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Life & Times Transcript

11/21/06


Coverage of Town Hall Los Angeles speakers on Life and Times is made possible by a grant from the Boeing Company.

Val Zavala>> Tonight on Life and Times --

It was the site of one of the worst nuclear accidents in United States history. Forty years later, they want to build hundreds of homes nearby.

Patricia Coryell>> There's just intuitively no sense in developing land within a mile and a half of the worst nuclear accident in the United States. What's next? Three Mile Island Resort? Chernobyl Shores? It doesn't make any sense.

Val Zavala>> And then, cameras on cell phones are capturing video of violent confrontations. Do they distort the truth or reveal it?

These stories and more on tonight's Life and Times.

Announcer>> Life and Times is made possible through the generous support of the L.K. Whittier Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life by supporting innovative endeavors in the fields of medicine, health, science and education.

And by a generous grant from Jim and Anne Rothenberg.

Val Zavala>> So you think Three Mile Island was the only nuclear meltdown in United States history? Well, then you haven't heard about the accident that happened at the Rocketdyne Laboratories here in southern California in 1959. Why does that matter? Because now one of the nation's largest homebuilders wants to build hundreds of home and apartments near that site. Hena Cuevas goes to Simi Valley to take a look at this high-stakes controversy.

Hena Cuevas>> Tucked between the hills overlooking Simi Valley is Runkle Canyon. It's surrounded by more than a thousand acres of something very valuable in Ventura County: undeveloped land. But a few months ago, a fence went up. Resident Patricia Coryell wondered if this was the long-anticipated development they'd heard about two years ago.

Patricia Coryell>> There were a lot of rumors at that time saying they may be putting a golf course in there, they may be putting a development in there, and I thought, okay, great. My property value will just benefit from that, so there was no concern then.

Hena Cuevas>> Coryell moved to Simi Valley less than five years ago. She had no idea at the time that the land was at the center of a serious environmental debate.

Patricia Coryell>> When I first moved to Simi Valley, I had never heard of Rocketdyne or the Santa Susana field lab. I knew nothing about it.

Hena Cuevas>> High above Runkle Canyon is Rocketdyne, the number one designer and producer of rocket engines in the nation.

[Film Clip]

Hena Cuevas>> Many of those engines were tested here at the Santa Susana field laboratory. When Coryell heard about Rocketdyne during a neighborhood meeting, she decided to do her own research.

Patricia Coryell>> I was horrified. I found out about the chemicals first.

Hena Cuevas>> For decades, environmental groups had charged that contaminants from all that testing had tainted the water and the soil. So is this a safe place for a development? KB Home is a Fortune 500 company, one of the largest homebuilders in the country. KB wants to build more than four hundred houses and apartments in Runkle Canyon. The question that residents are asking is what's going to happen when all that settled dirt is stirred up again?

But concerns about construction go beyond just wondering what may have seeped into the soil and into the water. The site is actually the location of one of the worst nuclear disasters in United States history. In 1959, there was a partial meltdown of one of the reactors and, forty years later, the lab is still in the process of an extensive cleanup which is costing billions of dollars.

The accident occurred inside this building. It's believed that more radioactive material was released here than at Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania that experienced a disastrous meltdown in 1978. So why did the city of Simi Valley agree to the construction? According to Councilwoman Barbara Williamson, when KB Home presented the project, it included a report which stated that the land was safe.

Barbara Williamson>> Ninety-nine percent of the time, I would think that when you're a developer and you're going to buy a piece of property, you do your due diligence before you buy it.

Hena Cuevas>> Williamson wonders if residents are really concerned about the contamination or if it's just a case of nimbyism, not in my back yard.

Barbara Williamson>> People, you know, live up in that area. It's open field, it's open space, and the last thing they want to see is houses built on it. I can't blame them. I guess I would be the same way, but it's our job to make sure that we have housing for everybody and not just the elite few and forget about it.

Patricia Coryell>> There is a lot of land in Simi Valley that can be developed that would not even be a question as to whether or not it was safe to develop. The risk here is that there are chemicals, that there is seepage. So why develop this land?

Hena Cuevas>> To get the word out, Coryell has set up a website, stoprunkledyne.com, a combination of Runkle and Rocketdyne.

