Reassessing Runkle

KB Homes and state agree to cooperate on troubled Simi canyon

By Michael Collins 04/24/2008

Coming on the heels of the historic covenant to clean up the former Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Laboratory to the strictest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund standards for radiation and chemicals, a new agreement has been signed that promises a proposed development in adjacent Runkle Canyon will be closely inspected for pollutants that may have come from the lab.

KB Homes’ Runkle Canyon LLC voluntarily entered into the agreement April 14 with the state Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to review documents for the “possible assessment and/or remediation of the Site, so that Runkle Canyon, LLC may qualify for the immunities afforded under [the California Land Reuse and Revitalization Act of 2004] and DTSC may be reimbursed for the costs incurred by DTSC.”

DTSC will start reviewing 41 comprehensive developer reports regarding Runkle Canyon to determine whether more testing will be needed at an initial estimate of $114,884, half of which KB has already paid as a deposit. By willingly signing this agreement, KB Homes becomes protected against some of the consequences of trying to build on land possibly polluted by Boeing’s former Rocketdyne lab. This money is just a down payment on assessing and perhaps cleaning up Runkle Canyon before KB Homes can break ground — if they ever do.

“Full cooperation” is how one KB Homes official characterized the agreement to the Reporter last week before declining further comment until approved by the Westwood-based builder. This is a marked change in attitude by the nation’s fifth largest homebuilding giant, which still has on its Runkle Canyon Web site its previous position that no new tests are needed: “We already have independent tests that indicate that the property is suitable for residential development and no new information has been presented that would call into question those conclusions.”

But times and pollution tests have changed with this new agreement.

“What a breath of fresh air and just in time for Earth Day!” exclaimed the Rev. John Southwick, who is a member of the self-dubbed Radiation Rangers who have been fighting the already-approved KB Homes development that would construct 461 homes. “We had to fight for two years to get to this point and couldn’t have done it without the VC Reporter and [this reporter’s Web site EnviroReporter.com]. Our hats are off to the DTSC and, of all people, the new folks in charge at KB Homes.”

This has been the goal of these Simi residents since the Reporter began its investigation of the place more than three years ago (See “Which Way the Wind Blows,” Features, 3/17/05). That cover story revealed that extraordinarily high levels of the leukemia-causing radionuclide strontium-90 were polluting Runkle Canyon soil and that the damning data hadn’t been properly assessed in the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which was approved by the city of Simi Valley on April 7, 2004.

After pleading with the city to test suspect-looking water in Runkle Canyon in 2007 and then being told that it has already been adequately assessed in the EIR, which it hadn’t, the Rangers paid for their own sampling and analysis of the goo last May 18. Those tests found the surface water and adjacent soil heavily contaminated with the toxic heavy metals arsenic, nickel and vanadium. The city responded by conducting its own tests and spun the results that the water and dirt were clean when they actually found even higher levels of the toxins as well as barium, cadmium, chromium and lead (See: “Spin Cycle,” News, 8/23/07).

Then last December, KB Homes began negotiating with the DTSC’s Norm Riley, who is the project manager for the Rocketdyne cleanup, for a “Voluntary Cleanup Agreement,” a moniker dropped from the finalized agreement. Under the plan, DTSC has 75 days to review documents and reports already generated by the developers before possibly recommending further tests of the troubled land.

“The negotiations with Runkle Canyon LLC were frank, cordial and productive,” Riley told the Reporter April 18. “I do believe they are serious about addressing the concern about contamination in the project area.”

Serious, indeed. The agreement states “DTSC may determine that response action is necessary to prevent or eliminate an unreasonable risk at the Site. If requested by DTSC, Runkle Canyon, LLC shall submit a Response Plan to DTSC for approval. Once the Response Plan is approved, Runkle Canyon, LLC shall implement the plan … [which will] place the site in a condition that allows it to be used for its reasonably anticipated future land use without unreasonable risk to human health and safety and the environment. Public participation shall meet the requirements … including a DTSC public meeting if requested.”

Naturally, faith that DTSC will do its job is crucial to public acceptance of this plan. “This is outstanding news,” Radiation Ranger Patricia Coryell said, “I have a high degree of faith in the integrity of DTSC under Norm Riley’s leadership  and feel that their review will be impartial and unbiased.”

Riley may determine at some point in the reassessment process that Boeing should pay for all the work that may be needed in Runkle or KB Homes could sue for damages from the aerospace giant. Any successor to owning the land, like the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, would also be protected under this agreement.

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