KCET’s “Life & Times” covered the West LA VA dump issue December 19, 2007. Here is the video clip and transcript.

Publish date: December 19, 2007
Last updated: December 21, 2007

Reporter’s NOTES – Hena Cuevas

I first interviewed environmental reporter Michael Collins in late 2006 about his reports on contamination at Runkle Canyon in Simi Valley, Calif. Back then, he mentioned something that peaked my interest. He told me that he was looking into an old nuclear dump site in Brentwood, Calif. Since this is one of the most exclusive areas in Los Angeles, I wanted to learn more about it.

It would take over a year for us to eventually do the story. And as it turns out, it became the last one I would do for Life & Times before the show goes off the air.

It isn’t an easy one to tell—environmental and contamination stories rarely are—but Life & Times was one of the few TV shows on the air that offered the time to go in-depth into these issues.

Life & Times Transcript 12/19/07

Val Zavala>> Tonight on Life and Times —

Dogs play there, children go to school there, but what’s underneath this park in Brentwood?

Michael Collins>> I think what we at EnviroReporter.com brought to the table, we’re able to push this story along so the community would have to face that there is a nuclear dump in Brentwood.

Val Zavala>> And then, you could call it buried treasure. The hundreds of artworks in the stations of the Los Angeles subway.

It’s all straight ahead on tonight’s Life and Times.

Announcer>> Life and Times is made possible through the generous support of the L.K. Whittier Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life by supporting innovative endeavors in the fields of medicine, health, science and education.

And by a generous grant from Jim and Anne Rothenberg.

Val Zavala>> Our story today takes us to the Veterans Administration, the large facility we’re all familiar with in Brentwood. The issue? Biomedical nuclear waste that was buried here more than fifty years ago. Hypodermic needles and even the cremated remains of radioactive lab animals. How dangerous is it? That’s the question Hena Cuevas set out to answer.

Hena Cuevas>> Barrington Park is one of the best places in Brentwood for dogs to run free. It’s nice and peaceful above ground, but there are questions about what’s buried deep under the grass and mulch. For twenty years, this area was used as a dumping ground for radioactive waste.

Michael Collins>> There were experiments on animals, humans, and I looked at what they did and that way I could find out for sure what it was that went into this dump.

Hena Cuevas>> Michael Collins is a freelance environmental reporter. He first heard about the dump six years ago when an environmental group brought it to his attention.

Michael Collins>> They had tried a quarter century ago to bring the facts of the matter to the public’s attention and did. Unfortunately, for them, they failed to convince government leaders and the community enough that there was enough of a danger to have the area properly characterized before the building of the park that we’re at now.

Hena Cuevas>> So Collins decided to look into it. He found that, from 1948 to 1968, the Department of Veterans Affairs, together with UCLA, conducted radiation experiments on animals and humans.

Michael Collins>> That if you were going to do experiments like that that were somewhat reckless, you might be a little reckless in your disposal of the wastes. Indeed, here I was able to discover that wastes were dumped in unlined trenches, different types of radioactive waste that shouldn’t be mixed together were mixed together.

Hena Cuevas>> The waste included hypodermic needles and the remains from cremated lab animals that had been radiated. Collins began a series of newspaper articles and posted most of the information on his website, EnviroReporter.com.

Michael Collins>> What we at EnviroReporter.com brought to the table was full evidence of what’s here, maps of what’s here, photographs of what’s here and, in conjunction with L.A. CityBeat, we were able to push this story along so the community would have to face that there is a nuclear dump in Brentwood.

Hena Cuevas>> The dump straddles three locations, the Veterans Affairs, or VA, the dog park, and a private school called Brentwood School. It, together with the parks, leased the land from the VA. But to Collins’ surprise, the community wasn’t receptive to his revelations.

Michael Collins>> I can only speculate as to why. People not wanting Brentwood to be associated with having a nuclear dump, a neighboring Brentwood school getting tagged with the moniker of “Nuke ‘Em High”. Any of these kinds of things might be a reason that they were reticent at that time to look at this issue more seriously.

