Two days before the last local CARES meeting on September 22, the VA gave the local advisory panel PricewaterhouseCooper’s draft report on the West L.A. site. Before long, it was on the website of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), in whose district the dump is located. 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.”
That September meeting, which lasted more than 10 hours and was attended by around 1,000 people, was held by a panel appointed by VA Secretary 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 Nicholson immediately after the hearing, although two more public meetings are scheduled. Their six guiding principles included reaffirmation of the federal Cranston Act, a 1988 law that protects the 109 northeastern acres of the site – which includes the dump and the park over it – from any development that does not directly benefit veterans.
PricewaterhouseCooper’s draft report on the VA site seems to indicate that, during the building of athletic fields now leased by the Brentwood School, some of the radioactive waste was removed to an “off-site disposal facility” and the rest left buried under these fields. The report suggests this may be a concern for development, saying, “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.”
This has led to some confusion among those directly affected by the dump.
“We have been consistently told by VA people that there was waste buried in an area that was not underneath our facility,” says 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, down the arroyo, as they put it, from where our athletic fields were developed. 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,” continues Winter, 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.”
In a January interview, VA officials offered up a series of contradictions and prevarications about what might be in that dump. Present at the meeting were Operations Officer Barbara Fallen, who is the VA’s point person on the West L.A. VA CARES initiative, Asset Management personnel Laurel Daniels and Katherine Steinberg-Bluth, and Ben K. Spivey, Chief, Occupational Safety and Health and Senior Industrial Hygienist for the West L.A. VA.
“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.”
To repeatedly 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.
“It’s no longer radioactive,” Spivey continued, making the dump seem completely inert. The group went on to emphasize that the dump area – the arroyo below the Barrington Dog Park – lies buried under 25 feet of debris, and was found to be safe in a quarterly EPA inspection that was just completed two weeks before the meeting. “In addition to being fenced, there are no public activities in that area,” Fallen said.
Though maps from the 1970s and 1995 show that the buried radioactive material would lies under the city-leased park, Spivey disagreed with this. “There was no radioactive material buried under the Brentwood [park] lease site,” he said, referring to a diagram of the area that was created by Locus Technologies. Inexplicably, the late 2000 Locus map shows the Barrington Recreation Center 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 depicted 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 PricewaterhouseCoopers had reported as being under the Brentwood School’s athletic fields. Again, the 2000 Locus report was cited as proof that no radioactive waste was found. “Six soil borings were drilled at the location where apparent medical incinerator ash was encountered prior grading operations,” the report said, while also revealing 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 which measures gamma radiation.
“A Geiger counter wouldn’t work because much of this material would be alpha- or beta-emitting,” says 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 the PricewaterhouseCoopers report have supposedly been so wrong about radioactive material being buried under the school’s athletic fields? “It was a draft report that was never reviewed,” said Daniels of VA Asset Management.
“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.”
“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 said nothing.
Eliciting true and accurate information about the CARES West L.A. VA conundrum may be made easier by a March 27 letter to VA Secretary Nicholson from the House of Representatives Committee on 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 and a whole slew of documents related to the CARES process at the West L.A. VA.
The letter also posed questions about who excavated the radioactive material from the Brentwood School athletic fields and where was it disposed.
The advent of the CARES initiative has community residents and activists taking another hard look at the VA’s disturbing record of radioactive dumping.
“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?” says 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 extensive the problem is.”
Next week: The animal and human radiation experiments at the VA and UCLA that helped fill the Brentwood nuclear dump.
Michael Collins is a frequent contributor to CityBeat. For comprehensive information, documents, and photographs on the Brentwood dump, see his website EnviroReporter.com.