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
EnviroReporter.com – May 18, 2006
[2015 – While EnviroReporter.com‘s reporting on the Brentwood biomedical nuclear dump partially under Barrington Dog Park stopped then-President George W. Bush’s $4 billion plan to privatize and develop VA land, nothing has been remediated.]
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.
In 1888, early Angelino settlers Arcadia Bandini de Baker and John P. Jones deeded the VA land to the government “to establish, construct and permanently maintain” a National Home for Disabled Volunteer from the Civil War. By the early 1930s, the Veterans Administration had formed. Parts of the original grant have been used to contain the Los Angeles National Cemetery, the West Los Angeles Federal Building and Post Office, and Department of Defense facilities. Even with the San Diego Freeway bisecting the old land grant, 91 structures ranging in age from 3 to 106 years still sit on the remaining 387-acre site with 2,807,039 square feet of space.
The VA is bisected by Wilshire Boulevard with the north side of the facility referred to as the Brentwood campus, home to many of the buildings used to provide domiciliary care for veterans. Much of the property today seems to exist in a time warp preceding World War II. Vast tracts appear deserted and others are covered in palm trees. Forty two buildings on the property built before 1950 are considered ‘historic’ including the Governor’s Mansion and the Wadsworth Theatre. The charming and historic building was constructed in 1939 in the Spanish Colonial/Mission Revival architectural style with a stucco finish and red clay tile roofing. A renovation of the building was completed in 2002 and includes restoration of its original Art Deco interior. The Wadsworth has played host to numerous Broadway shows, movie premieres, concerts and community meetings.
On Sept. 22 a raucous CARES community meeting took place where hundreds of residents and veterans decried commercial development of the VA. Just one of the dozens of speakers, many of them decorated veterans from World War II and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, said anything about the nuclear and chemical dump on the property. Nor did anyone say anything about the facility being part of ground zero in America’s Cold War nuclear research that resulted in the radioactive waste in the first place. It was clear that this controversial past has faded away.
It began with the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb began in 1942 that resulted in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The Atomic Energy Commission was sanctioned by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 and assumed operations of the Manhattan Project in 1947. The AEC was created to regulate and control the development, production and use of atomic energy for war and peace. Even before the AEC officially assumed responsibility for all things atomic a medical advisory group, led by former Manhattan Project medical director Stafford Warren, began planning a large-scale postwar biomedical research program that would continue wartime radiation affects experiments upon human subjects.
In 1947, the director of the VA’s medical programs, Major General Paul Hawley appointed Warren, who was the head of UCLA’s fledgling medical school, to tackle human health issues related to deadly radiation. Warren was well aware of the effects of radiation on people – he was the first American physician to survey Hiroshima and Nagasaki after their annihilation. According to “The Human Radiation Experiments,” a 1996 government report of the President Clinton’s Advisory Committee, “[B]y 1974, according to VA reports, more than 2,000 human radiation experiments would be performed at VA facilities, many of which would work in tandem with neighboring medical schools, such as the relationship between the UCLA medical school, where Stafford Warren was now dean, and the Wadsworth (West Los Angeles) VA Hospital.”
These experiments and many others on myriad animals helped contribute to radiation refuse in Brentwood though no one is exactly sure what’s in it or how much. What is known is that no amount of low-level radiation exposure is safe. In late July 2005, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences came out with a milestone report that confirmed this. “The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionized radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial,” said Richard R. Monson, the panel chairman and a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health.
Existing records show that the most prevalent radionuclide at the VA dumpsite is tritium, which is “heavy water” or Hydrogen-3. It’s the “H” in H-Bomb. It has a half-life of 12.3 years, meaning it halves itself during that time due to ionization. Tritium has plagued the groundwater of Boeing’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory above the San Fernando and Simi valleys. The discovery of tritium in the lab’s groundwater at four times the U.S. EPA’s standard for drinking water made headlines in 2004. In 2005, tritium levels registered fifty percent higher than the year before and were topping out at six times the water standard safety cutoff. Even with a half life of only a dozen years, the tritium polluting Boeing’s lab is still a lethal and perplexing headache after a half century of its release into the environment.
Current Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules are stringent and exacting regarding this dangerous substance. For tritium to qualify for being dumped properly, the material has to be sealed in glass ampoules that are embedded in cement inside of steel pipes, which are then welded shut and put into special plastic containers. Secured tritium of this type and other U.S. rad waste debris, like glassware, syringes and animal carcasses, are considered so hazardous that they are then shipped and entombed in a 230 million-year-old salt geologic formation converted to a mine in New Mexico. The $2 billion repository is 2,150 feet underground with 11 miles of tunnels designed to last 10,000 years.
The tritiated heavy water at the Brentwood site, however, was often just poured in holes dug at the site. It was also put in bags and barrels with other radioactive waste. These dangerous practices were forbidden eleven years after the dump had closed in 1968. In addition, liquid and solid waste were no longer allowed to be mixed together or simply tossed together with animal carcasses. “Do not mix radioisotopes of short and long half-lives, or gamma with beta emitters,” one West LA VA memo instructed November 26, 1979. New measures to strictly control and cease production of radioactive and chemical waste also took shape. Perhaps it was too little too late.
The existing VA records from 1960 to 1968 also show that the second most widespread waste at the Brentwood dump is carbon-14. “The reasons that C-14 cannot be stored until it decays to a safe level is that its half life, 5,730 years, is so long – who can wait even one half-life?” said Dr. James Warf in an e-mail. He is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at USC and was a group leader in the Manhattan Project. Warf’s 732-page “All Things Nuclear” is in its second edition as a university-level textbook. “Most carbon-14 used in research is in the form of biochemically-active forms, and therefore if ingested, could be dangerous.”
