Spin Cycle

Spin Cycle

Selling Runkle Canyon pollution report as clean

By Michael Collins 08/23/2007

The headlines out of Ventura County last week must have pleased Simi Valley officials intent on convincing its citizenry of the benign nature of Runkle Canyon’s soil and water. This is where homebuilding giants KB Home and Lennar are intent on constructing a massive city-approved development of 461 residences stalled since last summer over adjacent Rocketdyne pollution concerns.

“Soil from canyon not dangerous, study says,” the fact-challenged Ventura County Star said Aug. 16. A day later, the Simi Valley Acorn weighed in with “Runkle Canyon soil and water labeled 'safe'.”

The problem with the reporting was not only was it inaccurate, as both papers have repeatedly been about the issue, the news failed to note that the July 2 city-funded testing found even more heavy metal pollutants in the canyon, and ones previously detected at higher levels, than the Radiation Rangers’ tests did the month before.

The Rangers, a Simi Valley citizens’ group formed in the summer of 2006, tested the canyon May 18 on their own dime after the city ignored their concerns about fouled water in the chaparral-covered canyon. The results of their testing showed unusually high readings of the toxic heavy metals arsenic, nickel and vanadium in the canyon’s surface water seeps. Arsenic was also detected in the top soil of the nearly dry creek bed.

One of the Rangers, the Rev. John Southwick, accompanied the city’s July sampling party to approximately the same locations tested in May. The soil and water sample, gathered by the same Moorpark-based lab the Rangers used, Pat-Chem Laboratories, were “split” between it and Burbank-based American Environmental Testing Laboratory in order to compare results. On Aug. 14, the laboratory readings and analysis were reported to the city by the lab in charge of the project, Santa Barbara-based Tetra Tech.

The results were shocking, but the local media highlighted the city’s declaration that the land was not an “immediate” threat to the public’s health. The city spun the level of arsenic found in one soil sample, about a quarter of what was detected by the Rangers, as proof of the benign amount of the metal, which is found in astronomical amounts polluting the land uphill of Runkle Canyon — Rocketdyne. However, the city didn’t note that even the lower reading was more than 20 times the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s “preliminary remediation goal” (PRG) for arsenic in residential soil, the agency’s strictest cleanup level.

More alarmingly, the city’s tests came back with an even higher amount of arsenic in the water than the Rangers did. The reading for arsenic, which causes bladder and lung cancers as well as diabetes, developmental problems, gastrointestinal illness and heart disease, was 25 percent higher. That translates to 26,478 times tap water’s PRG and 47,000 times California’s “public health goal” for the toxin in drinking water.

Another regulated heavy metal found by the Rangers in Runkle Canyon water, barium, was detected at levels 233 percent higher than the citizens’ sampling. Nickel came in 33 percent higher and vanadium 55 percent more elevated than the earlier tests. That is 2.8 times the “notification level” which are “health-based advisory levels for chemicals in drinking water … when a chemical is found in or threatens drinking water sources,” according to California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. “When notification levels are exceeded, the drinking water system is required to notify the local governing body of the local agency in which the users of the drinking water reside. If the notification level is exceeded, Department of Health Services recommends that the utility also inform its customers and consumers about the presence of the contaminant and about the health concerns associated with its exposure.”

The impacted water in Runkle Canyon eventually makes its way into the groundwater table Simi Valley uses for 20 percent of its supply which is carefully monitored for such toxins to make sure they fall within regulatory limits before they reach the consumer.

What the city probably didn’t count on, considering their cheerful characterization of its results, was that other toxic heavy metals would be found in the water that the earlier test had not detected. Chromium, which the government says is carcinogenic, was detected at 20 percent higher than the state’s “maximum contaminant level” (MCL) for tap water. Cadmium was found at nearly three times more than the PRG for tap water and 700 times the public health goal.

“The most serious consequence of chronic cadmium poisoning is cancer (lung and prostate),” says the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration. “The first observed chronic effect is generally kidney damage… [and] pulmonary emphysema and bone disease.”

Lead was also discovered in the city’s water samples with the highest reading 33 percent higher than the state’s MCL for the metal.

“The main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system, both in adults and children,” says the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The city, however, seems confident the site is safe.

“There is not a public health threat from limited, incidental water exposure based on the limited results and, assuming that if there were further analysis of the site that supported the findings of the limited testing, then we would conclude there is not a health threat,” Assistant City Manager Laura Behjan said Aug. 17. “In general, if these results are representative of metals throughout the site, then incidental exposure should not present a risk.”

Tetra Tech’s report recommends that more testing be done to determine the source of the pollutants, even though it doesn’t mention the 2,850-acre gorilla uphill from Runkle Canyon that has an 11-acre drainage leading down into the otherwise pristine gorge — Rocketdyne, site of numerous chemical and radiological accidents and spills, including at least two partial nuclear reactor meltdowns. Behjan says the next step is to give the developer the results and allow them to decide if there should be further testing.

On July 10, anticipating the city’s reaction to whatever test results they got back from Tetra Tech, the Rev. Southwick filed a complaint with the California EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) seeking the department’s relief. He has since submitted the same grievance to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board which regulates surface water in Runkle Canyon.

“We are seeking DTSC's help because the city has been uncooperative and hostile to the citizens and has discounted our concerns about pollution problems every step of the way in this process,” Southwick wrote. “We do not feel they have the expertise, or willingness, to correctly address these pollution concerns and/or our findings. We are also concerned that the city does not want any outside help from the appropriate government agencies because it stands to lose millions of dollars if this land isn't developed as it already has been approved to be. Indeed, the city manager said that he didn't want the DTSC involved when we were on the July 2nd sampling excursion. Please help us!”

Judging from Monday night’s city council meeting, there won’t be much help coming from Simi Valley. When Behjan presented the lab report to the council, she repeatedly said that the water is not a “source” for Simi Valley when even the city’s Tetra Tech says it is. “The Basin Plan indicates that the beneficial uses for the surface water of the Site area watershed are Municipal and Domestic Supply,” the report says. “Potential human consumption of surface water is reasonably possible under the Municipal and Domestic Supply, Water Contact Recreation, and Non-contact Water Recreation beneficial use scenarios.”

Even more bizarre was Councilman Becerra demanding the results of the Radiation Rangers’ tests from the split samples collected July 2. Soon the mayor, city manager and council were chiming in about the citizens’ results, intimating that they weren’t being forthright. The problem was that the Rangers didn’t do any sampling or testing July 2 because they had already tested May 18 which prompted the city’s July 2 testing in the first place. The mayor, city manager and a councilmember were present at the city sampling and they at least appeared to be paying attention to what they themselves had organized. Perhaps, if nothing else, outside government agencies will bring a measure of reality back to Simi Valley.

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