The distinctive white cows still roam the hills as the AJU photo of white cattle shows in its The Land web page. An August 2012 Camp Alonim video features two men lightheartedly blowing on instruments in front of a couple of the cows.
Brandeis-Bardin is a working ranch with youngsters riding horses, using mountain bikes and taking hikes. EnviroReporter.com can only confirm the presence of two or three warning signs nailed to one or two trees on the sprawling campus boasting “countless hiking trails” warning hikers of any contaminated water and none regarding potential dangers from dust inhalation and soil to skin contact. A 2007 photograph shows the signs nailed to an oak tree up Meier Canyon saying “WARNING DO NOT DRINK OR USE THIS WATER” and “NO HIKING BEYOND THIS POINT.”
While most of Area IV drains through the Southern Buffer Zone and Bell Canyon into the Los Angeles River, significant parts of it drain into Brandeis-Bardin down into the Arroyo Simi and groundwater which is used as blended drinking well water in eastern Simi Valley mixed with imported supplies. This watershed includes the still radioactively contaminated site of the SRE.
The SRE partially melted down in 1959 releasing hundreds of times more radiation than the structurally fortified Three Mile Island reactor did when it partially melted down in 1979. Additionally, the northern NASA sections of Area I and Area II drain into Brandeis-Bardin.
Two reports found elevated cancers and other risks within a few miles of Rocketdyne in 2006. “The new studies were commissioned in 2000 by the state Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, at a cost of $700,000, after ATSDR had outraged the community by performing a month-long preliminary review the year before and declaring that SSFL chemicals and radiation were harmless to locals,” this reporter wrote in a February 16, 2006 Los Angeles ValleyBeat article called The Fallout.
“The cancer results were nothing less than astonishing,” the article reported. “Hispanics living within two miles of SSFL had 38 percent higher rates of all cancers than Hispanics (and non-Hispanic whites) living over five miles away from the lab and a 252-percent-higher ratio for chemosensitive cancers. Within the same distances and parameters, Hispanics living within two miles of SSFL had 189 percent higher rates of lung cancer, 271 percent more bladder cancer and 430 percent higher rates of melanomas.”
The 2006 UCLA report, Potential for Offsite Exposures Associated with Santa Susana Field Laboratory, showed offsite exposure data in almost every direction from SSFL in air, water and soil. Two radionuclides, Cesium-137 and Plutonium-238, stand out in the UCLA report as being present in above normal amounts in Brandeis-Bardin soil, readings even higher than in the already elevated 2004 Brandeis-Bardin soil tests.
As measured against the EPA’s October 2011 Final Radiological Background Study Report – Santa Susana Field Laboratory [286 PDF pages – 22.0 MB], soil samples from Brandeis-Bardin were significantly higher than their now-established backgrounds in the 1995 McLaren/Hart report for “Campsite Area 1 (BB-03).” The 1994 samples and tests found Cesium-137 was 65.9 percent over its BTV, Strontium-90 registered 22.5 percent over Area IV background and Plutonium-238 was over 9.4 times normal.
According to documentation obtained by EnviroReporter.com, the California Highway Patrol considers any material or situation over three times background to be the triggering level for a hazardous materials incident. The highest Pu-238 soil reading at Brandeis-Bardin was over 3 times CHP’s HazMat trigger yet Boeing in 2008 explained away these worrisome readings saying a Rocketdyne test again in 1995 found, mysteriously, nothing. “The 1994 study results therefore do not confirm 1992 study results and plutonium-238 is therefore not a concern.”
Perchlorate has been found in 18 wells in Simi Valley, as noted in this reporter’s 2002 exposé Rocketdyne Ranch, which helped lead to the creation of the Upper Las Virgenes Open Space Preserve instead of a massive housing development due to groundwater perchlorate concerns. The preserve, formerly known as Ahmanson Ranch, also borders Area IV and the Southern Buffer Zone on the other side of the lab from Brandeis-Bardin.
“The highest reading was 19.2 ppb [parts per billion], nearly ten times the new allowable limit of the powdery white substance in California drinking water,” the Ventura County Reporter newspaper cover story read. “Perchlorate has been found in a former sodium burn pit at SSFL and was disposed of in the eastern part of the laboratory where munitions and propellant testing took place.”
Perchlorate is considered a “precursor chemical” in groundwater meaning it moves faster from its source than other toxic contaminants. Brandeis-Bardin is much closer to the source, SSFL being the most obvious candidate, than the 18 Simi Valley wells that have tested positive. In 2003’s The Sins of Rocketdyne, this reporter noted that Rocketdyne/Boeing official Steve Lafflam had claimed that the perchlorate in Simi Valley wells could have come from road flares or fireworks.
