May 072011

Herewith Diane Lefer’s startling look at Los Angeles, the city where she lives. But this isn’t the Los Angeles of glitz and glamour, of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Diane’s Los Angeles has more in common with the LA of the movie Chinatown, a city of murky secrets and vast, ancient corruption. Finding her inspiration (she tells me to thank him) in Keith Maillard’s essay “Richland” recently published on NC, she takes an apocalyptic look at what is known as the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, now a toxic nuclear Superfund site. Diane’s view of LA is trenchant, bracing, and passionate. It will surprise you and sadden you, much the way we were surprised and saddened reading Keith’s memoir.

Diane is a dear old friend, also a constant reader of NC. You should also check out Diane’s story “The Tangerine Quandary” published here last year. In the intro to that story, I mentioned Diane’s work with a California prison inmate, Duc Ta. For readers interested in following the Duc Ta story, here is a link to Diane’s essay “Facing Life,” from Connotation Press.


What It’s Like Living Here

from Diane Lefer on Los Angeles, California



As a New York City transplant to LA some years back, I dreaded having to drive. I found an apartment a block from a major intersection where I can walk to most of what I need and have pretty good—at least for LA—access to public transportation. But once I got used to being behind the wheel, having a car liberated me. The New York subway system is such a gift to humanity, it ought to be recognized as such by UNESCO, but without a car, New Yorkers are confined to urban life. In Los Angeles, a short drive takes me to canyons, mountains, desert where I can cross paths with coyotes or turn back on sighting mountain lion tracks. (I also once cut a hike short when I encountered a Charles Manson lookalike not far from where The Family once lived.)

Some of my favorite trails are up through the sandstone and shale rock formations and cliffs in the northwest corner of LA at the Ventura County line. I long thought if I could ever bring myself to leave the center of town, this is where I’d want to be, in one of the residential communities tucked among the cliffs or at the base of all this fabulous sedimentary rock that was deposited 65-85 million years ago. I did wonder if I’d be able to find congenial company in an area where it seemed the main employers were the adult entertainment industry and various defense contractors. I haven’t met any porn stars, but whenever I headed up Woolsey Canyon Road to Sage Ranch Park, it was impossible to miss the Boeing checkpoint and guardhouse.



People think of Southern California as beach and Hollywood glitz (and Hollywood liberals) but a lot of our economy is based on the military-industrial complex and one day in June 2006, I joined with Physicians for Social Responsibility to visit contractor sites and talk about how the production of weapons can be as lethal as their use. So there we were one sunny day at a vista point in Sage Ranch Park where I liked to wander through chaparral and coastal sage, where yucca plants raise big white candles straight out of the rock, high in the air and I could watch hawks overhead and lizards doing pushups half in, half out of the shadows and spot the tiny pink flowers holding up their tiny heads through sandstone cracks and clefts. But now we were looking down at the Boeing complex which has been through various operational hands. The property is well known as the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a former nuclear-energy and rocket-testing facility where, in 1959, a nuclear reactor which had no containment dome whatsoever had a partial meltdown more severe than what happened at Three Mile Island. The accident—30 miles from downtown LA—was covered up for twenty years until a graduate student at UCLA came across documents from the site.

For years before the LA Times or any other mainstream media covered the story, a freelance environmental investigator named Michael Collins was reporting on the meltdown and other accidents at the site. He reported that contamination also came from tests of rocket engines and the burning of radioactive materials in the open. His stories ran in a free weekly giveaway newspaper and on his site. Community activists investigated too, and learned about perchlorate simply dumped out on the ground or burned as waste.



I won’t even try to unravel how the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) was and then wasn’t considered a Superfund site, how it’s not the EPA’s responsibility but the Department of Energy’s, how it may or may not have been political machinations by the Bush administration that prevented any cleanup, and how the site was more recently targeted for remediation under a comprehensive Consent Order issued in 2007.

The site and its history became part of my recently completed novel—much easier to treat all this in fiction than to have to stick to the facts. But I live here. Facts matter.

