By Johnny Dodd
“Pediatric cancer is rare — you’re not supposed to have neighbors whose children also have it,” says Melissa Bumstead, who “knew I had to do something”
Melissa Bumstead made a terrifying discovery in 2014 as her four-year-old daughter Grace lay in a hospital bed battling a rare form of leukemia. While keeping vigil at the Los Angeles medical center where Grace was receiving treatment, Bumstead began meeting the parents of more than 50 children with equally rare cancers and was horrified to learn that they all lived near one another.
“I just kept meeting people who lived down the corner or around the block or behind the high school,” she tells PEOPLE during an interview in this week’s issue. “And that’s when the panic started to set in.”
Even more alarming, Bumstead soon learned that all their homes were located in a circle around a 2,850-acre former top-secret rocket engine and nuclear energy test site—built in 1947—that had long been contaminated with radioactive waste and toxic chemicals.
While caring for her daughter, whose acute lymphoblastic leukemia has been in remission since a bone marrow transplant five years ago, Bumstead and her group — Parents Against the Santa Susana Field Lab — has pressured California state officials to enforce a 2007 cleanup agreement, scheduled to have been completed in 2017, that they say has remained stalled. That agreement, among other things, called for the removal of contaminated topsoil that residents allege gets blown from the site into surrounding communities by high winds or washed offsite during rains.
Since 2015 Bumstead has immersed herself in scientific studies on the site, testifying at countless public meetings, launching a Facebook page (now with nearly 5,000 members) and creating a change.org petition on the issue (that has attracted over 750,000 signatures).
“It was frightening,” says Bumstead, who is featured in the 2021 documentary In The Dark of the Valley, “to read studies about how adults who lived within two miles from the lab had a 60 percent higher cancer rate than those living more than five miles away or that over 1,500 former workers at the site received federal compensation after being diagnosed with cancer.”
Even more frightening for Bumstead was learning that the lab was the location of one of the nation’s largest — and least known — nuclear accidents that occurred 1959 when one of the facility’s ten sodium nuclear reactors experienced a partial meltdown, releasing enormous amounts of radiation into the surrounding environment.