Hena Cuevas>> But at Brentwood School, someone was paying attention. The school is exclusive and private. It has only a thousand students in grades K through twelve. Governor Schwarzenegger’s children go there. In May 2006, the school’s director, Michael Pratt, was given one of Collins’ articles.

Michael Pratt>> But we had known before that there were burial sites on the VA property including several solid waste burial sites on our campus. When the excavation for the fields had been initially done, any debris that was uncovered was removed. No radioactive materials were found at that time.

Hena Cuevas>> He’s referring to the athletic fields located on campus. The Brentwood School agreed to share the fields with the VA when the students weren’t using them.

Michael Pratt>> We were aware that there had been radioactive medical waste materials buried on VA property, but not on the property that we share. We had been assured that no radioactive materials had ever been buried on the property that we share with the VA.

Hena Cuevas>> Nevertheless, last year the school decided to conduct its own test. A new aquatic center was being built near the dump site and, since the area was being dug up, it was the perfect opportunity to test the soil for nuclear waste and other contaminants. Those tests came back clean.

Michael Pratt>> It demonstrated that no radioactive materials had ever been buried anywhere on the lands that we share with the Veterans Administration.

Hena Cuevas>> But Collins isn’t so sure. He says, based on historic maps, the school tested in the wrong areas.

Michael Collins>> When you take one surface sample per acre randomly chosen, when you bore in places that have nothing to do with where we think the radioactive contamination is and the reason you do it is because you’re building a pool and the land is open and easy to bore into, that’s not sound science.

Hena Cuevas>> But that’s not the only testing that’s been done.

Ralph Tillman>> So it’s this entire area, if you will, that is the area being questioned.

Hena Cuevas>> Ralph Tillman is with the VA, the government department that owns the land. The VA did its own test of the area in 2005.

Ralph Tillman>> All the independent studies that have been performed have drawn the same conclusion that there are no environmental safety or health concerns on the properties in question.

Hena Cuevas>> That’s true, with one exception. The first draft of the VA study did say they found traces of radioactive medical waste under the school’s athletic fields. But Tillman says that was a preliminary report that contained inaccurate information and should never have been released.

Ralph Tillman>> There was a draft report which was not finalized, had not been reviewed nor edited, and that was posted on an elected official’s website. That had misinformation. What we’ve been doing ever since is trying to put out the correct information.

Hena Cuevas>> So as part of that effort, the VA conducted yet another round of testing. Phase One of the testing took place a year ago last December, taking a look at the more than two decades of Cold War dumping that took place on this site. What that study found was that there were traces of contaminants surrounding the site and recommended that some additional testing take place.

So a million dollars has been set aside for testing to begin in the spring. These red flags are from that Phase One investigation and indicate hot spots, places where toxic waste was detected. Tillman says that Phase Two will look into that.

Ralph Tillman>> It’s just more detailed. They will do subsurface exploration, soils borings at a number of different sites, so it’s just a more extensive study than Phase One.

Hena Cuevas>> But Collins doesn’t understand why the VA doesn’t simply go to the areas where they know the waste was buried.

Michael Collins>> We have maps that the workers have created from back in the day that say, “This is where we dumped this stuff.” What we would recommend and what would be cheaper and what would cut to the chase is to begin to excavate it.

Ralph Tillman>> From our perspective, there’s nothing to get out. In other words, it’s a safe environment. The land is safe, the surface is safe. So unless the test results would cause that recommendation for us to do soil remediation, then that would be a proper action. But again, until we get the results, we don’t know.

Hena Cuevas>> You’ve been conducting this investigation for the past six years. How frustrating has it been not receiving a positive response from the VA, from the school and even the residents themselves?

Michael Collins>> It’s been very frustrating. While it may be frustrating, the fact is, we’re doing the kind of reporting that will hopefully end up benefiting the public good.

Hena Cuevas>> For the time being, the site remains closed and new metal signs warn people to stay away. Collins hopes Phase Two will answer his remaining questions, but he’s vowed to continue following the story until he’s assured that the land used by kids, the people of Brentwood and their dogs is hazard-free. I’m Hena Cuevas for Life and Times.

Val Zavala>> So how do you think this waste should be handled? You can post your comments. Just go to kcet.org/lifeandtimes/blog.