Toxic chemicals were also dumped during the sixteen years that the VA dump was active. In 1981, UCLA admitted that it had ditched known and unknown chemicals at the site in 4 to 8 foot deep holes. The chemicals included toluene and dioxane. Toluene is an organic liquid with a sweet, benzene-like odor. The most common chemical use for toluene is to make benzene and urethane. Short-term human exposure to toluene over its government-mandated “maximum contaminant level” of 1 part per million can cause minor nervous system disorders such as fatigue, nausea, weakness, and confusion. Long-term contact can lead to spasms, tremors, and impairment of speech, hearing, vision, memory, coordination, liver and kidney damage. According to the US-EPA, toluene’s “breakdown by soil microbes is slow,” lending itself to the possibility that it’s still a problem lying beneath the Brentwood dumping ground.
Another chemical buried in the site was dioxane, a known carcinogen. Though chemical records of the dump were usually destroyed after two years, UCLA divulged in 1981 that it had dumped chemicals at the VA dump. “If someone were to dig down in the old site they might find intact containers of toluene or dioxane,” wrote former UCLA director of Research and Occupational Safety, William E. Wegst. “I suppose one could imagine various hazardous scenarios developing as a result of someone digging many holes and retrieving many intact bottles of solvent.”
Record keeping at UCLA of its radioactive waste disposal from the late 1940s to the early 1970s seems nonexistent. “We have searched high and low and still haven’t found anything in our waste records back that far,” said Rick Greenwood, adjunct professor of epidemiology at the UCLA School of Public Health and director of the UCLA Office of Environment, Health and Safety at the time of our interview. Greenwood is now Assistant Chancellor of the university. “We have gone through our records and we really don’t have anything, not even a hint of a record in the time period we had discussed.”
But records do exist and show that UCLA did use the VA dump to dispose of tritium and radioactive animal carcasses. These records were gleaned from the Committee to Bridge the Gap, the VA, and UCLA. A comprehensive examination of thousands of pages of AEC-funded experiments at the university, from the radiation program’s inception in 1948 to the mid 1960s, shows the use of at least 37 different radionuclides with half-lives of mere minutes up to tens of thousands of years.
While about half of the Brentwood dump’s waste is made up of irradiated animal carcasses, both the VA and UCLA also burned radioactive trash and animals to get rid of the material. For example, from January 1954 to December 1955, UCLA’s “Burn-All” unit incinerated 3,400 pounds of “rabbits, rats, mice, excreta, peat moss, paper, etc.” contaminated by twelve radionuclides including carbon-14, calcium-45 and chromium-51. Also burned were some to the most dangerous radionuclides, “mixed fission products,” which contains cesium-137 and strontium-90, two especially deadly substances with half-lives of 30.0 years and 29.12 years respectively. The average weight of the combustibles per each of the 286 days of burning was 12 pounds.
“Burning does not eliminate radioactive waste, but it reduces its volume by ashing the original materiel,” according to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. “Incineration does not destroy metals or reduce radioactivity of wastes. Radioactive waste incinerators, when equipped with well-maintained, high efficiency filters, can capture all but a small fraction of the radioactive isotopes and metals fed into them. The fraction that does escape, however, tends to be in the form of small particles that are more readily absorbed by living organisms than larger particles.”
UCLA’s radiological crematorium sat outdoors on a wood box and was outfitted with an elongated stack-flue designed to be a couple of feet higher than the building roof it was attached to. “A small sheet metal pan-like cover was hinged to the stack just above the top of the unit to act as a rain protector,” according to 1956 UCLA Atomic Energy Project report. The stack apparently had no filter, according to its specifications, meaning that gases from the incinerated radioactive material simply discharged unfettered into the air.
The UCLA-AEC document noted a range of radioactive gas releases emitting from the stack-flue. The highest reading for “volatile isotopes” measured escaping the chimney was two billion times higher than what Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows today for the same type of radioactive emissions. This nuclear crematorium operated for forty years in UCLA’s Health Science zone of the south campus.
The West LA VA was ordered by the AEC to stop burning radioactive animal carcasses contaminated with carbon-14 in a 1960 memorandum. “Hereafter no C-14 residues at any level will be disposed of except by burial,” the memo read. “This is on advice of Central Office issued at the Cincinnati meeting in December 1960 regarding incineration disposal. This means that at this Center no C-14 will be disposed of by incineration without permission from the AEC, in writing.”
UCLA, however, continued burning radioactive medical trash in the middle of the Westwood campus until 1994. “They had a program to dump ashes at sea for the willed body program,” said Greenwood who put a halt to the incineration. “Medical waste was getting mixed in with that. It became an inappropriate disposal of medical waste. My concern was it couldn’t be operated properly. There were just a lot of issues with having something in the middle of Westwood that had improper controls so we just stopped it. The animal wastes, the carcasses, went to one of the disposal companies down south.”
From 1946 through 1970, it was U.S. policy to dump rad waste in shallow land-burial sites on government property or in the ocean at AEC-licensed drop zones. Much of the VA and UCLA’s radioactive rubbish ended up being mixed with cement and sealed in 55-gallon drums, then dumped 35 miles southwest of Port Hueneme in Ventura County. U.S. EPA records show that 3,114 containers filled with radiation by-products like cobalt, strontium and cesium and source materials like uranium and thorium isotopes, were dumped at the site from 1946 to 1960. The barrels landed in depths of water ranging from 1,830 to 1,940 meters, or more than a mile down. According to CBG’s Hirsch, if they didn’t implode on the way down, they’re there today slowly corroding and leaking radioactivity in the prime fishing area.