Right now, groundwater at the site is being studied for contamination, and Boeing, the Department of Energy, NASA, and the California Department of Toxic Substance Control have joined together to offer a series of lectures so that the public will be intellectually equipped to understand and comment on the Groundwater Investigation Report once it’s released.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons I love living in LA. If you’re not trying to become a movie star, people welcome you without hesitation into their specialized worlds. I’ve been invited to attend symposia on germline engineering, primate behavior, nanoscience, and public health. I’ve attended whole-day seminars on military law and immigration law alongside law students getting course credit and attorneys fulfilling their continuing ed requirements. Los Angeles is a dilettante’s utopia. So now I am learning about groundwater, the water below the earth’s surface, the stuff you can’t see. (And if you will consider the graph of Corehole C-7 Characterization DFN™ Data Sets, we will pretend that I understand it and am not explaining it only because I assume you won’t.)



On Saturday, April 30, I was allowed past Boeing’s checkpoint for the first time as part of the hydrogeologic tour of SSFL. I snapped a quick photo from the outside, as cameras weren’t allowed at the site.



We were warned to watch out for rattlesnakes, ticks, spiders, and poison oak, then wearing our name badges and Groundwater U bandanas we boarded buses that took us throughout almost 2,850-acre site. At stops along the way, we (and display posters) were buffeted by 40 mph wind gusts as professors on the Groundwater Advisory Panel along with Ph.D. candidates from the University of Guelph in Ontario—yes, Doug, we Californians are relying at least in part on Canadian expertise—explained how they are trying to learn how the contaminants got to where they are and to figure out where they are going.

We saw equipment used to drill to a depth of 419′ to extract 5′ long continuous core samples of rock which are studied for physical characteristics, crushed and tested for contaminants, especially trichloroethylene (TCE), the industrial solvent that was in constant use at the rocket testing site. The current studies find it mostly at a depth of 100-200′. What looked like Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the high winds turned out to be little Home Depot tags in blue, green, and red stuck in the sampling trays to draw our attention to specific core samples, showing shale, sandstone, and fractures.

Peter Pehme, a Canadian geophysicist (who, as a non-US-citizen must be escorted when he shows up to conduct his specialized testing) showed us the methods he’s developed using temperature profiling, gamma probes and pulses of energy and TV probes outfitted with magnetometers in his quest to figure out which fractures in the rock are moving water, and how much, and in what direction—in other words, to understand “contaminant transport and fate.” (I know this is serious business, but writers, don’t you just love the language?)

We learned shale, with low porosity, serves as a barrier. Sandstone acts more like a sponge, soaking up chemicals. It holds onto the contaminants—which is good for the groundwater, but not good if the goal is getting the toxic stuff out.

We stood in a meadow looking at green rolling hills. This is where the nuclear reactors once stood. The notorious burn pit was nearby.



We drove past big corrugated metal industrial barns with silos and cranes and huge white spheres on stands, past pipelines and transmission lines and into verdant Bell Canyon, a wonderland of the most fantastical rock formations yet and willows and oaks and wildflowers lining gullies leading down to the seeps, where groundwater comes up to the surface and can at last be seen. Bell Canyon is the “undeveloped area” of the site as no operations were ever carried out here. “Paradise,” whispered a woman standing behind me. Not quite. Monitoring has found volatile organic contaminants (such as TCE) in some of these seeps. After rains, the TCE becomes diluted and isn’t detected. At times, the water in the seeps start to bubble and the TCE volatilizes and gets into the air so the water shows no contamination. Innovative portable drills are being carried into less accessible locations to drill monitoring wells that check for plumes of bad stuff that might travel.

Next stop we met Debbie Taege, the lead engineer for the Groundwater Extraction and Treatment System. (It was heartening, by the way, to meet her and other women on the site—Beth Parker and Amanda Pierce—with degrees in engineering and the sciences.) Taege has been on-the-job for two years now, ever since the cleanup operation began.

