A popular Brentwood dog park on Veterans Administration property is build over an old radioactive waste dump that may soon be unearthed by proposed development.
by Michael Collins
SUVs and luxury sedans glide into the Barrington Dog Park parking lot just south of Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood. Industry types and soccer moms chatter away on cell phones as they pop out of their vehicles with their canine charges. Beagles and boxers bound onto the pavement ready to romp with regulars like Australian Shepherd dogs named Mick Jagger and Bella and pugs called Lola, Daphne and Spanky.
The park is popular with Brentwood resident Dustin Hoffman and other celebrities including Kirstin Dunst and Owen Wilson. The Brentwood Dog Park hosts an annual “Bow wow ween” in October, officiated by “NoTORIous” television star and head dog contest judge Tori Spelling whose seven-year-old pug is named Mimi La Rue. The 2004 show attracted 1,500 canine and feline lovers and held a silent auction with items donated by George Clooney,Courtney Thorne-Smith and James Gandolfino. Bow wow ween featured a mobile microchip clinic, dog masseuse, a canine costume contest and even a cat cemetery with mock tombstones.
The dog park’s Halloween festivities might not be too scary, but what lurks beneath its soil is downright frightening. Unbeknownst to pet owners, the off-leash park is partially situated over an old nuclear and chemical dump. From (1948) to 1968, UCLA and the West LA Veterans Administration, now called the Veterans Affairs West Los Angeles Healthcare Center, used the land adjacent and under the park to get rid of radioactive biomedical research waste on the northwest reaches of the VA.
Now this forgotten radioactive waste, hazardous for thousands of years, has come back to haunt the VA which is looking at options to develop the land ostensibly to help the cash-strapped department. In the process PricewaterhouseCoopers, the VA’s contractor on the project, has reported that the nuke dump is even larger than previously known and is under the athletic fields of the VA-adjacent Brentwood School. Faced with questions about these hottest revelations, the VA has falsely portrayed the dump as harmless, employing bad science and obfuscation to hide the dregs of years of oft-time bizarre and cruel animal and human radiation experimentation conducted by the VA and UCLA for decades in the last century.
The VA and UCLA were part of America’s Cold War massive enterprise to understand the biological effects of radiation on humans and animals. These efforts produced radiation waste that was disposed of as easily as burying, say, a dead animal. Carcasses of radioactive lab dogs, cats and a menagerie of animals make up around half of the toxic trash deep-sixed in the dirt off of Barrington Avenue. The dumping was done before regulations were created to carefully control the insidious threat that unencumbered rad waste disposal poses.
Barrels full of radioactive tritium, carbon-14 and at least thirteen other isotopes, along with contaminated biomedical lab waste, were also tossed or poured into this dump in trenches and holes with nary a record of the dumping for the first years of operation. One prevalent radionuclide in the dump is carbon-14 with a half-life of 5,730 years. The location was also used as a chemical waste disposal site for the VA and UCLA.
The heart of the dump lies in a ravine below the dog park surrounded by chain link fence with fading paper warning signs. The abyss is accessible from adjacent VA athletic grounds, MacArthur Field, used by hundreds of young soccer players who often have to retrieve errant balls in the arroyo through unsecured gates. A central dirt mound of plant-covered debris sits in the middle of the dump emitting high ambient radiation readings. This reporter, using a nuclear radiation monitor, detected shards of radioactive glass that registered over four times normal.
Despite a spirited campaign to get the dump properly addressed in the early 1980s, a Los Angeles-based nuclear watchdog, the Committee to Bridge the Gap (CBG) lost the battle after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the VA convinced a concerned public, media and key politicians that building a park on the site would be perfectly fine. Since 1985, a leased City of Los Angeles park has sat on twelve acres of this VA land. A section of the Barrington Recreation Center was carved out in the fall of 2003 for the present day dog park. The southern field of the off leash area lies over a known chunk of the nuke dump.
“We thought a nuclear dump in Brentwood was impossible,” said CBG founder Dan Hirsch in a series of interviews begun in 2001. “They generally put them near poor people. Then weresearched and discovered that indeed the VA had been dumping radioactive waste from their research program on their own property in an open field just off of Barrington.”
The same kind of biomedical radiation research done at UCLA and the VA that resulted in this waste disposal site was also done at UC Davis. There, residual radiation from experiments on over a thousand irradiated beagles resulted in its dump being declared an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in the early 1990s. The cost of cleaning up the Davis dump was $33 million. No comprehensive analysis of the West LA VA dump has ever been done, nor any remediation of the nuclear and chemical hazards that remain buried there.
The VA and UCLA also dumped radioactive garbage off the coast in prime fishing grounds near the Channel Islands. The university incinerated mixed fission products from the heart of a UCLA nuclear reactor, radioactive animal carcasses and other lab waste, in an outside-venting crematorium that operated on the campus itself from 1954 to 1994 when it was shut due to concerns over “improper controls.”