The U.S. terminated all ocean-dumping of rad waste in 1970. Three years later, it ratified the London Dumping Convention prohibiting, among other things, the ocean disposal of high-level nuclear wastes. The new rules did allow for the future dumping of low-level radioactive refuse but only under controlled conditions stipulated by the Convention. “Irreversible radioactive waste disposal is most unwise,” wrote Warf. “We dare not let this toxic, radioactive garbage get into the food chain via the ocean or underground water.”
How UCLA dealt with its cremated cadavers resulted in a lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed. In 1996, attorneys representing relatives of people whose bodies were donated to the university’s willed-body program sued UCLA’s med school and the UC Regents. They alleged that the university illegally disposed of bodies since the 1950s by disposing of them in landfills and in those barrels dumped at sea. “I was the one who sealed the incinerator related to the burial at sea issue,” said Greenwood. “It was part of the willed body program.”
From Dump to Dog Park
The Barrington Dog Park exhibits no signs of being the site of an old radioactive dump. There is no solid evidence that the surface of the dog park is dangerous. This reporter’s inspections of the known affected part of the dog park in 2001, 2005 and last month with a nuclear radiation monitor revealed elevated degrees of ionization at ground level but that could be attributed to naturally occurring radiation in the soil.
The dog park opened in the fall of 2003 after being carved out of the original twelve acres that the City of Los Angeles leases from the VA for a dollar a year. It is overseen by the Friends of Barrington Dog Park (FOBDP) and run by LA Recreation and Parks. The only waste of concern is dealt with by the numerous pooper-scoopers positioned about the separate small and large dog areas. During midday, hired dog walkers show up with their rich clients’ canines and immediately do a “crap lap” picking up dog-doo so other park users don’t get too ticked-off at all their dogs.
The nearly two-acre spread, with regulars like Cloris Leachman and Aaron Eckhart, has become a center of all things dog in this ritzy neighborhood. Late last July, the park was the site of the Purina ProPlan Rally to Rescue, an event that cost over $200,000 and attracted around 400 pet fanciers. The affair featured a dog parade through Brentwood Village, two-story tall inflatable pets, and cat and dog tricks all to support animal shelter pet adoption. Dennis Quaid took home a pug.
The dog park is not without its share of drama. In August 2004, a Papillion was killed by a Labrador-pit bull mix. In memoriam, FOBDP arranged to get a special French street sign from T-shirt sales that read, “Parc Choupette, est. 2005,” named after the little dead dog. It was installed for the official dedication of the small dog park. Actor Jim Belushi got kicked out of the off-leash facility after his bringing his two aggressive German Shepherds, according to dog park committee officer Annie Lever, who is known as “America’s most celebrated dog walker” and makes $150,000 annually. “Belushi thought that it was funny when his dogs were herding other dogs,” said Lever. “We didn’t.”
“People usually come here and try to just keep low profile and be normal,” said FOBDP founder Sue Black. “And they are usually so successful at that, most of the time you don’t recognize them. I actually spoke with Brooke Shields once a while back and she was so open and natural and normal that even though she obviously looked like her, I pretty much didn’t get who she was until I overheard someone else mention it. And that’s what’s so nice about it. Dogs tend to be a great equalizer. Everyone here picks up their own poop, not to put too fine a point on it.”
The dog park sits on a bluff overlooking a ravine where the dump sprawls eastward. Across this gully is a huge VA athletic field used by the teams from the Coast Soccer League including the Galaxy Fusion and the Westside Breakers. “The Westside Breakers has quickly become the premier girls soccer club on the Westside area of Los Angeles,” proclaims the group’s website. Rule number one for playing at the VA field is quite clear. “STAY within the field area. DO NOT let children play on the hills or stray into or into brushy areas.”
One calm spring day, a reporter watched the Breakers at practice; playing soccer and running drills with hundreds of other kids. A warning sign was posted by the gap in the gated fence separating the soccer field and the known nuke dump. The sign, actually a piece of paper in a plastic sheet protector, said that only authorized personnel were allowed and that no trespassing or excavating was permissible. “THIS IS A CLOSED SITE.” When asked if the kids ever went into the ravine, one parent watching practice said “All the time. They kick the balls over that fence.”
Things were not always so serene and worry-free for the area. When the Committee to Bridge the Gap became aware that the late Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude and ex-local Congressman Anthony Beilenson’s were in negotiations with the VA for a park over the rumored nuke dump, beginning in August 1979, it began extensive research on the site. The nuclear watchdog group subsequently issued a press release in March 1981 that pointed out some of the main radionuclides known to be at the dump, including tritium and carbon-14, even though “it is hard to know until there is coring done at the site, the environmental group said.”
Coring still remains the only way to find out what is in the site, as the VA only had a crude map of three areas of where they poured and buried their toxic garbage for the sixteen years of operation. Coring, simply put, is the process of drilling deep into the earth with a hollow tube and extracting an undisturbed sample of the intact layers beneath the surface. “Radioactive waste was disposed of by burial without knowledge as to the amount, depth, or spacing of burials,” noted a May 12, 1960 AEC compliance report noting noncompliance with regulations. “No records of radiation disposal were maintained.”
CBG pointed out that the dump hadn’t been inspected for a decade from August 1969 until the group began making inquiries about it. The early inquiries precipitated a VA sweep of the area with a Geiger Muller counter and a small sampling of plant, soil and water for radiation. They found nothing, which is to be expected — the primary known radionuclides at the dump are beta and alpha radiation emitters, which can only be detected from a very short distance and are not readily revealed once buried underground.