She showed us how water pumped from the site goes through a prefilter to remove sediment and then passes through a series of vessels, each well higher than my head. First, metals in the water have to be removed so they don’t clog up the works. Using aluminum silicate and dissolved oxygen, metals can be precipitated and filtered out. Other metals, like iron, manganese, and zinc are caught using tiny plastic beads with a reactive surface—creating waste materials that must then be disposed of (safely, I hope). The water then moves through trays where air passes over to turn some of the contaminants to vapor. The water and contaminated air then pass through activated carbon which absorbs the bad stuff.  The clean air is released, but the water isn’t done yet. Peroxide starts the breakdown of larger contaminants and then UV light agitates them more until they break up into safe compounds so that the treated water now meets or exceeds drinking water standards.

Actually, Taege explained, it’s too clean. Wildlife needs some minerals to survive so she next adds some calcium and other elements before releasing the water back into the environment.

(One tour participant who had many complaints about the federal government objected to the cost of such elaborate treatment: “Why does it have to be cleaned up if no one is going to drink it?”)

Taege loves her job. “It’s a great group of people to work with,” she said. “We’re all environmentalists.”

Surely there was terrible damage done more than fifty years ago and workers and nearby residents then suffered cancers and hormonal disturbances and mysterious rashes and central nervous system disorders because of what happened here. But this—to our great good fortune—is not Fukushima. Maybe the danger is over, gone. But Christine Rowe of the West Hills Neighborhood Council wanted to know if seeps in the neighboring residential communities had been tested. Turns out, the water was indeed tested—but not for contaminants.



As we returned to the bus, I looked at the spectacular view I could only enjoy because I was wearing a Boeing badge and in the company of an escort. What a shame, I thought, the public has no access to this. “That may change soon,” said my escort.

Boeing has no use for beautiful Bell Canyon. When it looked like the company wanted to unload the property—for what? public parkland? a new housing development? farming?—the California legislature in 2007 passed SB 990 to make it illegal for Boeing to transfer or lease any part of the site without strict clean-up exceeding the federal requirements. But earlier in the week, just days before I visited SSFL, a federal judge threw out the California law as unconstitutional and unfair to Boeing. The state is appealing the decision.

In the meantime, the rocks I love are being studied for their role in holding contaminants, in holding or blocking the flow of groundwater, but none of the experts we met with knew of any studies being done on the air or the soil. I wanted to be reassured but the wind blew hard and it occurred to me I should have used the Groundwater U bandana to shield my nose and mouth.

At home I shower and wonder if I’m washing radioactive dust from my skin and hair. The dirt goes down the drain as waste water, out into the world.

—Diane Lefer



Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose most recent short-story collection, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and published by Sarabande Books. With Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal she is co-author of the nonfiction book, The Blessing Next to the Wound (Lantern Books, 2010) while their theatrical collaboration, Nightwind, has toured the US, Canada, and the world, as far afield as Afghanistan. They will be leading workshops later this month in Colombia at the International Theatre Festival for Peace in Barrancabermeja. Diane is also the author of two other collections—Very Much Like Desire and The Circles I Move In—as well as the novel, Radiant Hunger. Her fiction has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the City of Los Angeles, and the Library of Congress. For 23 years she taught in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and she has been a guest artist at colleges, writing conferences, and festivals. She is a frequent contributor to the ezine, LA Progressive. Her website is


  25 Responses to “What It’s Like Living Here — Diane Lefer in Los Angeles”

  1. Thanks, Diane. OK, that’s two nuclear messes reported at NC in the last few months. What else have we not been told?

  2. This was really interesting. I like that you didn’t focus on meeting celebrities or the glitz. And the pictures were great!

  3. Thanks for this Diane. Vivid, with wonderful photographs of beautiful yet poisoned rocks….the sandstone as sponge is a truly unsettling thought….

  4. Diane,

    Reading this is so timely for me! I’ve managed to arrange for visits to the Nevada Test Site and to the Uranium Mining Museum in Grants, NM this summer. When is your novel coming out?? I definitely want to read it. As a native to the Southwest, I am always amazed by the manmade poisons we’ve hidden beneath the stark beauty. Thanks for sharing this. Powerful!

  5. Fascinating and depressing. And it’s somehow a perfect Los Angeles metaphor — all that secretly toxic beauty baking in the desert sunshine. Looking forward to reading the novel.