Patricia Coryell>> I am not an Erin Brockovich wannabe, a tree hunger or an environmental activist. I've never been involved in anything like this before. When I found out actually about all of this information that I ultimately discovered, I really couldn't understand why Simi Valley was not up in arms.

Hena Cuevas>> So she decided to distribute flyers inviting all of the neighbors to the next City Council meeting with KB Home. Councilwoman Williamson says she was surprised to see so many people show up, especially since the issue had been discussed before.

Barbara Williamson>> I was probably one of the most upset council persons only because the residents were there kicking and screaming and saying there's a problem here. My only problem was where were you three and four years ago when we were doing the environmental document?

Hena Cuevas>> Nevertheless, there were enough questions raised by residents that the city agreed to delay construction and the council has asked three different government agencies to conduct additional tests.

Barbara Williamson>> What we did was, we outlined in the letter all the concerns that were brought forth not only by the residents, but by some of the newspaper articles that were being written.

Hena Cuevas>> She's talking about articles written by reporter, Michael Collins, for the Los Angeles City Beat. For the past eight years, he's covered Rocketdyne and Runkle Canyon.

Michael Collins>> Folks will say that somebody like me who reports on stuff like this has an agenda. I don't have an agenda. If there is a public health threat looming in southern California where I'm generally reporting right now, I want to get the word out as a newsman and not as an activist.

Hena Cuevas>> He's posted his articles as well as additional information on his website, EnviroReporter.com. So is the land a safe place to build hundreds of homes and apartments? That's the million dollar question. Last October, a report was released by the Santa Susana field laboratory advisory panel. The independent panel of citizens and scientists set up in the 1990s by the local government studies the impact of Rocketdyne on the surrounding areas.

Michael Collins>> They found that between sixty-five and eighteen hundred people got cancer from that specific meltdown event within a sixty-two mile radius of this property. I think it would behoove the state to do a much more in-depth epidemiological survey of this area.

Patricia Coryell>> What we would like is to have a full characterization done on Runkle Canyon of both the radioactive and the chemical profiles so that we can see what we're dealing with there. The fact of the matter is, at this point, we do not know.

Hena Cuevas>> What if something comes back in that report that shows that it's not safe to build on that particular site?

Barbara Williamson>> I know that this council person wouldn't approve to go forward and I have to believe that my colleagues would say no, we're not going forward. I mean, who would want to put anybody in harm's way?

Hena Cuevas>> KB Home turned down our request for an on-camera interview, but a parked bulldozer sits on the site waiting for the green light. And it's important to note that Rocketdyne continues to function, but it no longer conducts nuclear experiments. Is there anything in the agreement that allows the City Council to pull back out?

Barbara Williamson>> Oh, sure. I mean, let's face it. Even though we went forward and, say, we cleared the environmental document, I'm sure that if they have left something out of that environmental document, it gives us the wherewithal to go back and say, wait a minute. This isn't a clean environmental document.

Patricia Coryell>> There's just intuitively no sense in developing land within a mile and a half of the worst nuclear accident in the United States. What's next? Three Mile Island Resort? Chernobyl Shores? It doesn't make any sense.

Hena Cuevas>> For now, everyone is waiting to hear what the additional tests will reveal and, depending on the findings, either hundreds of families could be moving in or the land could remain as is, undeveloped and deceivingly peaceful. I'm Hena Cuevas for Life and Times.

Val Zavala>> So what do you think of the proposed development for Runkle Canyon? You can let us know by going to our Blog. Just go to kcet.org and click on the Life and Times Blog.

Announcer>> Kcet.org is the place to look for the very latest on Life and Times. You'll find previews of upcoming stories, plus transcripts and audio of past episodes and links to some of our most interesting features. Just go to kcet.org, scroll down the page and click on "Life and Times".

Val Zavala>> The proliferation of cameras on cell phones and other amateur video is adding new meaning to the term "citizen watchdog". A rash of videos has turned up lately showing some disturbing confrontations. Some of them are posted on the video website YouTube. One shows LAPD officers arresting a suspect.

[Film Clip]

Val Zavala>> And then came this tape of security guards at UCLA using a taser gun on a young man who didn't have his student ID.

