From 1946 through 1970, it was U.S. policy to dump rad waste in shallow land-burial sites on government property or in the ocean at AEC-licensed drop zones. Much of the VA and UCLA’s radioactive rubbish ended up being mixed with cement and sealed in 55-gallon drums, then dumped 35 miles southwest of Port Hueneme in Ventura County. U.S. EPA records show that 3,114 containers filled with radiation by-products like cobalt, strontium and cesium and source materials like uranium and thorium isotopes, were dumped at the site from 1946 to 1960. The barrels landed in depths of water ranging from 1,830 to 1,940 meters, or more than a mile down. According to CBG’s Hirsch, if they didn’t implode on the way down, they’re there today slowly corroding and leaking radioactivity in the prime fishing area.
The U.S. terminated all ocean-dumping of rad waste in 1970. Three years later, it ratified the London Dumping Convention prohibiting, among other things, the ocean disposal of high-level nuclear wastes. The new rules did allow for the future dumping of low-level radioactive refuse but only under controlled conditions stipulated by the Convention. “Irreversible radioactive waste disposal is most unwise,” wrote Warf. “We dare not let this toxic, radioactive garbage get into the food chain via the ocean or underground water.”
How UCLA dealt with its cremated cadavers resulted in a lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed. In 1996, attorneys representing relatives of people whose bodies were donated to the university’s willed-body program sued UCLA’s med school and the UC Regents. They alleged that the university illegally disposed of bodies since the 1950s by disposing of them in landfills and in those barrels dumped at sea. “I was the one who sealed the incinerator related to the burial at sea issue,” said Greenwood. “It was part of the willed body program.”
From Dump to Dog Park
The Barrington Dog Park exhibits no signs of being the site of an old radioactive dump. There is no solid evidence that the surface of the dog park is dangerous. This reporter’s inspections of the known affected part of the dog park in 2001, 2005 and last month with a nuclear radiation monitor revealed elevated degrees of ionization at ground level but that could be attributed to naturally occurring radiation in the soil.
The dog park opened in the fall of 2003 after being carved out of the original twelve acres that the City of Los Angeles leases from the VA for a dollar a year. It is overseen by the Friends of Barrington Dog Park (FOBDP) and run by LA Recreation and Parks. The only waste of concern is dealt with by the numerous pooper-scoopers positioned about the separate small and large dog areas. During midday, hired dog walkers show up with their rich clients’ canines and immediately do a “crap lap” picking up dog-doo so other park users don’t get too ticked-off at all their dogs.
The nearly two-acre spread, with regulars like Cloris Leachman and Aaron Eckhart, has become a center of all things dog in this ritzy neighborhood. Late last July, the park was the site of the Purina ProPlan Rally to Rescue, an event that cost over $200,000 and attracted around 400 pet fanciers. The affair featured a dog parade through Brentwood Village, two-story tall inflatable pets, and cat and dog tricks all to support animal shelter pet adoption. Dennis Quaid took home a pug.
The dog park is not without its share of drama. In August 2004, a Papillion was killed by a Labrador-pit bull mix. In memoriam, FOBDP arranged to get a special French street sign from T-shirt sales that read, “Parc Choupette, est. 2005,” named after the little dead dog. It was installed for the official dedication of the small dog park. Actor Jim Belushi got kicked out of the off-leash facility after his bringing his two aggressive German Shepherds, according to dog park committee officer Annie Lever, who is known as “America’s most celebrated dog walker” and makes $150,000 annually. “Belushi thought that it was funny when his dogs were herding other dogs,” said Lever. “We didn’t.”
“People usually come here and try to just keep low profile and be normal,” 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. Dogs tend to be a great equalizer. Everyone here picks up their own poop, not to put too fine a point on it.”
The dog park sits on a bluff overlooking a ravine where the dump sprawls eastward. Across this gully is a huge VA athletic field used by the teams from the Coast Soccer League including the Galaxy Fusion and the Westside Breakers. “The Westside Breakers has quickly become the premier girls soccer club on the Westside area of Los Angeles,” proclaims the group’s website. Rule number one 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 or into brushy areas.”