Actually, almost all of the perchlorate contamination nationwide comes from rocket fuel. The solid rocket fuel booster was used in massive quantities at SSFL. Boeing admits that more than a ton of perchlorate was burned in open pits at SSFL to dispose of it. Perchlorate has been found in about a quarter to a third of monitoring wells in Simi Valley, and the two biggest supply wells.
As EnviroReporter.com would later find out in the course of this long investigation, perchlorate has been detected dozens of times at Brandeis-Bardin. Indeed, it was just one toxin in a chemical kaleidoscope that would only be pieced together years later.
Whatever reservations Dr. Bardin had about “Rocketdyne pollution” fouling the camp’s water in 1957 seemed to have evaporated by 1964 when the Brandeis Mutual Water Company was established. Perhaps James Arness didn’t tell Bardin about his cattle dropping dead, possibly from drinking contaminated water in the early 1960s, when he donated the land to Bardin’s Jewish institution a decade later.
By the mid-1990s, after around 15,000 alumni had stayed at the camp recreating in its intermittent streams and exploring its dusty trails, Brandeis-Bardin knew it had a serious problem. The Los Angeles Times broke the news with a December 15, 1995 story called Institute Sues Rocketdyne Over Toxics. In the piece, institute lawyer Helen Zukin tries to walk a fine line on the use of groundwater on the property:
“They cannot and are not using the ground water,” said Brandeis’ lawyer, Helen E. Zukin, alleging that enough toxic solvent has leaked across the property line to render the ground water undrinkable. The institute, however, has never used the ground water, she said.”
The institute seemed to have Rocketdyne dead to rights. “In or about August, 1991 defendants, and each of them, caused plaintiff’s soil and groundwater to be tested in order to determine if plaintiff’s property was also contaminated,” the lawsuit read in documents unearthed by KNBC. “On or about September 3, 1991, initial results of said testing revealed that plaintiff’s groundwater was contaminated. Before this date plaintiff did not know nor could have reasonably known of any potential contamination of plaintiff’s property.”
Once they ‘did know,’ Brandeis-Bardin claimed a galaxy of toxicants had trashed their land and water. “Defendants, and each of them, while owning and operating facility, allowed hazardous materials, including, but not limited to trichloroethylene; mercury; polychlorinated biphenyls; dicholorethylene; vinyl chloride; dioxin compounds; and radioactive cesium, and strontium, (hereinafter, “hazardous materials”), to be disposed of and released into the soil, air and groundwater. These hazardous materials have subsequently seeped into, and come to be located in the soil and groundwater of the real property.”
Yet even with its solid case against Rocketdyne, Brandeis-Bardin settled with new lab owner Boeing in 1997 for a net of around $1,862,817.25 after selling its 180 acres of tainted land on SSFL’s northern border with the camp, now known as SSFL’s “Northern Buffer Zone.” It is not known whether or not Brandeis-Bardin gave up any future right to sue over contamination, demand SSFL cease releases onto its property, or to force the polluter to clean up any contamination, past, present or future. It seems unlikely that Boeing would have made the deal if it would remain liable for new toxin finds such as the ones found in this investigation. Neither party has commented on the confidential settlement.
Read more at BRANDEIS-BARDIN’S TOXIC DENIAL INVESTIGATION
Photos, videos, reports, figures, tests, data and special analysis
For years, this reporter and others in mainstream and alternative print media on the SSFL beat were under the impression that Brandeis-Bardin took Rocketdyne/Boeing for at least $30 million. We were wrong. Not only did Brandeis-Bardin settle for chump change, it may have given away any say in further contamination of its land by SSFL. Today, the lab is years and hundreds of millions of dollars away from the only remediation that will prevent more pollution from continuing to plague downhill lands around the lab, a cleanup to background.
This baffling settlement was followed by years of no warnings to camp visitors, employees or tenants of the potential dangers that caused Brandeis-Bardin to sue in the first place, other than those few signs in the far reaches of camp. While it may have settled for relatively few dollars, Brandeis-Bardin succeeded legally in its assertions because they were almost certainly true. Warning its visitors of the hazards would seem the logical thing to do in the wake of revelations of its own.
Instead, Brandeis-Bardin has endeavored to paint the place as radiation and chemical free from SSFL even though no major cleanup at SSFL has occurred. For that unlikely scenario to be true, contamination at the top of the hill would have had to somehow magically stayed in place. Newly reported test findings verified and confirmed by EnviroReporter.com, along with those by DOE, and NASA as detailed in this exposé, clearly indicate that is not the case.