Braude and Beilenson quickly responded to CBG’s concerns and promised “independent testing and analysis of the substances in this disposal site.” This made sense as an internal VA letter from early 1969 foreshadowed. “It is essential, however, that Atomic Energy Commission approval of the transfers of these properties be obtained since terrain modifications, such as cut and fill procedures may be required.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, formed out of the AEC in 1974, quickly dismissed CBG’s concerns. In an internal NRC communication, dated April 24, 1981, then-NRC Region V Chief of the Radiological Safety Branch, Herbert E. Book, wrote that even though, “[P]recise calculations are not possible with the available data,” there was no possible harm emitting from the tritium and carbon-14 buried in the dump.
Book reasoned that since NRC regulations had been recently amended to exempt minute amounts of radioactive biomedical wastes containing tritium and carbon-14 from regulations, then the past dumping at the site was of no concern. “Effective March 11, 1981, the NRC Regulations were amended to exempt biomedical wastes such as these, containing H-3 and C-14, from regulations,” Book wrote. “Thus, today the hospital could dispose of those materials containing H-3 and C-14 without limit and without any controls because of the radioactive content. It follows that there can be no possible hazard resulting from the H-3 or C-14 which has been buried in the past and their presence will not affect any future use of the property.”
But that statement is false — the new 1981 regulations said no such thing and were referring to “tracer amounts” of tritium and carbon-14. The operative phrase in the `81 regulations was “the licensee may dispose of specified concentrations of these materials without regard to their radioactivity.” Those concentrations were indeed very small.
This was the beginning of a set of NRC and VA fabrications and deceptions that set in motion a series of events that helped lead to the transformation of part the dump into a park. After all, if the substances were harmless, they could be dumped literally anywhere. Book goes on to state, “No controls were found to be necessary on location of burials (the licensee was not even required to have control of the property) or on subsequent use of the property.”
“In light of this and our recent decontrol of biomedical wastes containing H-3 and C-14, it would seem totally irresponsible and incredible if the NRC should decide that controls or conditions should apply to the future use of the property,” wrote Book, forming the crux of the NRC arguments used to justify building the Brentwood park with no proper characterization or cleanup.
“The matter of precedence is also worthy of consideration,” Book continued. “If for some reason we were to place restrictions on future use of this property or if we should require corrective actions before its release, then we should follow the same requirements for all other such locations. Logically, we would be compelled to search out all other such locations and place similar requirements on those properties. This, we believe is impractical and totally unnecessary. We recommend that the property at the Veterans Hospital in Los Angeles be released with no restrictions on its future use.”
Thirteen years after this statement was made, one of the “other such locations,” the UC Davis nuke dog dump, was discovered to be so hot as to make it a Superfund site. A Superfund site is any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the U.S.-EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment. It is the worst of the worst.
On May 7, 1981, five NRC inspectors went to the Brentwood dump site and did a 45-minute walking inspection with two gamma detectors and picked up nothing but background measurements. They noted that 20 – 30 feet of “fill material and dirt” had been added to the burial sites and “there were no radioactive materials detected.”
“That’s not going to tell you anything,” Joseph Karbus, head of the Radiological Health Unit of the LA County Health Department, said at the time regarding Geiger Muller counter inspection of the dump. “You have to go down and take a core sample to find out anything.”
The NRC released its assessment of the site on August 5, 1981 and called it clean while mischaracterizing the amounts of the most prevalent radionuclides. The report also noted that the LA Department of Water and Power had collected five water samples from five adjacent wells used to supply Santa Monica and that the “results indicate no levels of unsatisfactory radioactive contaminations in accordance with acceptable levels defined in the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
This wasn’t true. One sample tested high enough in alpha radiation in April 1981 to trip a law-mandated characterization of the well. This was never done though the law, which is part of the California Code of Regulations – Title 22, had been on the books since 1979. A high alpha reading suggests an unnatural source for the radioactivity, possibly from the dump, which could be very dangerous considering what’s already known to be in it. The well, which had been in operation since 1928, was closed in 1996 due to chemical contamination not connected to possible offsite radioactive contamination from the Brentwood VA dump.
By the end of August 1981, the NRC assured Beilenson and Braude that all was okay. “The risk from any radioactive material at this location is vanishingly small and should not be a factor in any decision regarding future use of this property.”
Beilenson couldn’t have been happier. “Without the assistance of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the park concept would have been totally abandoned,” Beilenson wrote to the commission September 14. “The NRC is to be commended for its efforts to educate the public regarding the safety of radioactive materials which were buried in the proposed park site.”
LA’s Recreation & Parks filed its California Environmental Quality Act Notice of Preparation on December 15, 1981. The draft Environmental Impact Report contained all the NRC findings and declared that the place was safe. It repeated the water findings with the high alpha reading but also didn’t require the mandated monitoring of the suspect well. Perhaps throwing a bone to the environmentalists, the draft EIR noted, “As an important note, major excavation activities will not occur during site preparation phase alleviating any concerns over unearthing buried materials.” A month later, CBG called the draft EIR “cavalier” for determining that there was no hazard at the site. It decried the report as “unsound, incomplete, and inconclusive.”
In early February 1982, the VA responded to a set of questions that CBG had submitted two weeks earlier. The response included three major fabrications that the VA’s own records bear out. The VA declared that it didn’t exchange any radioactive materials with UCLA when records show that it did under its joint AEC experiments. The VA falsely stated that there was no acceptance of radioactive waste from UCLA yet the records show that tritium and carbon-14 waste from UCLA were deep-sixed in the Brentwood dump. And, most incredulously, the VA avowed, “So little C-14 was utilized… (it was) not buried on VA property to the best of our knowledge.” This statement didn’t gel with the VA’s own documents that show C-14 as being the second most prevalent radionuclide in the dump.
