In the Dark of the Valley exemplifies how an actual grassroots movement and campaign can be given life and develop. It is a compelling account of the all-too-familiar smashup between mistreated citizens seeking a fair outcome and the power an opposition formed by a strong interrelationship between major corporations and governmental agencies (at all levels) can bring to bear to resist.
The film is a three-hour MSNBC Films documentary about the initially undisclosed, then denied extreme and deadly multi-source contamination of a huge area in the foothills adjacent to several Greater Los Angeles communities from Simi Valley on the north to Chatsworth and West Hills to the east. The sources of the danger come from radioactive waste and toxic rocket fuel contamination
This site, known as the Santa Susana Field Lab, has been in the news multiple times. The latest came as a result of first, one mother, then several more, who bumped into each other at LA Children’s Hospital and discovered they all lived near each other and each had a young child suffering from various forms of cancer.
Reluctant but Persistent Leader
One mother who has persisted for years is Melissa Bumstead, a reluctant leader. Her story provides the heartfelt thread for the film. I was moved by the personal growth that she has made as she has responded to the challenges of the powerful resistance by a combination of well-funded corporations with strong ties to federal and state agencies.
On one side, there is a protest movement built with a mix of highly motivated citizens (the parents) and a variety of private and NGO experts who provide substantial support (data, comradery).
The face of the other side is made up of Boeing and NASA, the heirs responsible for the cleanup of the outcome of numerous serious nuclear accidents and years of testing rocket engines. Behind the face, however, are connections Boeing and NASA have to relevant governmental oversight agencies.
The film helps us see how high-dollar private interests and governments at all levels can form a powerful barrier, a power that is weakened by exposure. The ultimate decision-makers so far remain hidden, out of sight, and out of reach of those directly impacted. Like the Wizard of Oz, they hid behind a curtain. But they are all life-sized, despite what might be in their minds.
As the documentary shows, every corridor that leads to the key figures is monitored and controlled. If they feel any threat, they shut things down. So far, the opposition has managed to keep one step ahead of the protest group.
Nuclear Meltdowns Unreported
The site chosen, an obvious problem as it is close to communities, was not the recommended site. It was picked because employees would have a shorter commute.
The first issue was a nuclear meltdown in 1959 that was described to the public as something far less threatening at the time. It was never officially termed a meltdown, but it was. One report said the amount of radioactive iodine released was several times that of Three Mile Island (EnviroReporter.com).
The danger arose because this plant was an experiment; it did not have a dome to capture the particles while things cooled down. It also was not well managed.
This was a classic shame-based choice: Glowing reports of success at this breakthrough enhanced reputations, something the meltdown if exposed would have destroyed.
This actually applies to the entire peacetime atomic energy program. Every effort is made to mask the glow of radiation contamination by a supposed glow of success.
As one physician from the area pointed out, talking about half-lives is misleading. The issue is how long a period is there that the radioactive material remains dangerous, which is many times the initial half-life.
It was a full 20 years later before a class project happened to turn up the truth. In the two decades of silence prior to the discovery, a number of additional mistakes and accidents occurred.
Since the discovery, these local residents, along with allied experts, have made several major efforts to obtain a thorough cleanup for the site. These efforts have failed. These failures meant that the Woolsey fire of 2018 yielded a potentially massive spread of the mix of toxic pollutants over a huge area.
The citizens’ goal of the cleanup has been to have it done deeply and thoroughly enough to ensure that regular runoffs and flooding do not continue to spread the toxins over a larger area.
Boeing and NASA Skirt Responsibilities
The documentary details the clever schemes by Boeing and NASA, aided by quiet alliances with the federal and state governments, to avoid the huge costs associated with the needed cleanup.
Inhumane Attitude Toward Children
The fact that the deadly illnesses are falling on the most vulnerable—children—reveals how callous and inhumane the institutional leaders are in making those decisions to resist the level of cleanup necessary to reduce the risk for those living within range of the danger.
The natural human instinct is to protect children. We are hardwired for this. Developmental neuroscience today has documented that the child’s brain is developed by the interaction between parent and child, meaning this is a complex, powerful bond.
From birth forward, the parent-child relationship serves as the force of how a full human being is created; it is at the center of all the relationships that exist in the human family. It is a survival issue: Each child is the future of the species and the healthier the child, the healthier the species.
This is a holistic, fully integrated perspective; all aspects of humanness are bound up here, whether the perspective is biological, psychological, sociological or spiritual (the transcendent perspective, independent from any specific religious point of view).
Boeing and NASA Have a Lot to Lose Image-Wise
The fact that Boeing and NASA want to save money by doing the least possible is, of course, extremely shameful, and this is why they have fought hard to hide their agenda.
As one example, the documentary covered these institutions’ successful efforts to make what was billed as a public hearing into a one-sided presentation by literally getting the community group of citizens and experts kicked out of the meeting by security guards. No one was acting in a disruptive or threatening manner.
But both Boeing and NASA should be wary of the fallout from this.
Why? Well, Boeing continues to struggle to get past the horrific image of being a corporation that pushed a flawed airplane (the Boeing 737 Max) into service without adequate safeguards and testing purely for profit. When the plane began crashing and killing hundreds and hundreds of people, they strongly resisted taking responsibility by blaming pilots and did not immediately ground the airplane until the problem was thoroughly understood and corrected.
Boeing’s evasion of responsibility for the cleanup is just more of the same.
NASA today is working hard to regain its position as the public’s official No. 1 space flight agency in the world. The private programs, starting with SpaceX, have been far more successful recently at moving things forward.
NASA, in its quest for field domination, has been sending enticing e-mails filled with stories of new hires and descriptions of the planning and preparation under way for new adventures to the moon and Mars, building an audience of younger candidates for the work and for the long-term, much needed public support.
Its unwillingness to join in, if not take the lead, of this cleanup easily could become a huge black mark for the Greta Thunberg generation that NASA is attempting to woo.
In addition, the spiritual and holistic responses that astronauts have had over the years to see a more perfect earth when viewed from hundreds of miles high is a sharp and immediate contrast with the base, insensitive attitude seen in this setting.
Some Needed Improvements
There are a few things that need to be fixed or further developed to spread the impact of this documentary.
- The sound mixing was at points exceptionally bad. In several places, the music made the spoken words inaudible. Even when a single person was being interviewed it was nearly impossible to understand. A top audio person or a good studio is worth finding. Crowdsourcing might be possible to pay for this.
- The film could easily be 12 hours and still not include all that is relevant. But three hours for one movie is too long. It could be either shortened or, preferably, broken into two segments. That also would set the stage for additional films along this issue.
- Finally, a companion study guide would be useful that contains all the information and data mentioned in the documentary..
Like most things that draw widespread attention, there are those that aim to push back against the grounds for these personal and environmental disasters, some claiming there was no meltdown or that the release of radioactive waste happened in a controlled, non-dangerous fashion. However, several reports and studies have documented the extent of this tragedy (see www.ssflpanel.org).