Devil's Gate Dam
Crews removed about 5,000 cubic yards of dirt from the base of Devil's Gate Dam at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works released a draft environmental impact report in October 2013 that outlined five possible options for removing large amounts of sediment that built up in the basin after the 2009 Station fire and the storms that followed. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / September 18, 2013)

Last week, Tiffany Kelly reported on community concerns about a proposed five-year-long project to remove debris and mud above Devil’s Gate Dam.

Kelly reported that neighbors have said that the project “could be environmentally destructive and affect the health of a neighborhood that includes several schools.”

The real concern is not the traffic, not the dirt and not some imaginary worry about “the environment.” The elephant in the room is cancer.

As a La Cañadan, I adore JPL. I’m in favor of space exploration. I love technology. I am in favor of the future. But we must remember that in 1997, JPL was sued by neighbors who alleged that “the lab's past chemical disposal practices caused cancer in dozens of local residents.” (Riccardi, “JPL's Toxic Waste Caused Cancer, Suit Says” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 23, 1997.) Many of the plaintiffs (or their deceased relatives) had been students at St. Bede School. Others lived in neighborhoods served by a specific water company.

JPL has been a Superfund cleanup site since 1992 as result of “former site activities, chemicals, primarily volatile organic compounds (VOC) and perchlorate (a component of solid rocket fuel), used at JPL [that] have been released to soil and groundwater.” (Report, “Public Health Assessment Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA) Pasadena, Los Angeles County, California.”)

In defending the St. Bede case, JPL argued that there was no proof of causation. The issue of causation, both in law and in science, is subject to presumptions. How do you prove that one case of cancer is caused by the groundwater contamination when JPL is lower in elevation? How do you prove that the contaminants flowed upward?

The plaintiffs responded that when it rained, the water level rose and the groundwater above JPL was polluted by cancer-causing contaminants. La Cañadans drank that tap water. They bathed in it. What else could explain unusual clusters of rare cancers on the same street?

The St. Bede case quietly settled. It settled with a confidentiality agreement.

Meanwhile, over in Altadena, the Lincoln Avenue Water Company and some of their customers made the same claim, that there were cancer clusters in their neighborhoods. Once again, the argument was about causation: whether the VOCs stayed down in the arroyo near JPL or, when it rained, flowed up to a higher elevation and out to the neighborhoods.

A lot of La Cañadans dismissed the Altadena claims. Altadena, after all, is not La Cañada.

In 1999, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded that "because the past levels of human exposure to perchlorate are unknown...the site should be assigned to the Indeterminate Public Health Hazard category for potential past human exposures to perchlorate in drinking water." The agency also found that there was no apparent public health hazard for "past, present, and potential future human exposure to VOC-contaminated groundwater processed for drinking water and surface soils or soil gases." (Report, “Public Health Assessment Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA) Pasadena, Los Angeles County, California.”) The report did not address a five-year excavation of Devil's Gate.

The point here is not to bash JPL, but to note the legitimate concerns about the proposed five-year cleanup project. Common sense tells us that the soil that is removed is likely to be dangerous. The agency study agreed that children are more susceptible, but failed to record the presence of summer day camps.

Our concern in 2013 is not causation of damages in the past, but prevention of possible harm in the future. This is not about inconvenience of excavation trucks on our roads between 2014 and 2019, but about the risk to the children. Once the project begins, will the arroyo be off-limits to kids? What will be the safeguards? Have additional studies been completed?

Let’s address these issues openly. We have a legitimate interest in preserving the good lives that we have, right here in La Cañada.
ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @anitabrenner.