The VA was also cagey as to the chemical contaminants in the waste site claiming that all chemical disposal records were destroyed after two years. “As to how chemical waste had been disposed of by the VA during various periods since its inception, it would be pure conjecture on our part.”
CBG’s Hirsch was at his wit’s end. “It’s not like you can go anywhere on the field to find contamination,” Hirsch said. “So a geologist told us that what needed to be done was to fly over this property and to take infrared photographs because vegetation will show up as red. If there were radioactive or chemical wastes buried beneath the surface, they would likely migrate upward and kill off the vegetation. So if we could plot where vegetation wasn’t growing, we would know where we could dig it and take a soil sample or do more detailed Geiger counter work.”
Hirsch pressured Braude to arrange for an LAPD helicopter flyover with a police photographer. It was a ride he would never forget.
“It was one of the most dramatic events, actually, of my life,” Hirsch said. “Way up with big open door. (I’m) hanging out of this door flying over West LA. Braude’s office, however, which was very reluctant to have this done, had informed the VA several days in advance that we were coming. So we flew over where the grasses grew and where the grasses didn’t, and where it didn’t, we’d be able to take radiation samples or soil samples. As we fly over, all of a sudden we get over the VA and my jaw just drops. We looked down below us and what had yesterday had been a huge field of grasses up to your waist was now completely plowed under. A tractor was down below plowing the last little bit of it under. Now the VA claims that this was all standard practice in terms of weed abatement and fire control. We can never prove (a cover-up). We did check and it was done weeks earlier than they usually do it. Literally, the evidence was plowed under. So we were not able to chart where the holes were.”
“The long and the short of it is that I can’t find that vegetation right now because it was plowed under,” Hirsch continued. “The problem is that we were unable to identify the locations for the tests to occur. Braude and Beilenson, who were not happy with us at all for having raised these issues because they were getting in the way of the park they wanted built, said ‘go ahead and build the park.’”
CBG had played its last hand. “CBG was effectively spent – the political process had sucked the air out of any possibility of stopping the park,” said former CBG staffer Ramberg. “Regrettably, there was nothing left to do.”
By December 1982, the LA City Department of Recreation and Parks had concluded that the twelve-acre park would “pose no conceivable health risk to the public.” On June 16, 1983, the parks commission approved the project on a 3-1 vote despite protests from the newly formed Brentwood Citizens for a Safe Park, a group that was made up of about 300 apartment and condo dwellers on Barrington Avenue.
“I believe in being careful,” Braude told the Los Angeles Times on June 30, 1983. “I believe in public hearings. I believe in participatory democracy. But when all the evidence is in and all the hearings have been held, one must have the courage to move forward and I’m delighted we did.”
The West LA VA’s Radiation Safety Officer at the time, L.W. Wetterau, went even further in his glowing appraisal of the land. “I’ll give you my opinion if you print it exactly as I say it,” Wetterau told the LA Weekly in a July 29, 1983 article on the dump. “Environmentally, that site is as safe as any on the globe. I would love to live on that site. I would build on it and live on it.”
In early May of the next year, the city signed off on the $1,044,000 project and the park was built and opened on May 27, 1985. Braude and Beilenson threw out the first balls on a newly create baseball diamond that stretched over the nuclear waste dump in deep centerfield.
But the park soon faced a new danger. In February 1986, the VA declared 109 acres of the Brentwood facility to be excess federal land as part of the Reagan Administration’s long-range goal of reducing the federal deficit. Even though that acreage for possible sale was later shrunk to 80, it still included the new park. Eventually, the proposal to sell off the land was dropped after vociferous protests by Braude, Beilenson and the Brentwood community that helped result in passage of the Cranston Act of 1988 which protects the northeastern 109 acres of the VA from commercial build out.
In 2001, Rep. James T. Walsh (R-NY) tried but failed to implement an April 2001 initiative entitled “Plan for the Development of a 25-Year General Use Plan for Department of Veterans Affairs West Los Angeles Healthcare Center” as part of the 2002 fiscal year VA-Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill. The most controversial aspect of the plan was repeal of the Cranston Act. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), in whose district the West LA VA lies, succeeded in nixing the measure with an amendment that prohibited funding of the plan.
Standoff on Soldiers’ Soil
Out of 26 million veterans nationwide, 2.3 million live in California making the West LA VA one of the most important veteran centers in the United States. There are more veterans living within fifty miles of the facility than in 42 other states combined according to the California Department of Veterans Affairs. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Agency recently estimated that of the 82,291 homeless in the county, 15,420 of them are homeless vets. The VA estimates that its West LA staff has served 60,000 homeless veterans over the past 10 years.
This prime real estate is an asset to the beleaguered VA, which is in deep trouble financially in part due to the cost of caring for the scores of wounded and maimed returning from Iraq. As of the end of March, over 17,400 American soldiers had been wounded in the war. The Army’s Surgeon General estimates that thirty percent of troops returning from Iraq have developed stress-related illnesses including anxiety, anger, depression, nightmares and concentration problems.
More than 360,000 soldiers have already returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the American Legion, and over 86,000 have sought health care from the VA. The number of VA-treated vets rose by 5.2 percent in 2005, an increase of 3.2 percent over the department’s original projection. Currently, the average annual cost for a single veteran’s health care in the VA system is approximately $5,000 a year.
After repeatedly assuring Congress that the VA was on sound footing, the White House had to ask for an additional $2 billion to cover the VA last July 14, this after asking for $975 million just two weeks prior. The requests for increased funding resulted from the VA’s underestimation of the number of vets seeking health care as well as the escalating costs of health care and long-term treatment.