Brandeis-Bardin’s efforts to declare its property clean included an unsolicited September 28, 2007 email from a camp director to EnviroReporter.com. Apparently, our reporting on Runkle Canyon had hit a little too close to camp and prompted a series of ‘prebuttals’ from Dr. Gabe Goldman, self-described “Director of Experiential Education” at Brandeis-Bardin.
“My name is Gabe Goldman and I was hired in 2005 by the Brandeis Bardin Institute in Simi Valley to start a new Jewish environmental education program,” Goldman wrote to our general contact address. “As you know, our property lies directly beneath the cliffs of the former Rocketdyne disaster. Before moving here in 2005 from the East, I required that the Institute conduct a study of possible environmental pollution on the land. The Institute agreed and also showed me where it keeps the environmental testing records it has since the late 1980s when it began yearly testing.”
“I came here and spent three days personally collecting samples of ground water, well water (we have a dozen capped wells), soil samples, fruit and plant samples and we even milked our cows — not something they are used to,” Goldman continued. “We collected two dozen samples from all areas of our 3,000 acres… The tests included all the heavy metals, perchlorate and the other assortment of radioactive material and other pollutants so often found at government sites. The results that came back were clean. Anything that was an elevated level above normal background averages was still well beneath CA or national standards for concern. The milk tested better than the raw milk from Trader Joes [sic].”
What Goldman failed to mention was that in the May 15, 2006 memorandum from camp radiation physicist Joel I. Cehn to an unidentified, presumably Brandeis-Bardin, official was that perchlorate in any food substance at any level produced at the camp was cause for alarm. Perchlorate damages the human thyroid causing developmental damage especially in infants and children that will manifest oft-times in intelligence loss and impaired organ development. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to perchlorate’s toxic punch.
California’s limit for perchlorate in drinking water is 6 parts per billion, or ppb. The memorandum, courtesy of a limited number of documents that AJU gave to the KNBCI-Team, said that a whopping 14.9 ppb of perchlorate was in its 2004 milk, over double the state limit. The scant report doesn’t say what the camp did with its milk.
Goldman didn’t mention the troubling Brandeis-Bardin milk perchlorate findings, only that they weren’t as bad as Trader Joe’s (actually the report says Vons). Nor did he cite Cehn’s July 2007 “Summer Testing Report” that found 5.8 ppb in vegetation in the Gan area garden and 2.33 ppb in the Organic garden’s vegetation. “The only significant finding this year is the perchlorate detected in milk and vegetation,” Cehn wrote. “[Milk] result indicates that area cows are grazing on grass containing perchlorate.”
Goldman’s 2007 email to EnviroReporter.com continued:
“Runkle Canyon borders on the southwest side of our property and I’ve been reading your information about what you’re finding there. I don’t doubt what you’re finding but wonder why we haven’t found anything here.”
Actually, as this article amply shows, plenty had been revealed about the radiation and chemicals in Brandeis-Bardin before Goldman’s 2007 missive. His reasoning resembles some of the rhetoric years later that has been leveled against KNBC for its sin of even reporting about Brandeis-Bardin’s radiation and chemical issues.
Unknown to EnviroReporter.com as it investigated, prepared and produced this investigation, KNBC – Channel 4’s I-Team would come out with Brandeis-Bardin coverage that produced new information. Along with shaking loose radiation and chemical testing data, KNBC precipitated reactions from American Jewish University, former Brandeis-Bardin employees like Gabe Goldman, and individuals who attended Camp Alonim over the decades.
“I was a CIT, Counselor and riding instructor at Alonim 3 summers, 1969-71,” commented Lisa Chait Appelbaum on the Facebook group Camp Alonim of the 1970s (and 60s) page November 11, 2015. “My memory is that at least once a week Rocketdyne would shoot off it’s [sic] crazy jet fuel jets straight up into the air, right over camp. Between that and the Santa Su Field Lab, contamination of Alonim was probably astronomical. I am not saying I believe anyone at Brandeis was involved in a cover-up, but companies like Rocketdyne and SSFL are known for any and all attempts to keep what they’ve done to the environment and possibly humans under wraps.”
Ruminations, heartbreak and betrayal marked some of the comments. “The attacks on [KNBC‘s] Joel Grover a well respected journalist as well as former employees who are well respected members of our community are just so wrong,” commented Leslie Sackheim the next day on the forum. “I had a beautiful niece who attended many retreats at Alonim during her childhood. We lost her a few years ago after a year long ugly battle with non-smokers lung cancer. She was in her twenties and was suppose[d] to be married the same month she passed. Watching her suffer was horrific and heartbreaking. I can’t stop asking if her illness and time at Alonim were related?”
