This wasn’t true. One sample tested high enough in alpha radiation in April 1981 to trip a law-mandated characterization of the well. This was never done though the law, which is part of the California Code of Regulations – Title 22, had been on the books since 1979. A high alpha reading suggests an unnatural source for the radioactivity, possibly from the dump, which could be very dangerous considering what’s already known to be in it. The well, which had been in operation since 1928, was closed in 1996 due to chemical contamination not connected to possible offsite radioactive contamination from the Brentwood VA dump.
By the end of August 1981, the NRC assured Beilenson and Braude that all was okay. “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.”
LA’s Recreation & Parks filed its California Environmental Quality Act Notice of Preparation on December 15, 1981. The draft Environmental Impact Report contained all the NRC findings and declared that the place was safe. It repeated the water findings with the high alpha reading but also didn’t require the mandated monitoring of the suspect well. Perhaps throwing a bone to the environmentalists, the draft EIR noted, “As an important note, major excavation activities will not occur during site preparation phase alleviating any concerns over unearthing buried materials.” A month later, CBG called the draft EIR “cavalier” for determining that there was no hazard at the site. It decried the report as “unsound, incomplete, and inconclusive.”
In early February 1982, the VA responded to a set of questions that CBG had submitted two weeks earlier. The response included three major fabrications that the VA’s own records bear out. The VA declared that it didn’t exchange any radioactive materials with UCLA when records show that it did under its joint AEC experiments. The VA falsely stated that there was no acceptance of radioactive waste from UCLA yet the records show that tritium and carbon-14 waste from UCLA were deep-sixed in the Brentwood dump. And, most incredulously, the VA avowed, “So little C-14 was utilized… (it was) not buried on VA property to the best of our knowledge.” This statement didn’t gel with the VA’s own documents that show C-14 as being the second most prevalent radionuclide in the dump.
The VA was also cagey as to the chemical contaminants in the waste site claiming that all chemical disposal records were destroyed after two years. “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.”
CBG’s Hirsch was at his wit’s end. “It’s not like you can go anywhere on the field to find contamination,” Hirsch said. “So a geologist told us that what needed to be done was to fly over this property and to take infrared photographs because vegetation will show up as red. If there were radioactive or chemical wastes buried beneath the surface, they would likely migrate upward and kill off the vegetation. So if we could plot where vegetation wasn’t growing, we would know where we could dig it and take a soil sample or do more detailed Geiger counter work.”
Hirsch pressured Braude to arrange for an LAPD helicopter flyover with a police photographer. It was a ride he would never forget.
“It was one of the most dramatic events, actually, of my life,” Hirsch said. “Way up with big open door. (I’m) hanging out of this door flying over West LA. Braude’s office, however, which was very reluctant to have this done, had informed the VA several days in advance that we were coming. So we flew over where the grasses grew and where the grasses didn’t, and where it didn’t, we’d be able to take radiation samples or soil samples. As we fly over, all of a sudden we get over the VA and my jaw just drops. We looked down below us and what had yesterday had been a huge field of grasses up to your waist was now completely plowed under. A tractor was down below plowing the last little bit of it under. Now the VA claims that this was all standard practice in terms of weed abatement and fire control. We can never prove (a cover-up). We did check and it was done weeks earlier than they usually do it. Literally, the evidence was plowed under. So we were not able to chart where the holes were.”
“The long and the short of it is that I can’t find that vegetation right now because it was plowed under,” Hirsch continued. “The problem is that we were unable to identify the locations for the tests to occur. Braude and Beilenson, who were not happy with us at all for having raised these issues because they were getting in the way of the park they wanted built, said ‘go ahead and build the park.’”
CBG had played its last hand. “CBG was effectively spent – the political process had sucked the air out of any possibility of stopping the park,” said former CBG staffer Ramberg. “Regrettably, there was nothing left to do.”
By December 1982, the LA City Department of Recreation and Parks had concluded that the twelve-acre park would “pose no conceivable health risk to the public.” On June 16, 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.
“I believe in being careful,” Braude told the Los Angeles Times on June 30, 1983. “I believe in public hearings. I believe in participatory democracy. But when all the evidence is in and all the hearings have been held, one must have the courage to move forward and I’m delighted we did.”
The West LA VA’s Radiation Safety Officer at the time, L.W. Wetterau, went even further in his glowing appraisal of the land. “I’ll give you my opinion if you print it exactly as I say it,” Wetterau told the LA Weekly in a July 29, 1983 article on the dump. “Environmentally, that site is as safe as any on the globe. I would love to live on that site. I would build on it and live on it.”