  6. Thanks, y’all. The novel will come out if I ever find a publisher!

  7. Intriguing and vivid, Diane. I felt like I was right there with you on the tour. I was floored by the person’s comment about “the cost to cleanup water that no one (i.e., human) will drink” (!?) Thanks for your due diligence and courage in tackling this subject matter.

  8. Wow, Diane. Captivating read. Thanks for caring as deeply and as intelligently as you do about so many things and bringing them to light for others. Love the photo of you at the top.

  9. I appreciated the unusual and surprising take on LA, the intersection of nature and culture, your keen observations. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  10. I admire your ability to navigate between the personal and political so deftly, Diane. I’m inclined to agree with Steven’s comment about this operating as an apt metaphor for LA’s toxic beauty. Thanks for sharing your voice and vision … please keep us posted on the development of your book’s publication (I’d imagine you must encounter staggering barriers).

  11. Great article. Love what it captures about the California landscape. One of my favorite things to do around here, in the suburbs outside SF, is to pedal the fireroads to the abandoned missile silos above the Marin Headlands. Diane’s article, though set in a different part of the state, captures something fundamental about the paradoxical beauty of such forlorn places.

  12. Thanks, Diane, for shedding light on some of LA’s secrets and dangers, hidden in that beautiful rock. I do love the language!

  13. Since I was quoted in this story, I thought that I would chime in. First, where we went on the bus tour was not to Bell Canyon – the road goes to Bell Canyon – we were in the Southern Buffer Zone owned by Boeing.
    There have been many offsite seeps and springs sampled – that data can be found on the DTSC website. I just want more sampling done to reassure my community that nothing is in their groundwater or seeps and springs.
    Surface water is monitored by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. TCE is not one of the Contaminants of Concern (COCs) found in storm water runoff.
    I was up at the SSFL site again today with DTSC, EPA, the DOE, Boeing’s contractor MWH (who had just done some major chemical sampling) in Historical Site Assessment (HSA) Group 6.
    HSA Group 6 is where the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) – a 20 MW sodium cooled graphite moderated experimental reactor went on line in 1957. It did not need to have a traditional containment dome because the reason to use sodium is that you would not have the same kind of pressure in a sodium reactor as in a pressurized water boiler reactor.
    Since you are interested in all of the technical meetings that we have in the Los Angeles area, there was an Expert Panel on the Sodium Reactor Experiment in August 2009. That was a 7 hour meeting which was very balanced – a nuclear physicist from Sandia labs, one from Ohio State, and one from the NRDC (all PhDs)each gave their opinion of the documents and former studies related to the site.
    According to their presentation – and the videos of their presentation are on the DOE website – nothing that was released from the SRE incident in July 1959 caused harm to the community back then, or causes harm to the community today. I am just talking about that one incident that you referred to as worse than Three Mile Island – that has pretty much been debunked now by enough physicists.
    We go to AREA IV of the SSFL site twice a month with the agency leaders to look at the geology, how contaminants migrated in the past, where there is still some contamination today.
    I attend the technical meetings with the agency leaders and responsible parties to see just what the EPA has found in their gamma surveys, geophysical surveys, and soon, their soil and water samples for AREA IV.
    AREA IV – where the reactors once were – you would expect to see exceedences of radionuclides in the surface water runoff there. However, RADs are not the primary problem with storm water runoff.
    When I became involved in the SSFL project about 4 1/2 years ago, I did so because of my background in Health Education. That background enables me to communicate with agency leaders, epidemiologists, physicians, etc, to see if there really are any increased incidences of cancer in my community of West Hills from the site.
    In December 2010, Dr. Thomas Mack, an epidemiologist from USC and a specialist in cancer for Los Angeles County, came to the West Hills Neighborhood Council to speak on cancer incidence in West Hills. His power point is on the West Hills Neighborhood Council web site.
    His conclusion was that there is not an elevated overall incidence of cancer in West Hills. There are no cancer clusters in West Hills. There is no correlation with any particular industrial site and cancer clusters in the Los Angeles area.
    I encourage people to take the SSFL tours that are open to the public and to hike in Sage Ranch. At one time, local activists had me scared to go into the area. Today, I trust the agency leaders, and their toxicologists, so that I can enjoy being at the Santa Susana Field Lab and Sage Ranch with out fear – of anything but rattlesnakes, ticks, bees, and wasps.