According to environmentalists, digging and grading the Brentwood dump to build future projects could unleash poisons aboveground if the waste isn’t properly characterized and mitigated beforehand – a very expensive proposition. Even left alone, the ground under the location will remain dangerous for thousands of years. There is also evidence that years ago when the controversy over the dump first erupted, unusually high levels of alpha radiation had spread into one of five wells tested around the dump. This should have triggered a government investigation, but didn’t, and the nature and source of the well’s radiation remain unknown.
“The Committee to Bridge the Gap tried to make everyone aware of the potential dangers of the dump a quarter century ago,” said former CBG research director Dr. Bennett Ramberg,now a national and international columnist on nuclear issues. “In the singular drive of local politicians to have their park, and in the interests of the Veterans Administration and Nuclear Regulatory Commission to cover their sloppy handling of poisonous radioactive waste, they didn’t listen and painted CBG as anti-nuke loonies. What they didn’t count on was any kind of in-depth investigation of the site and what went in it and what could’ve gone in it.”
An ongoing investigation, begun in late 2001, has unearthed a decades-long trail of government cover-ups and outright deceptions to convince the public that the site is harmless. For instance, a quarter century ago, the government claimed that there were no exchanges of radioactive materials between the university and the West LA VA; that UCLA radioactive waste was never discarded at the Brentwood dump; and that the second most redominant radionuclide at the site, carbon-14, wasn’t even dumped there. This investigation has found that those claims, and many others regarding the waste disposal site, were false.
In addition, a new Bush Administration initiative to develop the VA has inadvertently divulged that the Brentwood nuclear dump is even larger than previously estimated. These disclosures have resulted in a flurry of government denials, distortions and mischaracterizations of the radionuclides known to be present at the nuclear waste site.
Nuke dump or not, this land is part of the most prized underdeveloped acreage left in Los Angeles — the 387-acre VA grounds straddling Wilshire Boulevard just west of the San Diego freeway. It is being studied for development under a new plan called Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services or CARES; an acronym that emerged after a 1999 report estimated that the U.S. government was spending $1 million a day on inefficient VA property. CARES is part of a larger strategy to restructure the VA to ensure its financial solvency through 2022. The West LA VA site is being eyed as one of those properties, the development of which could possibly dig up the dump.
The prospect that this treasured land could be built out alarms many of its neighbors including the 27,000 people who make up the Bel-Air Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council. “The land was donated in 1888 as an Old Soldier’s Home and must remain for the direct benefits of veterans,” reads a petition sent by group members to VA Secretary Jim Nicholson in December. “It must not be sold or commercially developed. As the CARES process moves forward, any land use proposals must preserve the remaining 387 acres for direct benefits of veterans and must be compatible with the surrounding communities.”
Last September, a member of the local CARES advisory panel leaked a detailed preliminary report on the site conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers that described the Brentwood nuke dump in detail. While many of its scientific statements made little sense in radiological terms, the report contained this bombshell:
“The biomedical, radioactive medical waste and (asbestos containing material) containing construction debris waste sites are all now buried under 15′ to 30′ of fill material areas leased to the Brentwood School for use as athletic fields.”
It was later followed by this astonishing statement: “The fact that this area has already been developed for use as athletic fields indicates that:
1. Either the public was not informed as to the contaminates under the athletic fields,
2. These environmental hazards did not trigger a significant negative public reaction from nearby residents (including parents of students using the fields).”
The Brentwood School is one of the most prestigious private schools in the nation and is the institution of choice for many of Hollywood’s elite. Tuition tops out at $24,800 for seniors. The school’s athletic fields served as the training grounds for Joanna Hayes, 2004 U.S. Gold Medalist in the 110-meter hurdles and have been the home of the Special Olympics since 2003 when Brentwood resident, and now Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger presided over the opening ceremonies. A 20-year enhanced sharing land use agreement between the school and the VA expires June 2020.
These PricewaterhouseCoopers disclosures have resulted in a flurry of government denials, distortions and
mischaracterizations of the thirteen radionuclides known to be present in the waste site. Unraveling the mysteries of this forgotten dump has been encumbered every step of the way by a recalcitrant Veterans Administration not above stalling, obscuring and outright fabrications in its attempt to characterize their own contractors, PricewaterhouseCoopers, as inept and to paint the dump as benign. By savaging the work of “Team PwC,” which cost taxpayers nearly $10 million, the VA inadvertently calls into question the company’s entire analysis of the West LA VA and the other 17 VA sites targeted by CARES.
The picture painted for this reporter, after five years of investigation, is of an inept Department of Veteran Affairs blithely unaware of the dangers deep in the dirt of Brentwood. Or perhaps worse, the VA knows precisely what’s buried in the dump and but is doggedly determined to build out one of the most valuable expanses of underdeveloped federal land in the nation.