DIGGING UP THE DIRT

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‘CityBeat’ expose on Brentwood nuke dump inspires calls for new investigations by local and federal officials

by Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – June 29, 2006

Digging up the DirtCityBeat’s five-year investigation into a nuclear and chemical dump on the northern reaches of Brentwood’s sprawling Veterans Administration campus has sparked widespread calls for further investigation that have now been taken up by officials from city council to the U.S. Congress. The articles [“Real Hot Property,” May 18; and “Where the Bodies Are Buried,” May 25] detailed the VA’s and UCLA’s use of the land as a dumping ground for at least 13 different radioactive isotopes and poisons for (20) years during the height of the Cold War – many of them in the bodies and tissues of animal and human radiation experimentation subjects. The impacted land includes part of the Barrington Dog Park, an accessible ravine next to a VA field used by hundreds of soccer-playing kids, and the athletic grounds of the private Brentwood School.

The VA reacted to the CityBeat report by saying it contained “a great deal of misinformation and misrepresentation of the facts about the Veterans Affairs’ property,” according to the center’s director, Charles M. Dorman [Letters, June 15]. Local leaders had a distinctly different reaction.

“I am concerned about the possible environmental hazards at the VA site,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) told CityBeat. The nuke dump lies in Waxman’s congressional district. “In order to understand the extent of the problem, earlier this year I wrote to Secretary [James] Nicholson asking the Department [of Veterans Affairs] for all related documents. I hope these materials will allow us to evaluate the extent of the problem and determine what follow-up is needed, including testing and remediation.”

“The investigation raised a lot of very troubling questions about the environmental conditions and the public safety implications of those lands,” added Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “Somehow this needs to be independently verified. The federal agencies’ responses have basically been, ‘there’s nothing to this,’ but I think it would be appropriate for the Congress … to get an independent study of what’s going on under the topsoil over there – if for no other reason than to get an independent validation of the federal government’s position or an objective conclusion that what they are saying is not true and that there is a hazard there that needs to be mitigated.”

On June 13, over two dozen citizens gathered at a meeting of the Friends of Barrington Dog Park in Brentwood to discuss the CityBeat investigation. Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the tony Los Angeles neighborhood, had his district director and senior counsel, Norman Kulla, read a letter that the councilman had written to Nicholson earlier that day. “I share [citizens’] concern and am committed to resolving, beyond any doubt, that all hazardous contamination at the West L.A. VA is identified, contained and cleaned up,” Rosendahl wrote. “It is imperative to be sure that no health risk exists, for either the veterans or employees on site, for local residents who recreate on the site, or for residents who reside adjacent to the site.”

“As a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Union of Concerned Scientists, I suggest that we need a full radiation survey of the entire dog park, large area and small,” said dog park committee member Roy Danchick.

A noted scientist with 40 years in the aerospace industry, Danchick added, “Radioactive and biohazardous material threats to public health are not issues that we can be complacent about. Further, I believe that it is the joint responsibility of the Veterans Administration and UCLA to fund such a survey. They are the responsible parties.”

Before the exposé, the south field of the dog park had been closed for reseeding – an area directly over the dump, according to archival VA maps of the area obtained by CityBeat (and posted on the investigation’s supporting website, EnviroReporter.com). Prior to the affected field’s June 23 reopening, dog park denizens expressed that the section should be reopened with some sort of warning signage.

The City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, which runs the off-leash commons, disagreed and issued a statement discounting the dangers of the dump: “Unless it can be shown that the VA was withholding significant information on their biomedical waste disposal practices on the land that was developed as a public park site that would change the final determination of the [Environmental Impact Report] from ‘no unacceptable public health risks exist’ to a more unfavorable conclusion, there is no clear or prudent reason to conduct a major and potentially expensive site investigation and monitoring program.”

“I read [CityBeat’s] article but I didn’t see a lot of evidence,” said Jim Combs, assistant general manager of Recreation and Parks. “I think we are concerned that there might be something, but there is nothing at this point. The VA has committed to do additional study and the [L.A. City] Council office is interested.”

Word that the VA had committed to a new study of the dump was news to CityBeat, considering that it had previously declared that the site was safe. Combs related that he had seen a VA official on KABC Eyewitness News several weeks ago saying just that. “Even though they don’t have the funds set aside to do this, they will find the money and conduct an additional study so they can put the community’s mind at ease,” Combs said.

“The Council office saw that [TV news report], and we’ve had discussions with the VA since then where they’ve acknowledged that that’s the direction they are going in,” Combs added. “Now, they got a little upset when the councilman sent the letter to Washington, D.C., and they said, ‘Well, that kind of derails us from acting locally. We now have to wait for direction from Washington because [Rosendahl] escalated this.’”

The maverick councilman has his defenders. “We want to support Bill Rosendahl in his letter,” said Keith Jeffreys, vice president of Citizens for Veterans Rights, a group opposed to Bush administration plans to develop the site. “We would like complete transparency with regard to the property and the disposal of anything on that property.”

Repeated requests for VA comment for this article were ignored, as were solicited comments from Brentwood School. Even parents who send their kids to the private institution, where tuition tops out at $23,400 for grades 7-12, were hesitant to say anything about the nuke dump – even though the school’s multimillion-dollar sports complex sits on the affected site, according to the VA contractor evaluating the site for development, PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking from that point of view, so your best option is to find someone who doesn’t actually have an official role through the school and get their viewpoint on it,” said Robin Venturelli, former chair of the local Parents Association, before abruptly hanging up.

Others aren’t so reticent to talk. “Given the decades-long cover-up and the continuing reluctance of public officials to characterize the contamination, simple prudence dictates that a new environmental impact evaluation take place,” said Dr. Bennett Ramberg, a Los Angeles-based nuclear expert and commentator. “Recent CityBeat revelations exposing radioactive debris on the surface of the burial site make the case for reopening of the environmental review all the more compelling. The failure of authorities to follow up would be an act of gross negligence inconsistent with their duty to preserve public health and safety.”

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