Wrong way to hype an investigative story


NBC 4 has worked up a pretty good set of stories and website array about the Santa Susana Field Lab environment situation in the Simi Hills west of Chatsworth. They cover the angles the media usually hit when reporting on the former Rocketdyne facility: early rocket testing, late 1950s nuclear mishap, ongoing controversy over environmental cleanup, suspicions of the locals that health is affected. Pretty familiar stuff to anyone who has consumed the local news over the last, oh, 35 years or so. Plus some refreshing of the data and the personal anecdotes.

Though Santa Susana was never really a secret place, with thousands of workers and regular news stories, the first big TV news reveal on the environmental legacy of the former Rocketdyne installation came in a 1979 series — by future KCRW stalwart Warren Olney and producer Pete Noyes — that aired on — KNBC 4. I used the original Channel 4 series, clips from the LA Times and the Daily News, and other sources for the section on the lab in my book on the San Fernando Valley more than a decade ago. The subject remains in the news because of the government's ongoing efforts to bring about environmental cleanup, continued unhappiness by some neighbors, and the work of activists like Dan Hirsch and journalist Michael Collins, among others. In 2009, I posted here about media outlets doing 50th anniversary stories about the partial nuclear meltdown that is the most hot-button event to go down at Santa Susana.

Even so, the new "investigation" by Joel Grover is packaged as…LA's Nuclear Secret. That's regrettable. Down deep in the web materials they do give credit to the 1979 series by Olney and Noyes.

You don't have to assume all past stories are remembered by everyone. That would be silly in a city where a lot of people probably don't remember that Richard Riordan was mayor or that Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. Just don't pretend it's a secret you are uncovering.

Anyway…for those to whom it is new...from the set-up:

Tucked away in the hills above the San Fernando and Simi valleys was a 2,800-acre laboratory with a mission that was a mystery to the thousands of people who lived in its shadow. In a place called Area IV of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), there was a secret collaboration between the U.S. government and private companies to test the limits of nuclear power.

For decades, scientists and staff at SSFL experimented with new types of nuclear reactors, advanced rocket systems and futuristic weapons. While this research helped launch Americans into space and provided a better understanding of nuclear power, years of mishandling dangerous radioactive materials and chemicals has also left a toxic legacy for generations of people living near the site. The scientists are now gone, but acres and acres of radioactive and chemical contamination remains right above the neighborhoods of thousands.

The NBC4 I-Team spent a year investigating the story of the Santa Susana Field Lab. Our work involved interviews with whistleblowers, an intense review of more than 15,000 pages of government, academic and corporate documents, and interviews with dozens of community members, experts and public officials. We now know these families have been living in the shadow of one of the nation’s worst nuclear disasters in history and for the first time, NBC4 is revealing LA’s Nuclear Secret.

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