That kind of CARES development scheme spells fighting words to local Los Angeles leaders where the West LA VA construction could begin as early as 2009. Last June 21, 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. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky 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. “It is becoming increasingly apparent,” Yaroslavsky wrote in the motion, “that the V.A. 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.”
More than 700 people converged on University High School in West LA for a CARES community forum September 14 that was the largest of its type that Yaroslavsky had ever seen in his 30-year political career. “We’re in for a fight because the federal government doesn’t have a clue as to what they are going to run into – a buzz saw,” Yaroslavsky shouted to the vociferous anti-commercial development crowd. “They are hostile, secretive and not transparent and are trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.”
Two days before the last local CARES meeting September 22, the VA gave the local advisory panel
PricewaterhouseCooper’s draft report on the West LA site. Before long, it was on the website of Rep. Waxman. 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.”
The meeting, which lasted over ten hours and was attended by around a thousand people throughout the day, was held by a panel that was appointed by VA Secretary Jim 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 the Nicholson immediately after the hearing, although two more public meetings are scheduled. Their six guiding principles included reaffirmation of the Cranston Act.
During a break in the proceedings, this reporter approached Team PwC for comment on the nuke dump referred to in its report. Paul Chrencik, the PricewaterhouseCoopers managing partner on the CARES project, quickly intervened and forbid any media inquiries. “They can’t talk to you,” he said. “You have to go through the VA.”
In mid October, the West LA VA’s public affairs office said that any questions for Team PwC had to be mailed to the same address in Maryland that the public uses for submitting comments on the CARES initiative. On November 17, a set of questions were posted to Chrencik which addressed the startling information in PricewaterhouseCooper’s draft report which read, in part: “An approximately two-acre area in area “J” along the banks of the arroyo was used as a medical waste disposal area from the 1950s until 1968. This medical waste included radioactive biomedical wastes. These radioactive medical wastes were apparently disposed of in accordance with the U.S. Department of Energy requirements that allow for burial of radioactive medical wastes. Construction of athletic fields for the Brentwood School between 1996 and 1999 uncovered several of the disposal areas. Excavated wastes were collected and removed to an off-site disposal facility.”
Ignoring the fact that the quarter in question is actually area “A”, the submitted questions included asking where Team PwC got their information, who excavated the waste and where the waste went.
The PwC report went on to read, “At this point the radioactive wastes are at approximately 10 half-lives and theoretically do not emit radiation greater than other non-radioactive materials. Testing of the waste did not detect any radiation levels above background. Off-site monitoring well sampling has not detected any radiation above back ground levels.”
The half-life comment about the dump reflected in this passage doesn’t make sense scientifically as radionuclides all have different rates of atomic decay. This knowledge is one of the basic fundamental principles of radiation measurements. I asked Chrencik what exactly “10 half-lives” referred to, and if it implied that there is only one radionuclide in the disposal areas, namely tritium (H-3), the most prevalent radionuclide in the disposal areas according to my research. Finally, I inquired about who concluded that the wastes emit no more radiation than non-radioactive material, who tested the waste and what did they test the waste with and who did the off-site monitoring well sampling and where are those wells located.
The draft report also revealed the startling revelations that “[T]he biomedical, radioactive medical waste and ACM 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. None of these disposal areas is considered a significant environmental hazard at this time. Radiation and ACM’s are below threshold limits. Biomedical wastes encountered during development of the athletic fields were removed to a suitable off-site disposal area. 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. Remediation of these wastes includes encapsulation (which has already been done) or removal to an acceptable disposal site.”
I asked what Team PwC meant by “all” the waste sites are buried under “fill material areas leased to Brentwood School for use of athletic fields.” Did this mean that there are no other radioactive medical waste sites not underneath these fields and who made this determination and when? Who determined that the radiation was “below threshold limits” and when? Why were biomedical wastes encountered “removed to a suitable off-site disposal area” if they are not considered a “significant environmental hazard at this time”? What kind of “encapsulation” of these wastes took place and by whom and when?
“We have been consistently been told by VA people that there was waste buried in an area that was not underneath our facility, said 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, is down the arroyo, as they put it, from where our athletic fields were developed. We were even shown physically at one point, in a walkabout, and it was maybe the equivalent of a couple of football fields down from where we were doing our work. So that’s what we know.”
“The radioactive waste dumpsite is apparently well known to the federal government and therefore we were informed about it but it is many many yards down beyond where the athletic fields are,” Winter continued. “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,” Winter said 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.”
As weeks rolled by waiting for Team PwC’s answers about the dump, this reporter began corresponding with Dan Bruneau, the VA’s Director of Communications Management. “The people in our CARES office said they would have answers for you by 12/22,” Bruneau wrote in mid-December. “I had hoped it would be a bit sooner, but at least they have committed to a date.”
Bruneau also told me that if I wanted a copy of the VA-PricewaterhouseCoopers contract, a Freedom of Information Act request was required. I filed a FOIA on December 20. Three weeks later, the contract arrived with 21 pages withheld entirely, and 27 out of the 31 enclosed pages almost entirely blacked out. The redacted document was useless for discerning what Team PwC was charged with accomplishing. Bruneau did, however, later impart what PricewaterhouseCoopers was paid. “The contract calls for PWC to receive $9.7 million for studies at 18 sites.”
Nearly two months had passed before the VA finally received PwC’s written answers to questions about their draft report. But apparently there was something wrong with them. “I did a lousy job of explaining the concerns about the written responses,” Bruneau wrote January 11. “I should have said we learned that the technical nature of some of the subject matter made a written response less satisfactory and likely to raise more questions. It seemed the simplest and most efficient thing was for you to speak with Barbara (Fallen) so you could deal with things all at once.”
Long Beach-based Fallen, an Operations Officer who is the VA’s point person on the West LA VA CARES initiative, arranged for a face-to-face interview at the VA in late January. The meeting commenced with addressing questions about the radioactive waste under the Brentwood School athletic fields that, according to Fallen, began to be constructed in 1999. Team PwC had stated that in its report that construction of the facilities was from 1996 to 1999.
Actually, the building of these facilities started with grading of the land in June 2000 according to a February 2002 letter from the California Department Health Services to Ben K. Spivey, Chief, Occupational Safety and Health and Senior Industrial Hygienist for the West LA VA. Spivey accompanied Fallen in this conclave which also included VA Asset Management personnel Laurel Daniels and Katherine Steinberg Bluth.
What followed was a series of contradictions and prevarications that can only be described as baffling. Not only did the discussion include misinformation that even a novice in radiation science would catch, so did the written documentation copied for this reporter during the course of two hours of discussion.
“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. There were about ten different isotopes put in there but these were the most common.”
To 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 including the last comprehensive analysis of rad waste done in this state in 2000, “Management and Disposal of California’s Low-Level Radiation Waste: A Report to Governor Gray Davis.”
“It’s no longer radioactive and the half-lives are very short-lived; the carbon-14, phosphorus-32 and the tritium,” Spivey continued, now making the dump seem completely inert. He was at least correct in one aspect; the half-life of phosphorus-32 is a mere 14.29 days making it, indeed, short-lived. But Spivey’s repeated inaccurate assertions regarding tritium and carbon-14 betrayed either an ignorance or guile that perplexed this reporter though I’ll admit that I was taken by the utter aplomb with which these fallacies were imparted.
The group went on to emphasize that the area that they claim the dump is confined to the arroyo below the Barrington Dog Park and buried under 25 feet of debris and was found to be safe in a quarterly EPA inspection that was just completed two weeks prior to the meeting. “In addition to being fenced, there are no public activities in that area,” Fallen said.