Ultimately, the 2006 President’s budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs provided approximately $70.8 billion for veterans’ benefits and services. Despite veteran groups’ criticism of the new budget, they were thankful that they beat back two Bush Administration proposals that would have charged veterans joining the health care system a $250 enrollment fee and would have increased prescription co-payments from $7 to $15.
The Bush Administration’s CARES master plan is supposed to help the VA face the challenges of escalating health care costs, a constrained budget and a burgeoning population of vets returning home. “The May 2004 Secretary’s CARES Decision Document will serve as VA’s road map for bringing VA’s healthcare system’s facilities in line with the needs of 21st century veterans,” read a VA document explaining the plan early last summer. “The CARES Decision resulted from a multi-stage, long-term effort and identified 18 sites for additional analysis and studies. These studies will include recommendations to VA regarding the optimal approach to provide current and projected veterans with equal or better healthcare than is currently provided, in terms of access, quality and cost effectiveness, while maximizing any potential reuse / redevelopment of all or portions of the current real property.”
The VA hopes to slim underused space 42% by 2022. The department is developing legislation for a so-called ‘independent real property disposal authority’ to deal with these federal holdings. “This authority would allow the VA to dispose of underused real property and retain proceeds for reinvestment in veterans’ health care and capital improvements to medical facilities,” the document further explained. “The (VA) recommends that any study involving excess or surplus property should consider all options for divestiture, including outright sale, transfer to another public entity, and a reformed enhanced use leasing process.”
The 18 sites across the country, from Perry Point Maryland to Muskogee Oklahoma, range in size from a few dozen acres to several hundred. Six buildings on 6.48 acres make up targeted property in Manhattan which is home to the Preservation and Amputation Care Team, Prosthetic Treatment Center, Amputee Center and the Prosthetic and Orthotic Lab. The metro New York VA centers in Manhattan and Brooklyn service 169,376 veterans. The 17.1-acre Brooklyn facility was originally part of Fort Hamilton and transferred to the VA from the U.S. War Department in 1945. Of the twelve buildings on the site devoted to patient care or administration “range from poor to fair condition” according to Team PwC’s CARES Stage 1 Summary Report issued last year. “The site’s primary re-use/redevelopment potential is for residential development (condominiums or apartments).”
That kind of CARES development scheme spells fighting words to local Los Angeles leaders where the West LA VA construction could begin as early as 2009. Last June 21, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors directed county attorneys to investigate all legal options in light of the possibility that CARES could allow commercial development of the VA. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he wanted to make sure that any development is consistent with county land-use policies and zoning ordinances. The VA is currently zoned public open space. “It is becoming increasingly apparent,” Yaroslavsky wrote in the motion, “that the V.A. is once again considering privatizing its West Los Angeles lands through sale or leases for purposes unrelated to the direct provision of veterans’ services as previously promised.”
More than 700 people converged on University High School in West LA for a CARES community forum September 14 that was the largest of its type that Yaroslavsky had ever seen in his 30-year political career. “We’re in for a fight because the federal government doesn’t have a clue as to what they are going to run into – a buzz saw,” Yaroslavsky shouted to the vociferous anti-commercial development crowd. “They are hostile, secretive and not transparent and are trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.”
Two days before the last local CARES meeting September 22, the VA gave the local advisory panel
PricewaterhouseCooper’s draft report on the West LA site. Before long, it was on the website of Rep. Waxman. Specifically mentioning tentative interest in the property by biotech giants Amgen and Genentech, the report was bullish on the site. “With nearly 400 acres of low density development surrounded by the most valuable high density development in the Los Angeles area, the campus offers an unparalleled reuse/redevelopment opportunity.”
The meeting, which lasted over ten hours and was attended by around a thousand people throughout the day, was held by a panel that was appointed by VA Secretary Jim Nicholson. Only one audience member asked what was happening with toxic materials on the VA property and the status of its remediation. The panel seemed unaware of the dump and offered no suggestions. They did, however, issue nonbinding recommendations to the Nicholson immediately after the hearing, although two more public meetings are scheduled. Their six guiding principles included reaffirmation of the Cranston Act.
During a break in the proceedings, this reporter approached Team PwC for comment on the nuke dump referred to in its report. Paul Chrencik, the PricewaterhouseCoopers managing partner on the CARES project, quickly intervened and forbid any media inquiries. “They can’t talk to you,” he said. “You have to go through the VA.”
In mid October, the West LA VA’s public affairs office said that any questions for Team PwC had to be mailed to the same address in Maryland that the public uses for submitting comments on the CARES initiative. On November 17, a set of questions were posted to Chrencik which addressed the startling information in PricewaterhouseCooper’s draft report which read, in part: “An approximately two-acre area in area “J” along the banks of the arroyo was used as a medical waste disposal area from the 1950s until 1968. This medical waste included radioactive biomedical wastes. These radioactive medical wastes were apparently disposed of in accordance with the U.S. Department of Energy requirements that allow for burial of radioactive medical wastes. Construction of athletic fields for the Brentwood School between 1996 and 1999 uncovered several of the disposal areas. Excavated wastes were collected and removed to an off-site disposal facility.”
Ignoring the fact that the quarter in question is actually area “A”, the submitted questions included asking where Team PwC got their information, who excavated the waste and where the waste went.
The PwC report went on to read, “At this point the radioactive wastes are at approximately 10 half-lives and theoretically do not emit radiation greater than other non-radioactive materials. Testing of the waste did not detect any radiation levels above background. Off-site monitoring well sampling has not detected any radiation above back ground levels.”