[Film Clip]

Val Zavala>> That led to an investigation and protests by UCLA students. But do these videos show the whole truth? Do they bias the public against the police? And should police and institutions counter with their own video cameras?

For some answers, I talked to the President of the ACLU, Nadine Strossen. She was a guest recently at Town Hall Los Angeles. Nadine Strossen, as President of the ACLU, you have seen a lot of issues dealing with police brutality and now we're seeing more and more videotape pop up on YouTube, taken from cell phones. What kind of ramifications does this have for police and community relations?

Nadine Strossen>> Potentially, a very positive impact, Val, because we are able to document police abuse. You know the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Absent that kind of recording, usually in the old days, the police officers' word against the word of the alleged victim and it was very, very hard for victims to be taken seriously.

I have to say that recently here in California, we've seen the effective use of citizens videotaping through cameras and cell phones not only of what certainly appears to be police excess use of force, but also this is what led to the investigation of Kaiser Permanente for dumping homeless people from the hospital into Skid Row without any kind of supervision. A citizen activist happened to catch that and that also led to positive reforms.

The one cautionary note I would inject as a civil libertarian, we believe in due process and the presumption of innocence no matter who is accused, whether it be a police officer or whether it be an individual or a hospital. So we have to take, as I say, what appears to be excessive use of force. We have to hear the other side of the story, what was the context, and so forth. It is a very important piece of evidence, but it's certainly not conclusive.

Val Zavala>> Nevertheless, when you see what is no doubt a short clip that shows police beating up a person, them screaming they can't breath, or whatever, it certainly looks always very negative for the cops. It's really hard to just look at that and dispassionately say, well, you know, it could be a bad guy or whatever. So how do you counter that impression that goes out everywhere?

Nadine Strossen>> Well, unfortunately, the Los Angeles Police Department does have a very long history of violence and abuse and brutality as has been adjudicated by I believe a record number of lawsuits against this police department that have resulted in findings that there was indeed excessive use of force.

It is really important to put in context, though, that even in one individual case, just as that term "excessive use of force" implies, the police are entitled under the law to use whatever force is necessary to protect and preserve human life. So it's conceivable that, in a particular instance, what looks like obnoxious force to us might in fact be justified.

Even more importantly, despite the many documented cases where juries and judges and citizens commissions have concluded that there has been a disturbing pattern of undue violence not justified by the means of the situation, disproportionately targeting members of the minority communities, so there's a racism concern here as well.

Nonetheless, I believe that it's consistently been shown to be a relatively small number of individual police officers who are responsible for those violations. So I do think it is very important that we avoid guilt by association and remember that the vast majority of LAPD and other law enforcement officers are in fact doing their jobs within the bounds of the law.

Val Zavala>> Nevertheless, as amateur video is going to increase, we're going to see more instances of it. Could it in effect be revealing that there are more police who do abuse their power?

Nadine Strossen>> That's a very good point. We may simply not have enough information to draw conclusions. However, we have to be careful of that, the episodic coincidental use of videos. Maybe one of the things to do is to have more systematic monitoring.

For example, I know at least some police departments around the country have required to have video cameras installed in the police cars themselves so that every time the police interact with citizens, at least from the base of the car, it is documented and we don't get a disproportionate sense, either under-counting or over-counting. It's really important for us to have that kind of information in fairness to the citizens, the members of the community and in fairness for the law enforcement officers themselves.

Val Zavala>> So in a sense, if video expands and the police start using it more and more often, than you won't have this he said-she said, he said-they said. It will all just be on video and that could be a really good thing.

Nadine Strossen>> And I have to point out, Val, that it's complicated because there is a down side to government monitoring citizens that doesn't exist, in my view, when citizens monitor government, right? As the first three words in the Constitution say, "We the people" are the government. It's a different thing, however, to say that government officials, including police officers, should always be monitoring citizens.

We have privacy rights that are violated when, as 1984, that famous novel by George Orwell warned us, Big Brother is watching. There's a down side to people knowing that they only go out in public in peril at having every movement, every interaction, even what they're reading, signs that they're holding and cameras are so powerful that they can pick those up.