One calm spring day, a reporter watched the Breakers at practice; playing soccer and running drills with hundreds of other kids. A warning sign was posted by the gap in the gated fence separating the soccer field and the known nuke dump. The sign, actually a piece of paper in a plastic sheet protector, said that only authorized personnel were allowed and that no trespassing or excavating was permissible. “THIS IS A CLOSED SITE.” 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.”
Things were not always so serene and worry-free for the area. When the Committee to Bridge the Gap became aware that the late Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude and ex-local Congressman Anthony Beilenson’s 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. The nuclear watchdog group subsequently issued a press release in March 1981 that pointed out some of the main radionuclides known to be at the dump, including tritium and carbon-14, even though “it is hard to know until there is coring done at the site, the environmental group said.”
Coring still remains the only way to find out what is in the site, as the VA only had a crude map of three areas of where they poured and buried their toxic garbage for the sixteen years of operation. Coring, simply put, is the process of drilling deep into the earth with a hollow tube and extracting an undisturbed sample of the intact layers beneath the surface. “Radioactive waste was disposed of by burial without knowledge as to the amount, depth, or spacing of burials,” noted a May 12, 1960 AEC compliance report noting noncompliance with regulations. “No records of radiation disposal were maintained.”
CBG pointed out that the dump hadn’t been inspected for a decade from August 1969 until the group began making inquiries about it. The early inquiries precipitated a VA sweep of the area with a Geiger Muller counter and a small sampling of plant, soil and water for radiation. They found nothing, which is to be expected — the primary known radionuclides at the dump are beta and alpha radiation emitters, which can only be detected from a very short distance and are not readily revealed once buried underground.
Braude and Beilenson quickly responded to CBG’s concerns and promised “independent testing and analysis of the substances in this disposal site.” This made sense as an internal VA letter from early 1969 foreshadowed. “It is essential, however, that Atomic Energy Commission approval of the transfers of these properties be obtained since terrain modifications, such as cut and fill procedures may be required.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, formed out of the AEC in 1974, quickly dismissed CBG’s concerns. In an internal NRC communication, dated April 24, 1981, then-NRC Region V Chief of the Radiological Safety Branch, Herbert E. Book, wrote that even though, “[P]recise 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 from regulations, then the past dumping at the site was of no concern. “Effective March 11, 1981, the NRC Regulations were amended to exempt biomedical wastes such as these, containing H-3 and C-14, from regulations,” Book wrote. “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. 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. The operative phrase in the `81 regulations was “the licensee may dispose of specified concentrations of these materials without regard to their radioactivity.” Those concentrations were indeed very small.
This was the beginning of a set of NRC and VA fabrications and deceptions that set in motion a series of events that helped lead to the transformation of part the dump into a park. After all, if the substances were harmless, they could be dumped literally anywhere. Book goes on to state, “No controls were found to be necessary on location of burials (the licensee was not even required to have control of the property) or on subsequent use of the property.”
“In light of this and our recent decontrol of biomedical wastes containing H-3 and C-14, it would seem totally irresponsible and incredible if the NRC should decide that controls or conditions should apply to the future use of the property,” wrote Book, forming the crux of the NRC arguments used to justify building the Brentwood park with no proper characterization or cleanup.
“The matter of precedence is also worthy of consideration,” Book continued. “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. 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 in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the U.S.-EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment. It is the worst of the worst.
On May 7, 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 – 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,” Joseph Karbus, head of the Radiological Health Unit of the LA County Health Department, said at the time regarding Geiger Muller counter inspection of the dump. “You have to go down and take a core sample to find out anything.”
The NRC released its assessment of the site on August 5, 1981 and called it clean while mischaracterizing the amounts of the most prevalent radionuclides. The report also noted that the LA Department of Water and Power had collected five water samples from five adjacent wells used to supply Santa Monica and that the “results indicate no levels of unsatisfactory radioactive contaminations in accordance with acceptable levels defined in the Safe Drinking Water Act.”