A popular Brentwood dog park on Veterans Administration property is built over an old radioactive waste dump that may soon be unearthed by proposed development
By Michael Collins
SUVs and luxury sedans glide into the Barrington Dog Park just south of Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood, where industry types and soccer moms chatter on cell phones as dogs like the Australian Shepherd named Mick Jagger and a pug called Spanky bound out of their cars to romp with other privileged pooches. It’s a scene that represents one ideal of Westside living. Draped with eucalyptus trees, the park is popular with celebrities, including Dustin Hoffman, Kirsten Dunst, and Owen Wilson. It hosts an annual “Bow-wow-ween” festival in October, with costumed dogs judged by NoTORIous television star Tori Spelling.
Just adjacent to the park, on another piece of the Veterans Administration campus, is MacArthur Field, which is often packed with hundreds of young soccer players. Errant balls often fly off the field and into a ravine that borders both the field and the dog park, and which is surrounded by a chain-link fence. And down in that ravine is evidence that this idyllic playland may have a poisonous heart.
Players and curious kids access the ravine through an unsecured gate on the VA field, ignoring the faded paper warning signs. The ones that say: “THIS IS A CLOSED SITE.” What those signs don’t say is that this ravine is the barely covered core of a radioactive waste dump, which stretches underneath parts of the dog park and borders the athletic field. From (1948) to 1968, UCLA and the West L.A. Veterans Administration, now called the Veterans Affairs West Los Angeles Healthcare Center, used the land adjacent to and under the park to bury radioactive biomedical research waste.
The wastes buried there, according to research records unearthed by CityBeat, include barrels of radioactive tritium and lab wastes, and animal carcasses from Atomic Age-experiments involving the toxic radionuclides carbon-14, zinc-65, strontium-85 and strontium-90, gold-198, iodine-125, cobalt-60, copper-67, manganese-54, xenon-133, indium-113, calcium-47, iron-59, and several others. 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 more than four times normal.
Carcasses of radioactive lab dogs, cats, and a menagerie of animals make up approximately half of the toxic trash deep-sixed there. The dumping was done before regulations were created to control these wastes. Raw wastes were tossed or poured into the dump, deposited in unlined trenches and holes with nary a record of the dumping for the first eight years of operation. But these materials have a long life as poisons. The carbon-14 isotope, for instance, has a half-life of 5,730 years. The location was also used as a chemical waste disposal site for the VA and UCLA.
The issue of what exactly is in the dump has been effectively buried by VA and regulatory officials, who managed to thwart comprehensive and scientifically sound investigation of the site and allowed it to be covered with a park. Now, however, 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 L.A. VA site is being eyed as one of those properties, the development of which could begin in 2009 and possibly unearth 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 Veterans Affairs 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.”
And then, of course, there’s the issue that such development may be toxic. Despite a spirited campaign to get the dump properly characterized in the early 1980s, a Los Angeles-based nuclear watchdog, the Committee to Bridge the Gap (CBG), lost the battle over the dump 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 12 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 end of the off-leash area lies over a known chunk of the nuke dump, as does deep center field of one of the park’s baseball diamonds.
“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 we researched and discovered that indeed the VA had been dumping radioactive waste [there].”
The same kind of biomedical radiation research was also done at UC Davis. There, residual radiation from experiments on more than 1,000 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 L.A. VA dump has ever been done, nor any remediation of the nuclear and chemical hazards that remain buried there.
“The Committee to Bridge the Gap tried to make everyone aware of the potential dangers of the dump a quarter century ago,” says former CBG Research Director Dr. Bennett Ramberg, now a national and international columnist on nuclear issues. “But in the singular drive of local politicians to have their park, 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.”
The new initiative to develop the VA has inadvertently divulged that the Brentwood nuclear dump is even larger than previously estimated. Last September, a member of the local CARES advisory panel leaked a detailed preliminary report on the site conducted by VA contractor PricewaterhouseCoopers that described the Brentwood nuke dump in detail, and said:
“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.”
This information was later followed by another 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, or
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, one of the most prestigious private schools in the nation, has a 20-year enhanced sharing land use agreement with the VA that expires June 2020.
These PricewaterhouseCoopers disclosures have resulted in a flurry of government denials and mischaracterizations of the 13 radionuclides known to be present in the waste site. The investigation of this forgotten dump has been encumbered every step of the way by a recalcitrant Veterans Administration – which has now tried to distance itself from the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, which cost taxpayers nearly $10 million to complete.
After five years of investigation, CityBeat has found that the dump is the product of either an inept Department of Veterans Affairs blithely unaware of the dangers deep in the dirt of Brentwood – or a VA that knows precisely what’s buried in the dump but is still doggedly determined to develop one of the most valuable chunks of federal land in the nation.
No one is exactly sure how much radiation is secreted in the Brentwood dump. What is known, however, is that no amount of radiation exposure is safe for humans. In late July 2005, the 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.
The VA and UCLA were part of America’s massive Cold War enterprise to understand the biological effects of that radiation, and experiments were done on both animals and humans. A 1996 government report titled “The Human Radiation Experiments,” put together by the President’s Advisory Committee, says, “By 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.”
The refuse from some of these experiments ended up in the Brentwood dump. Existing records show that the most prevalent radionuclide at the VA dump site 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 that it halves itself during that time due to ionization. Heavy water was often just poured into holes dug at the Brentwood site. It was also put in bags and barrels with other radioactive waste. These dangerous practices were forbidden 11 years after the dump had closed in 1968. As more was learned about deadly radiation, liquid and solid waste were no longer allowed to be mixed or simply tossed together with animal carcasses. “Do not mix radioisotopes of short and long half-lives, or gamma with beta emitters,” one West L.A. VA memo instructed in 1979.
The existing VA records from 1960 to 1968 also reveal that the second most widespread rad 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, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at USC and a group leader in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. “Most carbon-14 used in research is in the form of biochemically active forms, and therefore if ingested, could be dangerous.”