Detail of Indian pictographs on the Santa Susana Field Laboratory property. (Markes, Julie, For The Times )
The Chumash tribe has expressed interest in buying a 450-acre slice of a contaminated nuclear research facility in the hills between the Simi and San Fernando valleys, hoping to preserve a cave that its members consider sacred.
The tribe's inquiries about acquiring part of the 2,849-acre Santa Susana Field Laboratory have stirred concern among some residents who fear the purchase might be a back door to building a casino.
"I very much respect their desire to protect sacred sites but I want to make sure any such action precludes the establishment of a casino," Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks said.
Sam Cohen, government affairs and legal officer for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash, said there is no possibility of a casino on the property. The tribe wants to protect a swath of land that includes the Burro Flats Painted Cave, which is decorated with some of the best preserved Native American pictographs in California.
"If the tribe owns the land, we'll be in the best position to protect sacred sites," Cohen said.
Parks questioned whether the Chumash, a sovereign nation like other federally recognized tribes, would be bound by the elaborate cleanup agreement orders that apply to the portion of the sprawling facility that they are seeking.
Most of the lab site is owned by Boeing, which purchased it when the company acquired Rocketdyne in 1996. Boeing has not signed on to a 2010 cleanup plan with state regulators, but under the plan, NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy have promised to remove tainted soil and pollutants from the areas they control by 2017.
The Painted Cave is on NASA land.
Listed in 1976 on the National Register of Historic Places, Burro Flats has long been recognized for its archaeological significance. Perhaps as long as 1,000 years ago, Native American groups used the cave for rituals. Its walls are lined with paintings, including stick-figure animals and cornstalk-like plants. On the first day of winter, a shaft of light illuminates a design resembling a target; some researchers believe it was used in a ceremony marking the winter solstice.
Established in 1947, the secretive lab tested liquid propellants for rocket engines. In 1957, one of America's first commercial nuclear power plants was built at the site, generating electricity for nearby Moorpark. In 1959, that plant was also the site of America's first partial nuclear meltdown — an accident revealed only decades later. Over the years, the lab generated toxic and radioactive wastes that neighbors blamed for cancer and other illnesses.
Even amid testing of about 30,000 rocket engines, the area around the cave was not damaged. Tight security kept visitors away. Over the years, NASA has admitted closely escorted groups of Native Americans "for ceremonial purposes," but such treks have become increasingly rare, said Merrilee Fellows, a NASA spokeswoman.
Although decades of security have helped preserve the cave's painted images, Cohen said, the tribe fears the effects of possible cleanup measures, including one he described as "scraping the site clean."
Officials say such fears are unfounded.
"We've heard hyperbole being kicked around about scraping the top off the mountain and it's not remotely accurate," said Rick Brausch, who is directing the cleanup for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.
Scientists are still gauging the scope of contamination on the NASA-controlled property, he said. Some of the cleanup will involve carting off truckloads of soil. Other methods have not yet been determined.
"We don't even think there's contamination in that particular area" of the cave, Brausch said. "If there were, we'd design a strategy that wouldn't destroy the resource."
Regardless of whether the land changes hands, the cleanup will proceed, officials said.
The federal General Services Administration has deemed the NASA portion of the lab "excess" property, indicating its willingness to sell. Last month, the Bureau of Indian Affairs told the agency that the tribe was interested in mounting a bid. No price has been disclosed.
Cohen said the tribe might collaborate with other Native American groups to build a cultural center.
He said the tribe would not seek to make the land part of its reservation — a legal requirement for tribal gambling operations. The Chumash have met stiff opposition in their attempt to annex 1,400 acres just down the road from their tiny Santa Ynez reservation. Neighbors fear the tribe will erect a casino on the property, a scenario the tribe denies.