Unearthing the VA dump’s dirty secrets raises more questions than answers

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat — August 16, 2007

Nuke Em High

On August 8, after months of wrangling, Congressman Henry Waxman finally released nearly 6,000 pages of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) documents related to the Brentwood nuclear and chemical dump. The L.A. Democrat has had the documents since mid-December, having obtained them after sending a letter to now-outgoing VA Secretary Jim Nicholson on March 27, 2006, demanding information, in part, about the dump. “Has the public been informed that contaminates are buried under or near the location of the Brentwood School athletic facility?” wrote Waxman. “Whose decision was it to leave the non-excavated radioactive medical waste in place?”

The waste disposal site was used during the Cold War to bury radioactive animal carcasses and biomedical research trash contaminated with radioisotopes, including tritium and carbon-14, in unlined trenches and barrels. These materials are under what is now the Barrington dog park, an adjacent asbestos-contaminated junk-strewn arroyo, and the athletic fields of private Brentwood School, which leases 20 acres from the VA for its $2.5 million sports complex.

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As CityBeat first reported (“Real Hot Property,” May 18, 2006), a September 2005 draft report by VA subcontractor PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed that radioactive and asbestos-containing material was buried under 15 to 30 feet of fill at the Brentwood School’s athletic fields. It was a revelation Nicholson was eager to dismiss last year. “I wish to bring to your specific attention information contained in this material related to your requests #13 through #16 concerning environmental issues, and in particular, any possible radioactive medical wastes beneath or near the location of the Brentwood School’s athletic fields,” Nicholson wrote Waxman on December 12. “VA’s response clearly identifies a number of independent consultants and Federal and state reports that reviewed this issue. The conclusion of all of these reports is that there were no radioactive materials on the site.”

However, many of these 5,539 pages of documents not only contradict Nicholson’s claims but also show that the dump operated four years longer than CityBeat originally reported – starting in 1948 and ending October 28, 1968 – and was larger than first reported, stretching down the arroyo behind Brentwood Theatre. According to a former VA worker’s recount a quarter-century ago, burials took place “near the fence,” along Barrington Avenue, which could be under or adjacent to the present-day dog park and parking lot in areas previously unknown as disposal sites.

An October 2000 report by Walnut Creek-based Locus Technologies for the VA – which assessed the grading, development, and construction of the Brentwood School sports facilities – showed how tractors plowing the site uncovered several extensive ash pits buried about two feet underground. “Buried apparent medical incinerator ash was discovered during excavation activities at the upper bench area,” the report noted. “Approximately 780 cubic yards of apparent medical incinerator ash were visually screened, segregated and stockpiled on plastic sheets (visqueen) outside the Project area at the south end of the arroyo.”

The West L.A. VA cremated irradiated lab animals and simply buried the ashes like it had the other nuclear waste. In 1960, an Atomic Energy Commission directive ordered the facility to stop incinerating carcasses contaminated with carbon-14. “This means that at this Center no C-14 will be disposed of by incineration without permission from the AEC, in writing.”

The VA’s partner in animal and human radiation experimentation was UCLA, as CityBeat has reported (“Where the Bodies Are Buried,” May 25, 2006). The university also used the VA dump for biomedical rad-waste disposal and may have been the source of these extensive ash pits, although an official told CityBeat that UCLA has no records from the era. Records do exist, however, and show that UCLA incinerated radioactive animals and lab waste from 1954 to 1994 in a “Burn-All” crematorium on campus that had no air filters and was used to reduce to ashes even the deadliest radioactive waste, including “mixed fission products,” such as what would come out of a reactor core.

The Locus report also includes photographs of the Brentwood School’s excavations showing these unearthed ash pits and hundreds of spent hypodermic needles, many recovered from two metal trash cans filled with syringes and melted Petri dishes. “This assessment identified potential impacts to the human environment from several sources,” the report said, among them “medical waste including low-level radioactive materials … . Solid wastes and medical wastes have been covered by fill material to depths of twenty to thirty feet or more.