    • Thank you, Chris, for sharing your expertise. You were a valuable asset on the tour and it was great to meet you there. As I said, I do want to feel reassured, but the health experts on the PSR-LA tour were not so confident and in fact repeatedly stressed that while anecdotal evidence showed increased cancer rates–not only or specifically in West Hills, but that the population of the neighborhoods was too small for any determination that the incidence was statistically significant. We also heard at that time that the sodium reactor was operated for an additional two weeks after the problem was known–13 of 43 fuel rods damaged and melted. They said the radiation release from the sodium reactor experiment (SRE) was 240 times that of Three Mile Island. I realize there are two diametrically opposed points of view on what occurred and wildly different interpretations. I’m with you in thinking some activists have overstated the case but I do think there’s cause for concern. Even the information from Groundwater U shows how over decades the idea of how to measure and remediate groundwater has changed–so that what was done in the past (at other sites) may well have done more harm than good. Seems to me that’s a reminder that even the best scientific experts are operating out of whatever the best knowledge is at any given time. On top of that, unease is surely exacerbated by the history of secrecy at the site–not to mention our continuing (and questionable) reliance on nuclear energy and the development and production of weapons and the continuing challenge of how to dispose of toxic waste. But I would not hesitate to return for my favorite hikes. Again, thank you.

      • Diane,

        I tried to submit a response to your email and it did not post. Maybe that is because I submitted links to official websites.

        As I told you on the tour of the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL) for the Groundwater U tour, I know the former Director of PSR-LA; in fact, I used to have a membership with that group. I have been to a few presentations with PSR-LA. I have a few friends that are members of that group. Yet I have never seen them produce a formal health study of the community. I would love their medical doctors to look at the epidemiological data for the community that live around this site.

        I know a few people that took that military tour. That was a tour of many military sites in the Southland. Santa Susana was a remote area in 1947. It was designed as what I would consider a “Homeland Security” site today.

        The SSFL site was used by the Air Force to test missiles and engines for defense – the Air Force was the actual party that was responsible for most of the TCE that entered the ground at “Santa Sue” prior to 1961 according to a NASA document. See the NASA SSFL fact sheet on TCE.

        From the Boeing site: “The Redstone rocket was an Army bombardment rocket that was developed by the Rocketdyne Division of North American Aviation.”
        We will never know what work was done at that site because most military work is probably still classified today.

        Later the site was used to test rocket engines for NASA. The Test stands were built between 1954 and 1957 according to the NASA SSFL website.

        It was not until about 1953 that they decided to use the SSFL for experimental nuclear reactors under Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program.

        You speak about science. Science in certain areas can advance. Look at our computer capabilities today compared to even a decade ago.

        The “Sodium Reactor Experiment” or SRE has been studied and many people have peer reviewed the statements that were made in 2006. One of the people who was a part of the Santa Susana Panel in 2006 was Dr. Jan Beyea. Since that time, he has posted many updates to his report of 2006.

        This is what Dr. Beyea wrote on the Enviroreporter:

        “Jan Beyea says:
        September 16, 2009 at 5:51 pm
        Because statements are made in a comment on the EnviroReporter website about my analysis of the SRE accident, I thought I should post what I currently state on my own website: “A June 2007 draft revision was prepared for review, but was made moot by Boeing’s release of previously withheld wind data. Analysis of that data is awaiting completion of other projects.
        In the June, 2007 Revision, I tried to clarify issues, and to answer questions raised by Boeing and its consultants. I also made quantitative changes to the report that resulted from adding additional Boeing consultants to the set of experts used to develop a likelihood distribution for the release magnitude.
        When these changes were combined with newly identified soil measurements, the quantitative scoping calculations I made of projected health effects had to be adjusted. The upper 95%-confidence value dropped by about a factor of 4.
        Subsequent to preparation of the 2007 revision, Boeing released 1959 meteorological (met) data.
        Preliminary review of the met data suggests that the upper 95%-confidence value will drop still further, when met data is incorporated. Revisions to expert assessments is likely to reduce the upper 95%-confidence value still more, although the possibility of a second (earlier?) accident has been raised to account for excess strontium found in the coolant— a possibility that will complicate the analysis.” See: for responses to Boeing and others. I also should make it clear that my original report had a range starting at zero health effects, but that lower number got lost in the original reporting and presentation by others. I never referred to the SRE accident as a meltdown, which has a pejorative connotation.”
        The following is from the report of Dr. Thomas Cochran of the NRDC from the SRE Expert Panel meeting on august 29, 2009, and it is posted on the DOE website:
        “Comparative risks: In assessing risks and harm from the July 1959 accident, it is worth noting that this reactor is relatively small relative to the power of today’s operational nuclear power reactors. The Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2), which experienced a partial core meltdown accident beginning March 28, 1979, was rated as 2,568 Mwt. It power was 128 times larger than that of the SRE.”
        “Conclusion: Based on my limited review of the documents made available to me, my best estimate is that the amount of noble gas radioactivity released as a consequence of the SRE accident in July 1959 was too small to have posed by itself a significant risk to the health of the public.”
        This and other SRE documents can be found by searching the DOE ETEC website.
        I would also like to refer you to the 2007 report on community health risk which can also be found on the DOE website. It is called:
        “Cancer Incidence in the Community Surrounding the Rocketdyne Facility in Southern California”. Dr. Hal Morgenstern – Principal Investigator
        See page 4 – under Conclusion: “There is no direct evidence from this investigation, however, that these observed associations reflect the effects of environmental exposures originating at the SSFL.”
        If you like to hike, I recommend hiking at the NIKE Base in Encino. It has a tremendous view of Los Angeles and the ocean.
        Again, I apologize if there are no links, but I do hope that I have provided enough information to find these documents yourself on the various web sites.

        • Thank you, Chris, for so much background and all the references. The depth of your knowledge is pretty astounding–it’s like you’ve lived in this material while I’ve just been a tourist. And I have hiked the NIKE site. (Probably not a lot of trails in this area that have escaped this tourist.)

  14. Thanks for putting the reply up so that people can find the links. Sorry about the repetition. I had to rewrite that all from memory – I guess I should have saved in Word before I pushed Post.


    • No problem, Chris. I think it’s a good thing to have so much information available in one place. Thank you for putting in the effort.

  15. Chris, it’s great that if anyone comes across my piece while googling SSFL or Rocketdyne, etc., they will have all your resources at their fingertips and a fuller, more accurate picture.

  16. Chris Rowe does not give “a fuller, more accurate picture” at all, Diane. For years she has harassed me, my wife, members of the cleanup SSFL community, all the while doing injury to the facts. Want a more “accurate picture” of Chris Rowe, the self-proclaimed “meltdown denier”? Here you can:

    Also, for the record, this statement is not true: “For years before the LA Times or any other mainstream media covered the story, a freelance environmental investigator named Michael Collins was reporting on the meltdown and other accidents at the site.”

    The Los Angeles Daily News, LA Times, KNBC-4 TV news and others began coverage of SSFL in 1989, a full nine years before I did.

    Facts are funny things – either they are true or not. A little more research and a little less naivete in comments would have helped make this piece/comments accurate.

  17. Michael, I am so glad you responded as I’ve long admired your work. Sorry for giving you more credit than you earned. I wasn’t living here in ’89 and first became aware of SSFL coverage through your extensive reporting so thanks for setting the record straight. And also for responding to (debunking) Chris Rowe. During the tour, she clearly came prepared and asked a lot of questions that got us some intelligent answers. At the time, she didn’t come across as a denier though once we got her comments here that became clear. While I don’t agree with her, I don’t feel it’s my place to censor comments. I did argue with some of her points and then left it to readers to check her sources and make their own determinations. Why should anyone just take my word for any of this (with inaccuracies, as you note) without knowing of opposing views? But it’s much better to know that now anyone who comes to this site will have your response and the link to which will encourage readers to reach conclusions that I, myself, find entirely convincing.

  18. I live up here in Woolsey Canyon and loved reading this in depth article about it. We’ve lived her for 5 years and I always wonder if we’re being radiated. Now there are public tours of the facility but I haven’t gone on one yet. I want to though.

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