The half-life comment about the dump reflected in this passage doesn’t make sense scientifically as radionuclides all have different rates of atomic decay. This knowledge is one of the basic fundamental principles of radiation measurements. I asked Chrencik what exactly “10 half-lives” referred to, and if it implied that there is only one radionuclide in the disposal areas, namely tritium (H-3), the most prevalent radionuclide in the disposal areas according to my research. Finally, I inquired about who concluded that the wastes emit no more radiation than non-radioactive material, who tested the waste and what did they test the waste with and who did the off-site monitoring well sampling and where are those wells located.
The draft report also revealed the startling revelations that “[T]he biomedical, radioactive medical waste and ACM 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. None of these disposal areas is considered a significant environmental hazard at this time. Radiation and ACM’s are below threshold limits. Biomedical wastes encountered during development of the athletic fields were removed to a suitable off-site disposal area. Without a potentially negative public reaction to these types of wastes this end of the site may be considered as having a “Medium” potential for development. Remediation of these wastes includes encapsulation (which has already been done) or removal to an acceptable disposal site.”
I asked what Team PwC meant by “all” the waste sites are buried under “fill material areas leased to Brentwood School for use of athletic fields.” Did this mean that there are no other radioactive medical waste sites not underneath these fields and who made this determination and when? Who determined that the radiation was “below threshold limits” and when? Why were biomedical wastes encountered “removed to a suitable off-site disposal area” if they are not considered a “significant environmental hazard at this time”? What kind of “encapsulation” of these wastes took place and by whom and when?
“We have been consistently been told by VA people that there was waste buried in an area that was not underneath our facility, said Dan Winter, Assistant Headmaster for Brentwood School. “The waste that is referred to as radioactive, or whatever it is, is, as we understand it from previous discussions, is down the arroyo, as they put it, from where our athletic fields were developed. We were even shown physically at one point, in a walkabout, and it was maybe the equivalent of a couple of football fields down from where we were doing our work. So that’s what we know.”
“The radioactive waste dumpsite is apparently well known to the federal government and therefore we were informed about it but it is many many yards down beyond where the athletic fields are,” Winter continued. “I can’t explain why they would be confused about it because there have got to be records of the exact location.”
“If any of that had been underneath the field, you can be assured that we would have had a whole different attitude about the project, I can tell you that,” Winter said also disclosing that Brentwood School pays the VA $325,000 a year to rent the area. “We would have been very very leery about proceeding.”
As weeks rolled by waiting for Team PwC’s answers about the dump, this reporter began corresponding with Dan Bruneau, the VA’s Director of Communications Management. “The people in our CARES office said they would have answers for you by 12/22,” Bruneau wrote in mid-December. “I had hoped it would be a bit sooner, but at least they have committed to a date.”
Bruneau also told me that if I wanted a copy of the VA-PricewaterhouseCoopers contract, a Freedom of Information Act request was required. I filed a FOIA on December 20. Three weeks later, the contract arrived with 21 pages withheld entirely, and 27 out of the 31 enclosed pages almost entirely blacked out. The redacted document was useless for discerning what Team PwC was charged with accomplishing. Bruneau did, however, later impart what PricewaterhouseCoopers was paid. “The contract calls for PWC to receive $9.7 million for studies at 18 sites.”
Nearly two months had passed before the VA finally received PwC’s written answers to questions about their draft report. But apparently there was something wrong with them. “I did a lousy job of explaining the concerns about the written responses,” Bruneau wrote January 11. “I should have said we learned that the technical nature of some of the subject matter made a written response less satisfactory and likely to raise more questions. It seemed the simplest and most efficient thing was for you to speak with Barbara (Fallen) so you could deal with things all at once.”
Long Beach-based Fallen, an Operations Officer who is the VA’s point person on the West LA VA CARES initiative, arranged for a face-to-face interview at the VA in late January. The meeting commenced with addressing questions about the radioactive waste under the Brentwood School athletic fields that, according to Fallen, began to be constructed in 1999. Team PwC had stated that in its report that construction of the facilities was from 1996 to 1999.
Actually, the building of these facilities started with grading of the land in June 2000 according to a February 2002 letter from the California Department Health Services to Ben K. Spivey, Chief, Occupational Safety and Health and Senior Industrial Hygienist for the West LA VA. Spivey accompanied Fallen in this conclave which also included VA Asset Management personnel Laurel Daniels and Katherine Steinberg Bluth.
What followed was a series of contradictions and prevarications that can only be described as baffling. Not only did the discussion include misinformation that even a novice in radiation science would catch, so did the written documentation copied for this reporter during the course of two hours of discussion.
“The EPA considers (the dump) a closed site,” said Spivey. “They have confirmed that it is not very radioactive. It is mostly tritium and carbon-14 which have very short half lives. There were about ten different isotopes put in there but these were the most common.”
To characterize these two radionuclides as short-lived, and therefore harmless, is grossly inaccurate. Tritium, with a half-life of 12.3 years, is considered “intermediate lived,” and carbon-14, with a half-life of 5,730 years is “longer-lived” according to numerous sources including the last comprehensive analysis of rad waste done in this state in 2000, “Management and Disposal of California’s Low-Level Radiation Waste: A Report to Governor Gray Davis.”
“It’s no longer radioactive and the half-lives are very short-lived; the carbon-14, phosphorus-32 and the tritium,” Spivey continued, now making the dump seem completely inert. He was at least correct in one aspect; the half-life of phosphorus-32 is a mere 14.29 days making it, indeed, short-lived. But Spivey’s repeated inaccurate assertions regarding tritium and carbon-14 betrayed either an ignorance or guile that perplexed this reporter though I’ll admit that I was taken by the utter aplomb with which these fallacies were imparted.
The group went on to emphasize that the area that they claim the dump is confined to the arroyo below the Barrington Dog Park and buried under 25 feet of debris and was found to be safe in a quarterly EPA inspection that was just completed two weeks prior to the meeting. “In addition to being fenced, there are no public activities in that area,” Fallen said.
