2017-05-19 / Front Page

DTSC gives Brandeis campus a clean bill of health

But some activists remain skeptical
By Melissa Simon

ALL CLEAR—Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley has served Ventura County’s Jewish population for over 70 years. It lies just north of the Santa Susana Field Lab (see map at right), a former government rocket engine and nuclear energy test site that once suffered a meltdown. 
Courtesy photos ALL CLEAR—Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley has served Ventura County’s Jewish population for over 70 years. It lies just north of the Santa Susana Field Lab (see map at right), a former government rocket engine and nuclear energy test site that once suffered a meltdown. Courtesy photos Contamination from the Santa Susana Field Lab does not pose a health risk to users of the neighboring Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, according to a report released this month by the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The Brandeis-Bardin Institute, a 2,800-acre center for Jewish learning founded in 1941 that includes Camp Alonim for kids and teens, is located north of the field lab, where a partial nuclear meltdown occurred in 1959.

Prompted by lingering questions of potential health risks at the institute, the DTSC recently reviewed about 25 years’ worth of environmental data gathered from Brandeis and released a report May 2 confirming the safety of the campus.

“Based on . . . our review of the available data and sampling efforts from the past 25 years, DTSC has determined that the levels of chemicals and radionuclides found on the campus do not indicate a threat to the students, faculty, campers, staff or any visitors,” DTSC spokesman Mohsen Nazemi said during a May 11 media conference call.

But many remain skeptical of the report’s findings.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory Work Group— a committee consisting of representatives from the community, academic institutions, and pub- lic health advocacy and nuclear policy organizations—called the DTSC report a “deeply troubling memorandum.”

“DTSC’s memo is not a scientific document, but rather a supersized word salad filled with extraordinary misrepresentations of the existing data,” work group members said in a May 11 statement provided to the Acorn.

“This memo threatens the entire cleanup and puts at risk all who live in the area.”

Off-site migration

Built in 1947, SSFL helped launch the nation into the Space Age and aided in the development of advanced rocket systems and weapons by conducting nuclear experiments.

Toxic cleanup efforts have been underway at the 2,850-acre field lab for the past decade. Boeing Co. owns about 80 percent of the property, while the federal government owns the remaining 20 percent. NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy are also involved in the cleanup.

While the field lab is no longer active, some are concerned that contamination left from decades of testing has migrated off-site to the Brandeis-Bardin campus—an assertion the DTSC flatly rejects in its May 2 report.

Denise Duffield, an activist and member of the SSFL work group, asserts the DTSC left out key independent studies— like one conducted in 2006 by UCLA’s Yoram Cohen and University of Michigan’s Hal Morgenstern—that indicate field lab contamination has migrated off-site.

“By excluding recent reports that show contamination at Brandeis and misrepresenting existing data, DTSC has made it appear that Brandeis- Bardin—located directly below one of the most contaminated sites in California—has not been impacted by SSFL. And that is false,” Duffield told the Acorn.

“DTSC simply needs to be honest about contamination findings, not cherry-pick which reports it will use (because) this issue is not so much about testing as it is about cleanup,” she said. “DTSC needs to clean up all of the contamination at its source—SSFL—so that there can be no more off-site migration that threatens nearby communities.”

Rabbi Jay Strear, senior vice president of the American Jewish University, which has owned the institute since 2007, said the “tremendous total body of data conclusively states . . . that Brandeis-Bardin is safe.”

“We regret that for some, emotion and ideology have eclipsed the ability to objectively consider the voluminous body of scientific data developed and studied by the U.S. (Environmental Protection Agency) and DTSC,” the rabbi said in an email.

‘No hazardous concerns’

During the May 11 conference call, Nazemi was asked whether Camp Alonim kids—the camp has been operating since 1953— had always been safe from contamination, even when the partial nuclear meltdown occurred at the field lab in 1959.

In response to the question, the DTSC spokesman said he declined to comment “on what may have happened 25 years ago or 50 years ago.” He said only that past testing showed “no hazardous concerns.”

In the 1990s, however, Brandeis-Bardin sued Rocketdyne— the owner of SSFL at the time—after studies conducted by Rocketdyne revealed that several contaminants, including tritium and toxic cleaning solvent TCE, had migrated to the campus. The studies were confirmed by an off-site runoff analysis conducted by the U.S. EPA.

Brandeis-Bardin alleged the pollution had damaged the camp, but the parties settled for $3 million before the case went to trial.

When asked why the lawsuit, which contains evidence of previous health concerns, was not included in the DTSC’s May 2 report, Nazemi said he was unfamiliar with the case.

“In 1997, Boeing actually purchased the part of Brandeis with the highest radionuclides and incorporated that into the field lab . . . and we will be addressing it through our draft (environmental impact report for cleanup at SSFL),” he said.

Strear said the 180 acres acquired by Boeing was not part of the campus when the American Jewish University took over in 2007.

“Because the lawsuit was settled before AJU acquired the property, we have only limited information about the details,” the rabbi said. “Anecdotally, prior to this settlement, the U.S. EPA had already concluded that Brandeis- Bardin . . . was safe.”

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