In the black depths of the ocean near the Channel Islands lies a largely forgotten memento of the early Atomic Age. It is low-level radioactive nuclear waste generated at Rockwell International's Santa Susana Field Laboratory and Canoga Park plants.
For about a decade starting in the early 1950s, Atomics International, later part of Rockwell, dumped hundreds of drums of radioactive waste in 6,000 feet of water south of Santa Cruz Island.
Today, precise information on the dump is hard to come by. Old U.S. government reports estimate that the dump received about 3,100 drums of waste containing 108 curies of radioactivity--apparently not a great concentration considering the diluting power of the sea.
But it is not known if these numbers are accurate, or if all the dumping was recorded. Neither is it certain whether other government contractors disposed of waste at the site. Except for a limited survey in 1960, there has been no environmental monitoring of the Santa Cruz site by Rockwell or government agencies.
No Specific Studies
"As far as we know, there have been no specific studies directed at that particular site to find out exactly what has been dumped there," said Diane Green, a naturalist with Channel Islands National Park.
"The Park Service . . . does have concerns for that site as well as any other toxic dumping site," she said.
Larger radioactive dumps used during the same years have been studied, specifically those near the Farallon Islands off San Francisco and in the Atlantic Ocean. Although elevated radioactivity was found in bottom sediment near those dumps, no significant levels were found in samples of fish. Most researchers have concluded that too little radioactive material was dumped off the U.S. coasts during the 1940s, '50s and '60s to create a human health hazard.
The dumping was more of a dangerous precedent than a life-threatening event, said W. Jackson Davis, professor of biology at UC Santa Cruz and a leading critic of ocean disposal.
However, the dump may also be a special case because radioactive waste was not the only thing disposed of near Santa Cruz, the largest island in Channel Islands National Park. When Atomics International began the dumping, the Navy was already using the site to dispose of military waste. In fact, official nautical charts describe the site as a former "chemical munitions dumping area"--saying nothing about radioactive waste.
The radioactive waste dumping, authorized by the former U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, was variously estimated by Rockwell officials to have stopped between 1959 and 1962, when commercial land burial sites became available for low-level wastes generated at the Canoga Park plants and the Santa Susana Field Laboratory west of Chatsworth and southeast of Simi Valley.
"The ocean is awfully big," and ocean dumping was considered "a perfectly acceptable way to dispose of radioactive waste," said Marlin Remley, former chief of nuclear safety and licensing at Rockwell's Rocketdyne division, successor to Atomics International. "I don't know when it was decided that, 'Hey, this is no good.' "
Atomics International dumped low-level material, including liquids, contaminated wipes, gloves, glassware and other equipment. But the refuse included some highly dangerous plutonium, according to a paper delivered by company officials at an AEC symposium in 1955.
Atomics International began the ocean dumping before moving to its plant at 6633 Canoga Ave. at the end of 1955. Previously it disposed of waste from experiments at its plant in Downey, where the firm operated California's first nuclear power reactor, a tiny test model, starting in 1952.
Although radioactive dumping by the United States virtually ended in 1962, it surfaced as a major environmental issue years later, leading to congressional hearings in 1976 and later.
According to information compiled at the time, at least 27 Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf Coast sites were designated for low-level wastes, but the waste dumped near the Farallons and at three Atlantic coast sites far exceeded the volume at all other sites combined. Virtually all environmental monitoring by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations has been done at these larger sites.
Studies have found measurable radioactivity at each of the sites, but "we didn't find any significant uptake of radioactive materials in any of the fish we sampled," said Bob Dyer, chief of environmental studies for the EPA office of radiation programs in Washington.
Similar conclusions have been reached by contract researchers for the California Department of Health Services, who have gathered fish samples near the Farallon Islands in the last few years.
"That's the key thing you want to know," Dyer said. "You want to know whether it's going up the food chain and getting into man, and there's no evidence of that."