boeing Co., which owns the lion's share, opted to follow cleanup rules drawn up in a 2007 pact requiring the site to be scrubbed to a lesser standard.

Despite the lower bar, Boeing said it's complying with cleanup expectations typical of Superfund sites. The defense contractor wants to transform its tainted section into a park and says it's doing more than necessary to meet that goal.

“We want to make planes, and that's our mission. We want to get this site cleaned up as quickly and as safely as possible,” said Boeing project manager Art Lenox.

On a recent July morning, loud drills echoed from the Boeing section where workers fetched soil samples that were then transferred to stainless steel containers and placed in a cooler for later analysis.

In the area of the nuclear meltdown, another team dug into the dirt like archaeologists. The goal: determine the amount of volatile organics, heavy metals and other possible carcinogens left from the rocket testing and nuclear age.

The work, expected to continue through the end of the year, is the prelude by the three parties to sketch out their final cleanup script, which should begin in 2016.

“We're doing everything we can to keep to a 2017 schedule. It will be a hard push,” said Mark Malinowski of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which oversees the cleanup.

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