This waste, under what was to become the school’s “lower bench” athletic fields, was so vast that in the late 1990s work was halted on the first part of the project, installing a 2,500-foot storm drain system, according to a January 2000 environmental site assessment conducted by Santa Ana-based URS Greiner Woodward Clyde. “The syringes were often in plastic bags,” the report said. “The foreman indicated that there was so much unsuitable material (refuse) that the project was temporarily shut down until directed by a federal official (name unknown) not to excavate further and continue with a modified installation plan. The modified plan provided for the use of 3 to 4 feet of crushed asphalt to be placed over those areas with remaining unsuitable material to support the drain pipe.”

Knowledge of the leased site’s history seemed clear on May 24, 2005, when Vienna, Virginia-based contractor MicroTech, LLC submitted to the VA its Environmental Baseline Report and Analysis for the property, which included this time bomb: “The biomedical, radioactive medical waste and [asbestos- containing material] 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,” the document stated. “The fact that this area has already been developed for use as athletic fields indicates that: 1. Either the public was not informed as to the contaminates [sic] under the athletic fields, or 2. These environmental hazards did not trigger a significant negative public reaction from nearby residents (including parents of students using the fields).”

However, a week later, MicroTech changed its tune and submitted a revised report that said, “The radioactive medical waste site is not at the Brentwood School athletic fields. The Brentwood school site was never a burial site for low-level radioactive medical waste.”

In a double-reversal, MicroTech reverted to the original findings of rad-waste under Brentwood School in a July 18, 2005, report that eventually made its into the September 2005 draft PricewaterhouseCoopers report that Secretary Nicholson was so adamant in discounting to Congressman Waxman.

Indeed, the VA seemed quite keen on derailing this part of the CityBeat investigation even before “Real Hot Property” was published. In a February 10, 2006, e-mail from the VA’s Jessica Morris to MicroTech honcho Anthony R. Jimenez, Morris wrote that she had attached a “VHA [Veterans Health Administration] Issue Paper outlining how the VHA has handled face to face discussions with the reporter who originally brought up this issue.”

Two weeks later, Jimenez informed Morris that it would cost the VA $2,508 to “update” the report “based upon additional government furnished information provided by VA.” That money was intended for an environmental planner working 12 hours at $209 an hour to amend MicroTech’s environmental assessment by no later than March 10, 2006. CityBeat was never made aware of this information, and, once its story broke, the reaction was understandably strong.

“A recent Los Angeles Times article resurfaced this same issue,” Nicholson wrote Waxman when releasing the nuke-dump documents. “In order to alleviate the public’s apprehension and validate that there is not any danger, the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System has engaged the environmental consulting firm, Millennium Consulting Associates, to provide a new environmental assessment to check for radioactive waste contained in the soil in this area of the West Los Angeles VA campus. However, to avoid any further misunderstanding regarding this issue, I am requesting that you remove the draft CARES report from your Web site and when it is available replace it with the corrected final report.”

With grand promises made to print and television media, Millennium began testing the site last December, as CityBeat has reported (“Nuclear Reactions,” December 7, 2006), but the Pleasant Hill-based company’s initial results haven’t been released and the contractor has not begun the second phase of testing, which was to include soil borings up to 80 feet deep into the dumping grounds.

Waxman also has not removed the draft report from his website. “I requested these documents from the VA to learn more about land use and environmental conditions at the West L.A. VA,” Waxman said in an August 13 statement to CityBeat. “We should ensure the land is environmentally safe and that we are honoring our commitment to use it for the benefit of veterans. I also want to know more about the tests that are being conducted by the Millennium Consulting Associates and am following up with Secretary Nicholson about this matter.”

That would seem to be a fine idea but not an easy one. The just-released documents show that part of the heart of the dump, the arroyo, is now covered with the equivalent of 5,000 truckloads of dirt put there in the late 1990s. The presence of so much dirt makes it considerably harder to characterize the dump and then mitigate any soil contamination, should the VA make good on promises it gave Waxman and the community late last year.

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