Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 1/13/20- On Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kim and Kourtney welcomed Change.org petition starter and activist Melissa Bumstead into their home. The Kardashians live just miles away from the Santa Susana Field Lab, the toxic site that Melissa says gave her daughter and 50+ other children rare forms of cancer.
After Kourtney Kardashian discovered that the destructive 2018 Woolsey Fire was reported to have started at the Santa Susana Field Lab, she and her sisters started sharing Melissa’s Change.org petition calling for a full cleanup of the site. Since then, the Kardashians have been working with Mellisa and other community activists to get the attention of lawmakers who can force the issue of the cleanup. Melissa’s petition has over 700,000 signatures and continues to grow.
In the episode, Kim and Kourtney are shocked to learn that Melissa’s 9-year-old daughter is a two-time survivor of cancer. They vow to help fight for the cleanup and to meet with CA State Senator Henry Stern.
Melissa said of her experience working with the Kardashians:
“Kim and Kourtney were exceptionally attentive and genuine in their concern. Meeting with them gave us so much hope that we can and will win this campaign to protect all of our children.”
The Hollywood Times sat down with Melissa Bumstead to talk about her daughter, Grace and the Santa Susana Field Lab.
Share a bit about your upbringing. How did it eventually lead you to live near the Santa Susana Field Lab?
I grew up in Thousand Oaks, California, only five miles from the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL). But I never heard it mentioned even once. Not when I had a rare autoimmune disease, not even when my mom had a brain tumor. Locals who did know about it assumed it had already been cleaned and was safe to live by. NASA, the Department of Energy, and Boeing knew how dangerous it was, but they kept their secret as quiet as possible.
So when we had the opportunity to rent in West Hills we jumped at the chance. The schools were amazing, the area was convenient for my husband’s job, it was closer to our families, the police records showed low crime. It seemed like Utopia.
We had no idea that the SSFL existed.
Did you know about this lab when you moved in?
We had the chance to buy our first home in West Hills, after renting for two years. That was the first time I heard about the SSFL – I read about it in our mortgage paperwork. It was listed under the boilerplate text with all the other possible dangers we would accept by purchasing our house. I stopped and asked the woman helping us what the SSFL was. “Oh honey, that doesn’t bother anyone anymore.” I believe she was telling what she believed to be true, and so we purchased our home assuming it would be a safe community for our family.
When did you first see signs of danger?
My daughter was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of Leukemia (PH+ ALL) within one year of living in our home. Because we don’t have a family history of that cancer (few childhood cancers do), we assumed we just had bad luck. Because my daughter’s cancer was so aggressive, we spent months living at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) so she could get the intense chemotherapy she needed.
It was at the hospital we started meeting other families whose children were also in treatment. We recognized a girl from our local park. A family and their baby lived behind El Camino Real High school. We met Lauren and Hazel Hammersly at CHLA, who told us they lived in Simi Valley, only miles away, as the crow flies.
But childhood cancer is incredibly rare. About 15,000 new pediatric cancer patients are diagnosed in America every year… out of 72,000,000 children. Hypothetically, you’re not supposed to meet any other kids with cancer in your area. But I assumed we were in a fairly populated area and it was probably just a coincidence. I did everything I could to ignore the red flags. It was when we met another family who lived on our avenue that I panicked. I knew it was statistically impossible.
Local cancer parents and I began to map ourselves to see if we could find any links. It turns out we all lived less than 15 miles from one of America’s worst nuclear accidents, the Santa Susana Field Lab.
When did you know that in fact, your daughter had a rare form of cancer due to the negligence of Santa Susana Field Lab?
Ask any lawyer, and they’ll tell you it’s almost impossible to legally “prove” anyone’s cancer could be caused by environmental exposure. In order to say that Grace’s cancer was caused by the SSFL, we’d have to know exactly what carcinogenic chemical or radioactive particles she was exposed to. And the dates she was exposed to it. At what quantity, what dose, and over what period of time? Did she breathe it, eat it, or touch it?
We will never know that information because we don’t live in a laboratory, therefore we can’t legally prove her cancer was caused by the SSFL. Similarly, we can’t prove it’s a cancer cluster. Everyone would have to have the same type of cancer.
But research done on the SSFL shows a 60% higher cancer incidence rate for those living within 2 miles of the site (which was intentionally misrepresented by Boeing and spurred a letter from Dr. Hal Morgenstern to clarify). Another study showed that contamination does migrate off of the lab over EPA levels of concern. And as there are dozens of highly carcinogenic contaminants at the site, it makes sense that we see dozens of types of cancers.
