The Hills Have Eyes

Simi Valley residents unite to fight “hot” KB Homes development in Runkle Canyon

By Michael Collins 09/28/2006

“I am not a tree hugger, an environmental activist, or an Erin Brockovich wannabe,” said Patricia Coryell before an Aug. 21 meeting of the Simi Valley City Council. Coryell and about two dozen other concerned citizens were there to address the impending construction of hundreds of homes in Runkle Canyon, which is less than a mile from the aerospace and defense labs generally known as Rocketdyne, the site of intense nuclear and chemical pollution. Coryell added, “When I moved to Simi Valley four and a half years ago, I didn’t know anything about Rocketdyne and I had never heard of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory [SSFL].”

Coryell sure knows now. In 1959, the worst nuclear disaster in American history occurred at Rocketdyne, where a partial meltdown of an experimental reactor released more radioactive poisons than the more infamous Three Mile Island meltdown in 1978. Numerous nuclear accidents and deliberate dumping and burning of radioactive and chemical waste has so contaminated the lab that it is in the midst of a quarter-billion dollar federal cleanup with no guarantee of success.

“The last time I appeared before this council was in April of 2004, when I asked you to require independent testing for soil and water contamination before approving the proposal,” Coryell continued. “Despite my concerns and the concerns of other citizens, the project was approved.”

The Simi residents, many of them development-friendly Republicans, are alarmed at new block-out fencing at the mouth of Runkle Canyon, which is now guarded by around-the-clock sentries. The beefed-up security measures come courtesy of Los Angeles-based construction giant KB Homes and also Lennar, headquartered in Miami. The partnership began purchasing Runkle in parcels in mid-2005 and plans to start construction by the end of the year on 140 acres of the 1,595-acre former ranch, building 461 homes, single-family estates and apartments.

With construction imminent, concern is growing over Runkle Canyon’s proximity to the nuclear test area of SSFL, part of which empties into an 11-acre drainage that flows into the broad picturesque gorge. Runkle Canyon has repeatedly tested high for the leukemia-causing radionuclide strontium-90 (Sr-90), which residents contend came from Rocketdyne. In 1999, a lab hired by a former developer sampled Runkle dirt and found that it averaged six times the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s “preliminary remediation goal” for Sr-90, a level that is presumed safe for residential development, and nearly 46 times above the typical EPA background level for strontium-90 in the area. The highest Sr-90 reading of the 58 samples taken was over 411 times higher than normal background.

In the grading and construction process, over 100 tons of Sr-90-impacted dust would be launched into the atmosphere and fall out over the Simi and San Fernando valleys. The California Department of Health Services re-tested five soil samples from Runkle Canyon on June 7, 2005, and once again found that, despite testing irregularities, the land was still reading high for Sr-90.

KB Homes quietly bought rights to the development last summer. The Simi Valley City Council approved the transition on Aug. 15, 2005 with nary a word about Sr-90 pollution concerns. Though the project has been green-lighted, the developers have not yet pulled the necessary permits for encroachment or the architectural planning of the development’s homes, recreation center, and public and senior parks.

“We discussed it with the city manager and every member of the City Council,” Scott Ouellette, KB Homes executive vice president, said last week. “We’ve had an ongoing dialogue with the city from the very beginning. We were aware of the issues and we conducted a thorough review of the EIR and found that the property is safe for development and poses no public health risk.”

That detailed information about the Sr-90 levels is in there, however, buried in the developer’s lab reports. This infuriates Coryell, who said she was portrayed by City Council members in April 2004 as “alarmist” by using Rocketdyne-related “scare tactics” to try to derail the project as it was being approved unanimously by the council.

“Isn’t it just a little bit disingenuous for the council to expect the developer, who stands to lose so much money, to be an honest, disinterested, unbiased third party?” said Coryell, who has started a Web site called StopRunkledyne.com, that details the controversy.

Earlier this week dozens of exasperated Simi Valley residents converged on Simi Valley City Hall Monday night, spurred on by news that their City Council had agreed with Los Angeles-based developer KB Homes that the proposed development in Runkle Canyon was not negatively impacted by radioactive strontium-90 (Sr-90).

This was news to the assembled since the council had promised residents a report on the matter on Aug.21. That report, by Al Boughey, director of environmental services, discounted previous information in the Reporter (“Which Way the Wind Blows,” 3/22/05), and the Web site, EnviroReporter.com.

Boughey admitted that Runkle Canyon had tested high for Sr-90, but with a proviso: “The results of these tests exceed the EPA’s Preliminary Remediation Goals,” he wrote in the Aug. 23 document. “Based on the concentration of strontium-90 and the cancer risk associated with that concentration, exposure to dust from the site would not pose a public health risk on or off site.”

The Boughey report, which was not released to the public until Monday night after community prompting, did little to assuage residents’ fears of the impending development. Members of the City Council also cautioned against moving too quickly on the project.

“All that I know is that when we took this oath up here it was for the health and welfare of the community,” said Council woman Barbra Williamson. “There is a possibility that we have gotten (an EIR) that is flawed. I’m not saying it is, but there is always that possibility.”

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