NASA's Environmental Remediation Efforts at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory


image NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin today released a report questioning the Agency's approach to its planned environmental cleanup at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in California. First opened in 1948, the 2,850 acre facility 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles was the site of nuclear energy research by the Department of Energy and rocket testing by the United States Air Force and NASA. Over the years, these activities resulted in radiological and chemical contamination to soil and groundwater at the site.

Like all Federal agencies, NASA is required to comply with laws and regulations that govern cleanup of contaminants left behind from Agency activities. Generally, responsible parties are required to conduct risk assessments to evaluate the threat that contaminants pose to human health, identify the reasonably foreseeable use of the affected property, and structure their remediation efforts based on those results.

The Boeing Company, which owns and is responsible for the cleanup of the majority of the Santa Susana site, has publicly stated that it intends to preserve its portion for use as open space parkland. This intended use would normally require remediation to a "recreational" level, but Boeing has stated that it will clean its area to a more stringent "residential" level. The NASA portion of the site is also expected to be used as parkland.

In December 2010, NASA entered into an agreement with California officials in which it pledged to clean the soil at the Santa Susana site to its original state before any rocket testing activities began, known as "background" level by 2017. This Office of Inspector General (OIG) review found that NASA has committed to an excessive and unnecessarily costly cleanup of the Santa Susana site. Specifically, the Agency agreed to clean its portion of the site to a level that exceeds the generally accepted standard necessary to protect human health in light of the expected future use of the land.

Moreover, although the precise requirements of the cleanup and therefore its ultimate cost have not been finalized, NASA estimates that remediation to "background" levels could cost more than $200 million, or more than twice the cost to clean the site to "residential" levels and more than eight times the cost to clean it to a "recreational" use standard. In addition, because cleanup to background levels may require highly invasive soil removal, there is a risk that such efforts would result in significant damage to the surrounding environment as well as to archeological, historical, and natural resources at the site.

The OIG questioned whether NASA's agreement to clean its portion of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory to background levels is the best use of limited NASA funds. Given NASA's other environmental commitments and the fiscal constraints facing the Agency and the Nation, the OIG concluded that NASA can ill afford to spend tens of millions of dollars to clean up an area beyond its risk level or intended land use.

The OIG recommended that NASA reexamine its current plans for the Santa Susana cleanup and ensure that its remediation effort is conducted in the most cost-effective manner in keeping with the intended future use of the property. In its response to the report, NASA failed to indicate whether it agreed or disagreed with our recommendation and whether it would reexamine its current cleanup plans. Instead, the Agency pledged to work toward a cleanup that achieves "cost avoidance" and preserves cultural and natural resources within the requirements of their agreement with the State of California. However, the OIG cautioned that it is not clear that the Agency can achieve the most appropriate and cost effective remediation effort given the constraints of the current agreement.

The full report can be found on the OIG's website at http://oig.nasa.gov/ under "Reading Room" or at the following link: http://oig.nasa.gov/audits/reports/FY13/IG-13-007.pdf

Please contact Renee Juhans at 202-358-1220 if you have questions.

Renee N. Juhans
Executive Officer
NASA Office of Inspector General
(202) 358-1220

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