This Earth Day my family won’t be enjoying the outdoors together. Instead, I’ll be protesting Boeing’s decision to lead an Earth Day hike through the contaminated fields of the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL), the toxic site which may have given my daughter and at least fifty other children cancer.
Millions of Angelinos’s lives are at risk of being exposed to the carcinogenic contaminants found on this 60 year-old nuclear and rocket testing site, yet Boeing is inviting families to explore it, at ground zero, on Earth Day. This is unconscionable.
I grew up hiking through the rolling hills of Thousands Oaks and camping by the beach. My husband and I planned to raise our children to love the outdoors as much as we did until Grace, my four year-old daughter, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of leukemia. We traded catching butterflies for hiding from germs in the confines of a hospital room, just so she could survive.
Childhood cancer in America is rare, so I was in disbelief when we met another child with cancer who lived across town the first week my daughter was diagnosed. Soon after I met Bailey, whose mom recognized my daughter from the park near our home. Then Hazel, who lived just over the hills. Bailey and Hazel both went through treatment the same time as my daughter. Grace survived, but her friends both passed away. Bailey was two. Hazel was seven.
As I kept meeting more local children fighting cancer I began to panic. I reached out to other cancer parents and we began documenting our children. As our map grew to fifty-four children we realized that all of our families circled the Santa Susana Field Lab. It was the first time I had heard of the facility.
The Santa Susana Field Lab began operation in the late 1940s as a nuclear and rocket testing facility. In 1959 it experienced what is now considered to be one of the worst nuclear meltdowns in U.S. history. A million gallons of trichlorethylene (TCE) seeped into the soil and groundwater. Hazardous waste was burned in open air pits. Plutonium-239, radium-226 and uranium-235 were on site. These are some of the most carcinogenic materials on Earth, but they were knowingly mishandled, even when it put their own workers and the families who lived below the hill at risk.
Today, half a million people live within ten miles of the site, now owned primarily by the Boeing Corporation. But Boeing has broken legal promises and has resisted the cleanup at every step. They have greenwashed their efforts with a campaign to protect the contaminated flora and fauna found on the land. But the worst of all, they continue to host annual Earth Day hikes on the site. Along the trail they praise the scrub oaks and wildlife but they never mention the horrific contamination just below the topsoil.
Boeing is willing to risk the health of these hikers because a PR campaign is less expensive than remediation. They are willing to put children like my daughter at risk of cancer because their shareholders matter more to them.
My daughter had just turned four when she was diagnosed with an exceptionally rare and aggressive form of leukemia.
Her treatment required up to ten times the regular amount of chemotherapy and we spent over one hundred days living in the hospital that first year. She became so weak she couldn’t walk, and her mouth and GI tract were covered in painful lesions, yet she tried to laugh and play the best she could.
When Grace relapsed a year and a half later we spent five months inpatient, two of which were in extreme isolation in the ICU ward after full body radiation and a bone marrow transplant. Grace spent her days vomiting bile, connected to half a dozen monitors and medicine pumps, addicted to morphine. I stayed by her side for days at a time. Night and day blended together. Once I opened her door and was shocked to realize there was a hallway beyond it. I went outdoors and realized I had forgotten what birds sounded like.
I couldn’t sleep at nights knowing that other children were also at risk so I started a Change.org petition demanding that the Department of Toxic Substances finally require Boeing, NASA and the Dept. of Energy to 100% cleanup the field lab. We’ve collected over 600,000 signatures and hundreds of comments from people with experiences similar to that of my family.
I still feel sick every time I’m confronted with Boeing’s shameless hypocrisy, as they try to portray themselves as nature conservationists while they prepare to leave up to 98% of the carcinogenic and toxic waste on site permanently. That’s not protecting nature.
Our children deserve to be protected too. “They’re children,” I often scream in my mind, “for God’s sake, they’re just kids. Why won’t they protect our kids?”
That’s why I am bewildered that Boeing would be willing to take families hiking on ground zero as part of their greenwashing campaign. They understand the danger that these people will be unknowingly be exposed to – carcinogens in the soil, dust, and even in the pollen of the plants.
It’s hard to describe the pain of watching your child fight cancer twice, knowing that it might have been prevented. That’s why local cancer parents and myself will continue to tear down mountains with our bare hands, if that’s what it takes to protect children from the contamination that Boeing refuses to acknowledge.
Nature has been defiled. Our children's’ childhoods tainted or lost. Our community broken. It’s time for Boeing to actually protect nature by completely remediating all of the Santa Susana Field Lab.