But none of the studies and reports seem to matter to Boeing, NASA, and the Dept. of Energy. The burden of impossible proof has been laid on the backs of the people who’ve suffered harm from their negligence. Even though thousands of SSFL workers developed cancer from working on the site, it’s been incredibly difficult for them to receive assistance from the federal compensation program they’re entitled to simply because Boeing and the Dept. of Energy don’t play fair.
The impacted families who’ve sued and won settlements also took gag orders, such as the 11 families of pediatric retinoblastoma (eye cancer) in 2008. I can’t blame them, the medical bills are devastating and they should have compensation. But those gag orders silenced the same people whose cancers had the most obvious links to the contamination on the site. We had a big-shot lawyer from New York willing to represent the pediatric cancer parents I had just met, and myself until he heard we would refuse settlements because we would refuse gag orders. He stopped returning our calls and emails. But we won’t stop at anything until all our children are safe from the SSFL.
The government and corporations responsible don’t want to be held financially accountable for devastating generations of people’s lives. They don’t want to have to pay billions to clean up the site, though they agreed to in 2010. They’ll keep denying that the site is dangerous. They say we can’t prove the SSFL caused our children’s cancers, but they can’t prove it didn’t.
Describe that time. What did you do to try to warn others?
By nature, I’m a timid person who hates to rock the boat. When seven cancer moms and I went to a public meeting about the SSFL, I was squirming in my seat over the angry locals yelling at the apathetic Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) scientists.
I was convinced that scientists, especially government scientists, would never lie to the public. They would protect us. But after a three-hour presentation, they told us that all the data and statistics they shared were hypothetical because the “real information was too complicated for us.” They actually said that.
I went to the parking lot and almost threw up. I’m not a rocket scientist, but I know that no one gives a public meeting with hypothetical data unless they have something to hide.
My daughter was still in treatment at the time and the idea that the home we lived in may have exposed my daughter to the carcinogens that gave her cancer was too much for me. I decided to pretend nothing happened and to go on with our lives.
But while shopping at Target one day, I saw a bald baby. I had a full panic attack. I realized that kids would keep getting cancer from the site. I knew the truth. And I would be as guilty as Boeing, NASA and the Department of Energy if I kept their secret and allowed children to suffer because I was too afraid to try to do something about it. Especially if their cancers could be prevented if the site was cleaned up.
How did the Woolsey Fires increase the risk for people?
It has been kept pretty quiet that the Woolsey Fire started on the SSFL, and burned through 80% of the site. The fire was so devastating and it seems unfair that it additionally put our communities at increased risk of breathing carcinogenic or toxic air. It was another layer of pain that could have been prevented.
When the fire burned through the site it turned the SSFL’s 3,000 acres of vegetation into ash. We know that plants can absorb contamination. When the vegetation burned, it transferred the contamination from the site into the smoke and ash.
Not only were people and children at risk of breathing the contaminated air but once the Woolsey Fire was extinguished, that ash settled to the ground. And the following rains then moved the contaminated soil into the local neighborhoods, and into Los Angeles River. In fact, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board shared their water quality report just months after the fire – the contamination in the tested water was over the legal limits 57x! It wasn’t the first time Boeing has been fined for letting too much contamination from the SSFL reach the Los Angeles River, but it was the most exceedances for a short time period.
What angers me the most is that if the SSFL was 100% cleaned back in 2017, as stated in their legal agreements with the State of California, then the fire wouldn’t have the potential to spread incredibly dangerous contamination across the Ventura and Los Angeles counties. Lead, arsenic, cyanide, radioactive particles are only some of the contaminants that were measured over the legal levels, leaving the SSFL.
What is being done?
It seemed for a while that the cleanup would never happen. The Boeing Corporation, NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) were too powerful. But our change.org petition grew and as it did it empowered our communities and our elected officials.
Last year we saw lots of progress, though much of it were small, unassuming victories that laid the groundwork for this year. Much of that is due to the new leader of the CalEPA, Jared Blumenfeld, who has been a strong supporter of the cleanup agreements. Last month, both the Ventura County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to tell NASA they oppose its proposal to leave as much as 80% of its contamination not cleaned up, and that they want it to uphold its agreement to clean up all of its contamination.