In early May of the next year, the city signed off on the $1,044,000 project and the park was built and opened on May 27, 1985. Braude and Beilenson threw out the first balls on a newly create baseball diamond that stretched over the nuclear waste dump in deep centerfield.
But the park soon faced a new danger. In February 1986, the VA declared 109 acres of the Brentwood facility to be excess federal land as part of the Reagan Administration’s long-range goal of reducing the federal deficit. Even though that acreage for possible sale was later shrunk to 80, it still included the new park. Eventually, the proposal to sell off the land was dropped after vociferous protests by Braude, Beilenson and the Brentwood community that helped result in passage of the Cranston Act of 1988 which protects the northeastern 109 acres of the VA from commercial build out.
In 2001, Rep. James T. Walsh (R-NY) tried but failed to implement an April 2001 initiative entitled “Plan for the Development of a 25-Year General Use Plan for Department of Veterans Affairs West Los Angeles Healthcare Center” as part of the 2002 fiscal year VA-Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill. The most controversial aspect of the plan was repeal of the Cranston Act. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), in whose district the West LA VA lies, succeeded in nixing the measure with an amendment that prohibited funding of the plan.
Standoff on Soldiers’ Soil
Out of 26 million veterans nationwide, 2.3 million live in California making the West LA VA one of the most important veteran centers in the United States. There are more veterans living within fifty miles of the facility than 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 homeless vets. The VA estimates that its West LA staff has served 60,000 homeless veterans over the past 10 years.
This prime real estate is an asset to the beleaguered VA, which is in deep trouble financially in part due to the cost of caring for the scores of wounded and maimed returning from Iraq. As of the end of March, over 17,400 American soldiers had been wounded in the war. The Army’s Surgeon General estimates that thirty percent of troops returning from Iraq have developed stress-related illnesses including anxiety, anger, depression, nightmares and concentration problems.
More than 360,000 soldiers have already returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the American Legion, and over 86,000 have sought health care from the VA. The number of VA-treated vets rose by 5.2 percent in 2005, an increase of 3.2 percent over the department’s original projection. Currently, the average annual cost for a single veteran’s health care in the VA system is approximately $5,000 a year.
After repeatedly assuring Congress that the VA was on sound footing, the White House had to ask for an additional $2 billion to cover the VA last July 14, this after asking for $975 million just two weeks prior. The requests for increased funding resulted from the VA’s underestimation of the number of vets seeking health care as well as the escalating costs of health care and long-term treatment.
Ultimately, the 2006 President’s budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs provided approximately $70.8 billion for veterans’ benefits and services. Despite veteran groups’ criticism of the new budget, they were thankful that they beat back two Bush Administration proposals that would have charged veterans joining the health care system a $250 enrollment fee and would have increased prescription co-payments from $7 to $15.
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. “The May 2004 Secretary’s CARES Decision Document will serve as VA’s road map for bringing VA’s healthcare system’s facilities in line with the needs of 21st century veterans,” read a VA document explaining the plan early last summer. “The CARES Decision resulted from a multi-stage, long-term effort and identified 18 sites for additional analysis and studies. These studies will include recommendations to VA regarding the optimal approach to provide current and projected veterans with equal or better healthcare than is currently provided, in terms of access, quality and cost effectiveness, while maximizing any potential reuse / redevelopment of all or portions of the current real property.”
The VA hopes to slim underused space 42% by 2022. The department is developing legislation for a so-called ‘independent real property disposal authority’ to deal with these federal holdings. “This authority would allow the VA to dispose of underused real property and retain proceeds for reinvestment in veterans’ health care and capital improvements to medical facilities,” the document further explained. “The (VA) recommends that any study involving excess or surplus property should consider all options for divestiture, including outright sale, transfer to another public entity, and a reformed enhanced use leasing process.”
The 18 sites across the country, from Perry Point Maryland to Muskogee Oklahoma, range in size from a few dozen acres to several hundred. Six buildings on 6.48 acres make up targeted property in Manhattan which is home to the Preservation and Amputation Care Team, Prosthetic Treatment Center, Amputee Center and the Prosthetic and Orthotic Lab. The metro New York VA centers in Manhattan and Brooklyn service 169,376 veterans. The 17.1-acre Brooklyn facility was originally part of Fort Hamilton and transferred to the VA from the U.S. War Department in 1945. Of the twelve buildings on the site devoted to patient care or administration “range from poor to fair condition” according to Team PwC’s CARES Stage 1 Summary Report issued last year. “The site’s primary re-use/redevelopment potential is for residential development (condominiums or apartments).”