TOPANGA – Armed with his video camera, William Preston Bowling has stood on the sidelines of countless public meetings over the past year, recording the angry, sometimes boring, but always controversial debate over the Santa Susana Field Lab. Using emotional interviews of cancer survivors and footage of flames devouring the old Rocketdyne lab buildings during a wildfire last September, the Topanga resident, real estate agent and aspiring documentary filmmaker has tried to stir up debate over the massive cleanup at the former nuclear research and rocket engine testing facility. His first short film – “H2oh No!” – introduced viewers to the Santa Susana Field Lab in the hills between Chatsworth and Simi Valley, and recounted recent findings of radioactive tritium in the groundwater at the lab. Tonight, he’s screening his second 10-minute film, “Afterburner: The Fire at Rocketdyne,” based on neighbors’ concerns that the Topanga Fire released contamination into the air as buildings, soil and vegetation burned. Typing the words “nuclear” and “cancer” in an Internet search engine, he came across a site that mentioned Topanga. “I said, Wait a minute; I live in Topanga.” He read about the Santa Susana Field Lab and the partial nuclear meltdown that took place there in 1959. Attorneys investigating the site for a lawsuit estimated the meltdown released 260 times the amount of radiation that escaped during the incident at Three Mile Island near Middletown, Pa., in March 1979. And the cleanup continues today. “I couldn’t believe this existed. I thought, oh, my God, I’ve driven by this place. I’ve seen the sign at Woolsey Canyon,” Bowling recalled. Shocked that he and most of his neighbors in Topanga Canyon had never heard about the meltdown 11 miles away, Bowling decided to begin filming the public meetings. Soon he was a familiar face among the lab watchdogs, and women whose husbands worked at the lab and who died of cancer told their stories to his camera. A one-man operation, Bowling hopes to turn his short films into a full-length feature documentary. “I’m an out-of-work actor and, of course, every actor wants to direct. This is the only way I can do it on my own without a million-dollar budget.” Last summer, Bowling’s piece was screened at the Topanga Film Festival, one of 17 films chosen from 100 submissions. Film festival founder and director Urs Baur said reaction to Bowling’s film was mixed. Some criticized his naive approach to filmmaking – the short movies offer more questions than answers – but others were moved by the story of a radioactive, contaminated site in their backyard. “We thought the film had merit for several reasons,” Baur said. “Beyond the importance of making people aware of Rocketdyne, we are interested in people, like Bill Bowling, that are simply moved by something, pick up a camera and fearlessly and single-handedly pursue a story and make a film.” Kerry Cavanaugh, (818) 713-3746 [email protected] IF YOU GO: “Afterburner” will be screened at 7:30 tonight at Topanga Community House, 1440 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORESanta Anita opens winter meet Saturday with loaded card The Boeing Co., which owns the lab, has said there was little risk from burning vegetation, and air quality tests during the fire showed no sign of contaminants. Spokeswoman Inger Hodgson said company officials haven’t seen the films, but are committed to answering people’s questions and concerns about the ongoing environmental investigation at the site. Bowling said his goal is to use film to get people interested in the field lab cleanup. “I stumbled across this and then started digging and digging in deeper. I don’t think 25 percent of the people living around the lab know about it. Once people know, they can make their own decisions, but a lot of people don’t know.” Bowling, 37, said he learned about the field lab while researching his grandfather, who was a downwinder exposed to radiation from nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s and 1960s.