Another victory happened when I went to Washington DC with Denise Duffield (Associate Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility- Los Angeles) and Simi Valley mom Jeni Knack. We advocated for the cleanup and helped our elected officials understand that the cleanup isn’t a political idea, but that the contamination is hurting real people. As a result, Senator Dianne Feinstein and eight California Congressmembers sent a letter to DOE, NASA, and CalEPA urging them to comply with agreements to fully clean up the lab.
How did the help of the Kardashians come into play?
During the Woolsey Fire, Kourtney Kardashian saw media coverage about the fire starting at the lab and public concern of heightened exposure to its contamination. She and her sister Kim Kardashian West lived near the SSFL and wanted to know more. They invited us to meet with them to learn the facts.
They’ve helped us get the word out through social media. They’ve contacted their elected officials and Kim talked with President Trump about the site and how it’s hurting children. They filmed our SSFL 60th Anniversary Memorial of the Meltdown, and let the world hear about Hazel on Keeping up with the Kardashians show. (Season 17, Episode 10). And they continue to lend support and encouragement. We’ve been truly blessed to have two smart, fierce mama bears, with a world-wide entourage, to stand with us and demand our children be protected from the contamination at the SSFL.
What do you want people to know about this situation? How can we help?
I truly believe that the power of people working together can overcome the greed and callousness of Boeing, NASA, and the DOE. Together we can demand the cleanup.
We’re at a critical junction. NASA announced last year that they intend to leave up to 80% of their toxic contamination at the SSFL by Summer this year if they’re not stopped. The Department of Energy and the Boeing Corporation plan to leave up to 98%, even though some of the world’s most dangerous radioactive material is still on site.
But part of the problem is that so few people know it exists. We don’t have a budget to advertise to all of Los Angeles, and even though we’ve been in the LA Times, local newspapers and on KUWTK, there are still people who’ve never heard of the site- or they assume they’re too far away to be affected. Hollywood is less than 20 miles away. Malibu is 10 miles away. Calabasas is 6 miles away. And we don’t have the means to tell them that as long as the SSFL remains contaminated, they will be at daily risk of being exposed to radioactive and carcinogenic contamination.
We need people willing to talk about the SSFL to anyone willing to listen. The easiest way for people to show their support and stay up-to-date is to add their name to our petition and help us get to 1 million signatures. We need people who won’t tire out when asked to send emails to their elected officials month after month. We need Boeing, NASA, and the DOE to do the right thing and honor their 2010 legal agreements for the 100% cleanup. We need a miracle.
Please share any additional thoughts.
Most people know that childhood cancer is horrible, and they think the worst part is when the child loses their hair. It turns out, that’s the easiest part.
It’s truly traumatizing for the child and their family. My daughter Grace was four when she was first diagnosed, and no matter how we tried, we couldn’t explain cancer in a way she could understand. I could hardly understand.
Once I watched helplessly as she thrashed in pain until she got morphine. The growing cancer cells in her bone marrow were about to break apart her arm from the inside out. She couldn’t eat or drink because of the blistering sores in her mouth and esophagus. An allergic reaction to chemo gave her pancreatitis and she wasn’t allowed to eat for two days until it resolved. Because of the severe pain, she became addicted to morphine. At four years old.
I still wake up in the middle of the night to find myself running to her room. In my sleep, I thought I heard her call for help like she used to at the hospital. The nerve damage from the chemo in her feet made her feel like she was stepping on glass, so I had to carry her to the bathroom, pulling her medical pole with a thousand beeping monitors with my other hand, as we rushed. She refused to go back to diapers, and I wanted to keep at least some of her free will intact, so I didn’t make her.
Once I paced the hallways with my friend Lauren Hammersly immediately after they recessistated her daughter from a pain medicine reaction. Grace and Hazel Hammersly became friends through their cancers. And there is no grief deep enough to express the pain my daughter experienced when Hazel died a few months later.
That is why we went to Washington DC. That’s why I share our family’s story and relive our trauma and PTSD over and over again. And Lauren shares Hazel’s story. We must help others see that we’re real people and not statistics.
Please share links so we can help.
- Our petition www.change.org/SantaSusana has over 700,000 signatures, we’re hoping to get to 1 million
- We have a Facebook Group Parents vs SSFL, we’re on Twitter and Instagram where we share the critical, and ever-changing actions needed to get the cleanup.
Parents vs Santa Susana Field Lab