David Dassa, a forty-year self-described “role model to countless children and young adults who have spent time at Camp Alonim,” shared with the forum an email he sent November 12, 2015 to Robert Wexler, president of AJU. Dassa had been interviewed by KNBC for its investigation and had been criticized for it by some in the Jewish community.
“Without disclosing all reports to the public for testing that was performed (and continues to be performed) at Brandeis over the years, there is no transparency as to the safety of the Brandeis Bardin grounds,” Dassa wrote in the email. “Parents are entitled to full disclosure so they can decide whether or not to send their children to the Institute. Neither Brandeis nor the AJU have provided parents with this choice – something that I find unconscionable and not within the context of Judaism as I know it.”
Dassa was also amazed by the trove of previously secret documents detailing Brandeis-Bardin’s financial settlement of the contamination of its land in the mid-1990s. “Now, as the confidential settlement agreement with respect to the lawsuit has been made public, I see that my worst fears have been confirmed,” Dassa wrote to Wexler. “It is hard to fathom how, on the eve of trial for a matter of this magnitude (where who knows how many thousands of lives were and may continue to be put at risk), that Brandeis settled the case for a mere $3.2M, with 35% of that amount paid to Helen Zukin and an outside law firm (noting that both Helen and the outside law firm each “kindly” donated $35K of their fees back to the institute).”
Closing with an appeal to Jewish decency, Dassa spelled out what he felt needed to be done by AJU. ”It is extremely unprofessional, divisive, and very sad that the AJU and you personally have chosen to discredit me and other leaders in the Jewish community,” Dassa wrote. “This constitutes Lashon Hara [“evil tongue“], rather than Tikkun Olam [“repair of the world“]. I believe that only with an apology and full disclosure by the AJU of any and all soil and ground reports, will Brandeis-Bardin be able to perhaps move forward.”
Gabe Goldman exploded in indignation at the mere suggestion something could be amiss at Brandeis-Bardin claiming he knew the land better than anyone other than Arness’ foreman who stayed on after he donated the ranch in order to keep running it. “The KNBC story on Camp Alonim / BBI is the cruelest and ugliest example of “investigative reporting” that I’ve seen since reading about Israel,” Goldman declared. “Additionally, testing of water and soil and plants on the BBI side under that range never showed any contamination, radiological or chemical. When KNBC says they uncovered a document, it’s more bullcrapola – one of the former BBI Board or staff gave it to them.”
American Jewish University wasn’t done with KNBC either. “This latest story from KNBC continues to create gross misperceptions about the Brandeis-Bardin property and more than two decades of environmental test results that affirm the property is safe,” said Wexler in a Nov. 21, 2015 letter to the “Alonim Family.”
“Earlier this month, the DTSC confirmed the safety of the Brandeis site at a public workshop. And as recently as October 15, 2015, the DTSC wrote: “Based on available data, there is no evidence of contamination from SSFL [the Santa Susana Field Laboratory] that poses an off-site threat to human health or the environment.” This is very clear-no threat to human health or the environment extending beyond SSFL. This statement can only be understood to refer to the entire 2,700-acre Brandeis-Bardin property.” [Wexler emphasis]
In another bullet point, Wexler wrote “In 1995, the EPA determined there were low levels of contamination in remote areas of what was then Brandeis-Bardin property, but declared: “…the theoretical cancer probability or risk to campers and camp counselors is less than the EPA’s.” [Wexler emphasis]
In May 2016, AJU claimed that new “extensive” testing it commissioned proved that there was no “unacceptable” risk to public health on its property. But an NBC4 investigation revealed numerous problems. Experts including Bob Alvarez, former senior adviser to the United States Secretary of Energy, and Dan Hirsch, director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at UC Santa Cruz, criticized the study for taking too few samples.
The study took only 14 samples out of Brandeis’ 2,878 acres. Even so, according to Hirsch, one of those 14 samples found Strontium-90 at two and half times local background. Critics of the study also noted that it did not test for many chemicals known to be on the SSFL property. AJU also claimed that the US EPA had found the site safe – claims denied by EPA when asked by the KNBC I-Team.
The lab that AJU chose to conduct the study, Tetra Tech, was recently fined $7,000 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for deliberately falsifying soil samples from another former nuclear site in San Francisco. Even so, by simply agreeing to “Discuss the facts and lessons learned from this event with its employees who are engaged in licensed activities within 180 days, emphasizing the importance of not engaging in willful activities in violation of NRC’s regulations,” Tetra Tech avoided the fine.
This time, AJU lashed out at KNBC before the segment even aired, sending KNBC a letter stating that, “We remain concerned that the piece you plan on airing tonight might defame BBC by implying that wrongful conduct has been perpetrated by AJU or that the safety of our campers or visitors to our campus has in some manner been compromised.”