That has a very negative impact on the privacy and freedom of movement of people in our society. So we have to recognize that these tools are a double edged sword when it comes to improving the lives of individuals in our democracy and their rights. We have to have very deliberative policies about when they do more good than harm.

Val Zavala>> So if the police decide to fight back, in a sense, against all this amateur video by putting video cameras in all the police cars, they're not really doing that to monitor the public. They're doing that to monitor their own officers, which is a good thing.

Nadine Strossen>> I would say, yes, we have to evaluate all the facts and circumstances with respect to a particular use of a video camera. I would say that it's not necessarily bad or it's not necessarily good. It all depends certainly if it is mounted in a way where the main target of surveillance is police interaction with citizens. I think that's certainly on balance and extremely positive to enforce compliance with the law when the police interact with members of the community.

It's a very different thing if we move to what is very ubiquitous in Britain and becoming more so in certain cities in the United States, such as Washington, D.C., which is cameras in all public places. Every street corner, every traffic light, every public building. There I think the chilling effect on individual freedom and privacy outweighs any alleged counter-balancing law enforcement benefits.

Val Zavala>> Nadine Strossen was a guest of Town Hall Los Angeles. If you'd like more information on future speakers and events, you can go to their website at townhall-la.org.

Announcer>> To send a comment or a question to our program, you can reach us by mail at this address:

Life and Times
4401 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, California 90027

You can also call our viewer comment line (323) 953-5555) or contact us the fast way by e-mail at kcet.org.

Val Zavala>> I'm out here in San Bernardino in front of a typical suburban home, but what goes on behind this house is anything but typical and you can get your first hint of that from the truck in the driveway.

Stepping inside Tony Finazzo's shop is like walking into a one-room zoo. You'll see everything here from fish to pheasants, from big game to small birds. But how can animals that are clearly past their prime look so good?

Tony Finazzo>> Taxidermy means "moving skin". It's an old Greek term. Taxi is movement and dermis is skin.

Val Zavala>> Tony won't say it outright, but in the world of taxidermy, he's a star. He's won numerous national competitions and he's judged them too. Do people in your profession ever say "stuff"? You probably hate that (laughter).

Tony Finazzo> (Laughter) Occasionally we'll say "stuff". You know, when people don't understand what mounted means, I'll say, "Well, I'm a taxidermist." "Well, what's that? Do you do taxes?" "No, I mount animals." "Well, what do you mean, you mount animals?" "Well, I stuff things (laughter)."

Val Zavala>> And if anyone knows the difference between a mediocre job and an exceptional one, Tony does.

Tony Finazzo>> A good taxidermy mount will look like it's alive. It'll have some lifelikeness. It may have a little bit of animation going on, movement.

Val Zavala>> What do you mean, movement? It's odd to say that taxidermy would have movement.

Tony Finazzo>> Well, like instead of standing stiff-legged and just being a rigid, dead animal, he's portrayed like he's walking. You can get crazy with it. When you talk about bad taxidermy, you see the duck on the wall where the wings are in a position that the duck could not possibly get into.

Val Zavala>> A couple of times a year, he holds workshops for aspiring taxidermists. He showed me the basics of mounting a duck.

Tony Finazzo>> What we do is make an incision and I'll use the mannequin to show you. We make an incision from the front of the breast down to the anus and that's the only cut or opening that you make in the bird. Then the skin is peeled to the sides and then the tail is cut off and peeled down the back. Then the legs are removed at that joint and the wings are removed at this joint.

Val Zavala>> Taxidermists can't use the real duck's head because the muscles and the bill shrink up, so they use an artificial one.

Tony Finazzo>> You can see that it's nice and smooth, the shape of a bill before it shrinks, and all the muscle and everything is sculpted back into it. Then eye sockets are put in for the glass eyes.

Val Zavala>> The heads are artificial, but when it comes to feet, it's the real thing.

Tony Finazzo>> What I've done is taken them off of the bird. It's cut around the feather line from the feet and then they're injected to preserve them and to keep the fullness and plumpness of the mount so the feet don't shrink up. Because they have to be painted, it's easier if you take them off, paint them and then put them back together again when you mount the bird.

