Toxic chemicals were also discarded during the 16 years that the VA dump was active. UCLA admitted that it had ditched known and unknown chemicals at the site in four-to-eight-foot-deep holes. The chemicals included toxic toluene and carcinogenic dioxane. “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 in 1981. “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,” says Rick Greenwood, adjunct professor of Epidemiology at the UCLA School of Public Health and director of the UCLA Office of Environment, Health and Safety. “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 some records do exist and show that UCLA used the VA dump to dispose of tritium and radioactive animal carcasses. A comprehensive examination of thousands of pages of Atomic Energy Commission-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. Other records gleaned from the files of Committee to Bridge the Gap, the VA, and UCLA confirm nuclear waste dumping at the site.
From Dump to Dog Park
The off-leash park opened in the fall of 2003 after being carved out of the original 12 acres that the city of Los Angeles leases from the VA for a dollar a year. It is run by L.A. Recreation and Parks and overseen by the Friends of Barrington Dog Park (FOBDP), whose waste worries extend mostly to dog doo.
“People usually come here and try to just keep a low profile,” 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.”
The dog park sits on a bluff overlooking the ravine in which the dump sprawls eastward. Across this gully is the huge MacArthur Field used by teams from the Coast Soccer League, including the Galaxy Fusion and the Westside Breakers – “the premier girls’ soccer club on the Westside area of Los Angeles,” says the group’s website. Rule No. 1 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 brushy areas.”
Posted warning signs, just pieces of paper in plastic sheet protectors, give few clues as to what lies underground. No biohazard signs. No indication of toxics. The signs do say that only authorized personnel are allowed and that no trespassing or excavating is permissible. 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.”
When the Committee to Bridge the Gap became aware that late Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude and former local Congressman Anthony Beilenson 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. CBG issued a press release in March 1981 that pointed out some of the main radionuclides known to be at the dump, but also stated that coring was needed to investigate the extent of the contamination.
Coring remains the only way to find out what is in the dump, as the VA only has a crude map of three areas where it tossed toxics for the 16 years of operation. Coring, simply put, is the process of drilling into the earth with a hollow tube and extracting an undisturbed sample of soils and debris. “Radioactive waste was disposed of by burial without knowledge as to the amount, depth, or spacing of burials,” reads a May 1960 Atomic Energy Commission compliance report noting VA noncompliance with regulations. “No records of radiation disposal were maintained.” Internal VA letters show that the VA was concerned about getting AEC approval for some of its dumping.
Braude and Beilenson quickly responded to CBG’s concerns and promised “independent testing and analysis of the substances in this disposal site.” The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, however, which formed out of the AEC in 1974, quickly dismissed CBG’s concerns. In an internal communication, dated April 24, 1981, then-NRC Region V Chief of the Radiological Safety Branch, Herbert E. Book, wrote that even though “Precise 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, then the past dumping at the site was of no concern. “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,” Book deducted. “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. This was the beginning of a set of NRC and VA fabrications and deceptions that set in motion a series of events that led to the building of the park.
Book cautioned against any NRC restrictions on the land. “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,” he wrote. “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 identified by the U.S. EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and the environment. It is the worst of the worst.
In May 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 to 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,” said Joseph Karbus at the time, regarding Geiger counter inspections of the dump. Karbus was the head of the Radiological Health Unit of the Los Angeles County Health Department. “You have to go down and take a core sample to find out anything.”
But by the end of August 1981, an NRC memorandum assured Beilenson and Braude that all was A-OK. “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.”
L.A. Dept. of Recreation & Parks signed off on the park in December 1981, basing its draft Environmental Impact Report on the NRC findings. Perhaps throwing a bone to the environmentalists, the draft EIR stated, “As an important note, major excavation activities will not occur during site preparation phase alleviating any concerns over unearthing buried materials.” CBG called the draft EIR “cavalier” for determining that there was no hazard at the site, decrying the report as “unsound, incomplete, and inconclusive.”
In early February 1982, the VA responded to a set of questions that CBG had submitted regarding the dump. The responses included three major fabrications revealed by the VA’s own documents. The VA declared that it didn’t exchange any radioactive materials with UCLA, but reports show it did under its joint AEC experiments. The VA falsely stated that there was no acceptance of radioactive waste from UCLA, yet logs from the time show that tritium and carbon-14 refuse from the university was buried in the Brentwood dump. And, most incredibly, the VA avowed, “So little C-14 was utilized … [it was] not buried on VA property to the best of our knowledge.” The VA’s own documents show carbon-14 as being the second most prevalent radionuclide in the dump.
The VA also claimed that all chemical-disposal records were destroyed after two years, therefore to speculate on them would be irresponsible. “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,” reads one VA document.
CBG made one last attempt to locate the buried radioactive waste, but before its field work could be done to detect mutated vegetation, the site was plowed under. “CBG was effectively spent – the political process had sucked the air out of any possibility of stopping the park,” says former CBG staffer Ramberg. “Regrettably, there was nothing left to do.”
In June 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. The $1,044,000 park opened May 27, 1985. Braude and Beilenson threw out the first balls on a newly created baseball diamond that stretched over the nuclear waste dump in deep center field.
Standoff on Soldiers’ Soil
Out of 26 million American veterans nationwide, 2.3 million live in California, making the West L.A. VA one of the most important veteran centers in the United States. There are more veterans living within 50 miles of the facility than reside 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 vets. The VA estimates that its West L.A. staff has served 60,000 homeless veterans over the past 10 years.
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 from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The VA hopes to slim underused space 42 percent by 2022. The department is developing legislation for a so-called “independent real property disposal authority” to “dispose” of federal holdings and put the money back into health care and medical facilities.
Those are fighting words in Los Angeles, where new VA construction could begin as early as 2009. Last June, 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 site. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose Third District includes the VA, 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 north of Wilshire, where the dump lies. “It is becoming increasingly apparent,” Yaroslavsky wrote in the motion, “that the VA 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.”