Brentwood School study finds no radiation on campus land leased from the VA, but bigger questions remain unanswered

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat — February 22, 2007

Hide and SeekIn a January 30 letter to the parents of students at Brentwood School, headmaster Dr. Michael D. Pratt revealed that the exclusive private establishment had hired two firms in December to evaluate its school soil. “I am delighted to report that our additional environmental testing has confirmed that there is no radiation on our school grounds above normal background levels,” Pratt wrote of the $150,000 report.

That property, as first reported last May, has radioactive biomedical waste buried under it according to an August 2005 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs by contractor PricewaterhouseCoopers. A CityBeat exposé revealed that from (1948) to 1968, the VA and UCLA dumped medium- and long-lived radioactive and toxic chemical waste under property that is also now part of the Barrington Recreation Center, a dog park, and an adjacent arroyo. The detritus included irradiated lab animal carcasses and ash, as well as radioactive tritium and carbon-14, from years of animal and human radiation experiments during the height of the Cold War.

The school’s 313-page study by Emeryville-based Environ International was released January 30, weeks before the results of a $78,500 VA-commissioned “comprehensive radiation walk-over survey” conducted by Pleasant Hill-based Millennium Consulting Associates. Those unreleased results were due January 26 and are supposed to be followed by a second phase this spring that includes borings up to 80 feet to test for underground radioactive waste. Those borings are meant to “gain closure on the uncertainty regarding potential health issues,” according to Millennium’s president Michael Noel.

According to critics, however, the studies seem to have raised more questions than answers, not only because of questionable testing methodologies but also due to their stated goals and assumptions. They say that Brentwood School is determined to nix any notion of radioactive waste ever being buried under the school’s athletic fields, let alone being there now, while the VA’s testing contractor has repeatedly shortcut its survey since announcing it November 27.

Environ’s three-phase investigation of the property included surface soil sampling and twelve 30-foot-deep borings, even though only four holes were drilled in any areas even suspected of containing buried biomedical radioactive material. “We took a fair number of samples and we didn’t get any detects of tritium or carbon-14,” said Environ’s head, Dr. Chris Whipple, later adding, “I can’t state positively that there is no radioactivity at the site.”

“Common sense dictates that four borings over such a large, multi-acre area is clearly not adequate,” said dump observer and nuclear issues analyst, Dr. Bennett Ramberg. “How representative and accurate is one sample per acre, dug no more than six inches below, when we’re talking about rad waste perhaps under 15 to 30 feet of fill? To spend over $150,000 on insufficient testing, over half a year after the information came out, would seem a waste, wouldn’t it? One can only speculate on why the school waited so long and what their true motivations are, but fear of lawsuits would be understandable.”

The earlier PricewaterhouseCoopers examination noted that “biomedical, radioactive medical waste … are all now buried under 15′ to 30′ of fill material areas leased to the Brentwood School for use as athletic fields.” The study also speculated that “Either the public was not informed as to the contaminates [sic] under the athletic fields, or these environmental hazards did not trigger a significant negative public reaction from nearby residents (including parents of students using the fields).”

The Los Angeles Times picked up the story November 30, crediting CityBeat and, but soon issued a correction that stated, in part, that “The study was conducted by MicroTech LLC, a separate company hired by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and its findings were contained in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ broader report.”

This correction rankles Anthony Jimenez, the head of MicroTech LLC, an “award-winning, fast growing, Service-Disabled, Veteran-Owned and small business,” according to the website of the Vienna, Virginia-based company. “I didn’t provide anything to PwC and you’re about the 400th reporter that has called me to ask me about that,” Jimenez said January 30. “I don’t work for PwC. I never worked for PwC. PwC is a sub on my contract – I’m not a sub on theirs. I don’t know how it ended up where it ended up because I’ve never done any work for them.

“If VA intends to throw me under the bus, I’d be very interested to see the document they’re trying to do it with,” Jimenez said. “The point is that right now, I would love to hear if it’s Secretary [James] Nicholson – or whoever it is at the VA – I would love to hear what they have to say about any report I provided them.”

However, Brentwood School’s Michael Pratt hinted that Nicholson may be preparing to challenge the findings attributed to MicroTech LLC, which allegedly state that there is radioactive debris buried under the school’s athletic fields. In a January 22, 2007 letter to Nicholson, Pratt wrote that a “report MicroTech LLC prepared for the VA” that “stated that radioactive biomedical waste was buried under land Brentwood School shares with the VA” was “simply a mistake,” and requested that Nicholson clarify the situation who, as of publication, hasn’t done any such thing. The VA did not respond to CityBeat‘s repeated requests for comment.

The VA did, however, ask Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) in December to remove the draft PwC report from the Congressman’s website even though the VA hasn’t sent a corrected version. “They maintained it was an error,” said Lisa Pinto, Waxman’s district director. “They’ve asked us to take it off our website and we’ve declined.”

“This follows a pattern that we’ve seen with the VA on everything that we’ve dealt with them,” said Special Forces vet Keith Jeffreys, president of the VA watchdog group Citizens for Veterans’ Rights. “From benefits and veterans’ services to land use and toxic waste buried under VA property, the West L.A. VA fails to come forward with all the information they have in a timely manner so that this land is run properly.”

Further troubling VA observers is the way Millennium Consulting is conducting its Phase One survey. Broad swaths of the 27 acres slated for surficial soil testing were missed, including the inclines of the dump’s main arroyo, land adjacent to Brentwood Theatre, and a considerable chunk of Barrington Recreation Center including part of the dog park. Millennium’s Noel says he won’t be revisiting Brentwood School, either. “It has been more than adequately addressed,” Noel told CityBeat on January 30.

But has it? Ramberg notes that the large debris mound in the center of the known dump is the same one that the VA told CityBeat in January 2006 was a result of excavating waste from under Brentwood School’s fields. The mound’s ambient radiation is twice normal background and shards of radioactive glass and a “hot” syringe were found next to it. The syringe still lies on the ground although Noel had said he would have it analyzed for radiation.

“It would behoove Brentwood School to know what’s in that mound since they maintain, perhaps presumptuously, that no rad waste was buried on its leased land,” said Ramberg. “It’s an obvious choice for Millennium’s Phase Two that [the mound] should be cored and a determination made if there is any radiation and how hazardous it is. Wherever [Millennium] sees a mound, they should bore. It’s that simple.”