Val Zavala>> Tony's training started in a public library when he was only fifteen. He and his dad had gone hunting and Tony wanted to get a bird mounted, so he asked his dad who said they couldn't afford it.

Tony Finazzo>> He said, "I'll take you to a library. You can study some books and you can do it yourself." He said, "I've seen taxidermy books and it's not that hard."

Val Zavala>> Forty-five years later, Tony knows these animals' anatomy like a cardiologist knows a heart, inside and out. He actually designed the originals of these mannequins that are used by taxidermists across the country.

Tony Finazzo>> Like I make four different sizes of Mallard bodies in my line.

Val Zavala>> And while you or I would call all these deer, Tony knows better.

Tony Finazzo>> That's an Elk, that's a Caribou. These two here and the top one are Mule Deer. This one is a little Black-tail Deer, coastal Black-tail, and that's a White-tail up there and that's a Pronghorn Antelope.

Val Zavala>> Now are you a hunter yourself?

Tony Finazzo>> Yes, I am. That's probably my favorite thing to do.

Val Zavala>> And are any of these yours?

Tony Finazzo>> Yeah, all of these.

Val Zavala>> All of these?

Tony Finazzo>> These here are all mine. This is something that most taxidermists don't get to mount. It's illegal for private individuals to possess them or illegal for taxidermists to mount them without a permit.

Val Zavala>> You mean hawks and owls?

Tony Finazzo>> Hawks, owls, raptors, songbirds, anything like that. Anything that's not a game bird, it's illegal to possess. This was done under permit for the Cabazon band of Mission Indians at Cabazon. It most likely was electrocuted. A lot of hawks die that way.

Val Zavala>> This display of three Chuckers is one of Tony's favorite. It won first prize in a national competition. Now why do you think that won first place?

Tony Finazzo>> The judge liked them (laughter). You know, you can do something and do it the best you can and where you think it's really good, but a judge just doesn't like it for one reason or another, and you just don't do well with it. Other times, you think, well, you know, it's got a lot of things wrong with it. You enter it in a competition, the judge loves it and you get all the awards.

Val Zavala>> Look at this one. Look at the crest on this one.

Tony Finazzo>> That's called a Timmick Tragapan. That one there is pen-raised. Originally, they're from the Himalayas, Nepal.

Val Zavala>> Are you a birdwatcher as well?

Tony Finazzo>> Not really, no. I tend to want to shoot them.

Val Zavala>> Is there any animals that you've gotten that you wouldn't do, couldn't do, didn't want to do?

Tony Finazzo>> Well, logistically, you know, I wouldn't want to do an elephant. I mean, I could. The process is all the same. It's just that you'd need a lot more help to just move the skin. The skin would weigh a whole lot. I don't care to do conventional mounts on pets like large dogs and stuff. With the dogs and cats and things, you're much better off if they're freeze-dried because it will look more like that pet.

If you take a deer, for example, and you mount it correctly and the anatomy is correct, it's going to look like a deer. But a pet that you're used to seeing every day, they have their own personality. They may be a little wider in the jowl or a little snippier. If you do it with a conventional form, it may be a Labrador Retriever, but it doesn't have that same personality as the one that you're mounting.

Val Zavala>> Tony retired as a high school teacher and football coach only to take up taxidermy full-time. Now at age sixty, he has more customers than he can handle. What's your wife think of this whole enterprise?

Tony Finazzo>> My wife just tolerates it. That's about all I can say (laughter). She comes out and shakes her head and says, "I just can't believe this mess."

Val Zavala>> Okay, so it can be a little messy, but that doesn't seem to bother Tony Finazzo. So how long are you going to be doing this?

Tony Finazzo>> Well, I probably won't ever retire from it. I'll probably be doing it the day before I croak (laughter).

Val Zavala>> And what will happen to Tony Finazzo, dedicated taxidermist, after he "croaks"? Let's not even go there. From the home of Tony Finazzo, San Bernardino taxidermist, I'm Val Zavala. For everyone at Life and Times, thanks for watching. We'll see you next time.

Announcer>> Life and Times was made possible through the generous support of the L.K. Whittier Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life by supporting innovative endeavors in the fields of medicine, health, science and education.

And by a generous grant from Jim and Anne Rothenberg.

 

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