Spivey also contradicted numerous official documents, and two maps from the 1970s and 1995, that confirm that part of the dog park is partially located over the old nuke dump. “There was no radioactive material buried under the Brentwood lease site,” he said referring to a diagram of the area that was created by Locus Technologies, a Walnut Creek-based company with offices in downtown Los Angeles. Inexplicably, the late 2000 Locus map showed the Barrington Park baseball field and dog park common fence, adjacent and above the arroyo, making an angular bend that conveniently keeps the lease area from overlapping the radioactive dump. In fact, the fence makes no such jog – it is straight and the lease area is clearly over part of the waste site in the earlier maps. I asked Spivey if this new rendering meant that the dump wasn’t under the dog park. He nodded affirmatively.
The VA foursome seemed most emphatic when it came to the rad waste PwC had reported as being under Brentwood School’s athletic fields. Again, the 2000 Locus report was cited as proof of that no radioactive waste was found under the soon-to-be athletic fields. “Six soil borings were drilled at the location where apparent medical incinerator ash was encountered prior grading operations,” the report said while stating that the material was tested for metals but not radiation.
“We actually had a Geiger counter with us and we monitored every load that came out, every load that they were excavating” said Spivey. “It was dead inert debris that posed no harm to anyone.” Spivey displayed a photo album that showed these ash piles and one picture had a man with a Geiger counter.
The Locus report also had a map that marked the locations of these debris pits, including one with the locations of the ash dregs. This reporter practically had to wrestle a copy of it from Fallen. “You don’t need that,” she protested but soon relented when it was clear that it wasn’t going to be handed back to her.
The locations are key to understanding the extent of the radioactive dumping at the Veterans Administration. The West LA VA cremated irradiated lab animals and simply buried the ashes like it had with the other nuclear waste. In 1960, an Atomic Energy Commission directive ordered a halt to much of it. “This means that at this Center no C-14 will be disposed of by incineration without permission from the AEC, in writing.”
The Locus map show three considerably-sized pits, up to hundreds of feet long, euphemistically called “buried historical solid waste disposal area(s).” The two largest are in the “lower bench” of the facility and look to have been located where the track and tennis courts are today. The third ash pit was found in the “upper bench” either under or by one of the school’s current baseball fields.
Was this ash pit where the remains of countless radioactive animals injected with carbon-14 were deposited? Would a Geiger counter detect it if it was? “A Geiger counter wouldn’t work because much of this material would be alpha or beta-emitting,” said CBG’s Hirsch. “Even if there were gamma-emitting material, you’d have to stand in that one spot for five or ten minutes and then stand in another spot for five or ten minutes to have a long enough count time to adequately detect it.”
So how could have the PricewaterhouseCoopers report have supposedly gotten its information on radioactive material being buried under the school’s athletic fields have been so wide of the mark? “It was a draft report that was never reviewed,” said Daniels of VA Assets Management. Co-worker, Steinberg Bluth, agreed. “It was unfortunate that it was released to the public before it went through a review.”
“We don’t know how they made the wrong assumptions, not knowing the site, not talking to experts like Ben (Spivey)” said Fallen. “The report should have gone through us. Ben, who’s the expert, was not consulted.”
Considering the so-called ‘expertise’ encountered in this meeting, I could only imagine what the never-seen PwC answers were to my questions. What secrets was the VA hiding?
“Let’s hope that you debunk the myth,” Daniels said as the meeting came to a close. When asked what myth she was referring to, the VA official fell silent.
Given the shaky science and baseless hyperbole surrounding the Brentwood waste disposal site, and the fact that it’s in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Los Angeles, it is no surprise that the VA is nervous about the final Team PwC report. “VA is not in receipt of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ final report submission and is therefore not able to provide comment on a document clearly identified as draft with a disclaimer regarding factual and editorial errors,” wrote Susan Pendergrass, DrPH, Director, Office of Strategic Initiatives in a Feb. 23 follow-up letter.
Eliciting true and accurate information about the CARES West LA VA conundrum may be made easier by a March 27 letter to VA Secretary Nicholson from the House of Representatives Committee of Government Reform. The letter, signed by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), and Waxman, the ranking minority whip, requests the contract between the VA and PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC and its contractors and a whole slew of documents related to the CARES process at the West LA VA.
The letter also posed questions about who excavated the radioactive material from the Brentwood School athletic field and where was it disposed. “Has the public been informed that contaminates are buried under or near the location of the Brentwood School athletic facility? Whose decision was it to leave the non-excavated radioactive medical waste in place?”
With the advent of the CARES initiative, how the community handles the possibility of development of the old nuclear and chemical dump remains to be seen. But for the few folks left that remember the lost dump, the idea of building out the property is an anathema.
“Given this unsettling history, why would anyone in their right mind want to ignore this dump and believe anything the VA has to say about it?” said former CBG staffer Ramberg. “When the Ahmanson Ranch development crashed in 2003 over concerns that neighboring Rocketdyne had polluted it with radiological and chemical contamination, the developer Washington Mutual had to walk away. It just doesn’t pay to develop ‘hot’ property. But it might pay to properly test the place to see how poisonous it is.”
There is a distinct difference between the failed development at Ahmanson Ranch and the VA’s Brentwood nuke dump – Washington Mutual didn’t know of the pollution problems with their property until this reporter exposed them. In this case, the Veterans Administration either doesn’t have a clue as to the radionuclides in their dump because of a poor understanding of radio-science or, perhaps worse, the department has made a conscious decision to ignore them. It is unlikely that either scenario will be comforting to the residents of Brentwood.