Questions Raised About Camp Safety Study

Owners of camp next to radioactive site say all is safe

A popular Southern California children's camp says a new study it commissioned confirms there's no danger to kids from a radioactively and chemically contaminated former rocket and nuclear test site located next door.

But the NBC4 I-Team discovered the firm, which did the camp study, was recently found by the feds to have apparently falsified tests on another job, according to an investigation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Now, some parents and experts are questioning the validity of this new camp study.

The study investigated potential contamination at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, home of Camp Alonim. The Institute is next door to the Santa Susana Field Lab, a former nuclear and rocket testing site that remains contaminated with radioactive materials and toxic chemicals.

The NBC4 I-Team has been reporting on the Field Lab for more than a year and a half.

In a letter to families, American Jewish University (AJU), which owns the camp and paid for the report, said this new study "definitively confirms the safety" of the 2,800 acre campus and finds there is "no unacceptable human health risk" from contamination at the Field Lab. The AJU says as part of the study, "extensive additional testing" was conducted at the camp in February 2016.

Not everyone agrees.

Robert Alvarez, a former Senior Advisor to the United States Secretary of Energy and an expert on handling radioactive materials, read the 522-page camp study done by the company, Tetra Tech.

"It doesn't prove anything and it doesn't disprove anything. It's really inconclusive," said Alvarez.

"They took a trivial number of samples, and you're incapable of being able to demonstrate it's safe that way," said Dan Hirsch, director of the program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at U.C. Santa Cruz, who also reviewed the Tetra Tech study on Brandeis.

Hirsch has testified at the U.S. Senate about past activities at the Field Lab and the need to clean it up. Hirsch noted that Tetra Tech took only 14 soil and sediment samples from the entire 2,878 acre Brandeis property to test for radioactive waste and several other contaminants; that's about one sample for every 206 acres.

"I don't think the study is valid because there are too few samples taken, said Alvarez.

Hirsch agrees.

"To determine if (the camp) is safe, you need to take hundreds to thousands of samples," Hirsch said.

That's exactly what the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) did in 2012 when it wanted to determine if the portion of the Field Lab next to the camp was contaminated with radioactive materials. The EPA collected 3,735 soil and sediment samples on 472 acres, or eight samples per acre. The EPA found 500 "hotspots" in its study, places at the Field Lab with elevated levels of radioactive waste.

In a letter to NBC4, the AJU says the number of samples "was done primarily for verification purposes" on "the highest use areas of the site" because "past studies uniformly found the site to be safe" including two done by the U.S. EPA.

But EPA spokesperson Margot Perez-Sullivan told NBC4 "we'd never certify an area of land as safe or unsafe." Two other EPA officials told NBC4 the agency has made no such determination about the safety of the entire Brandeis property.

And, several other studies that found contamination on the Brandeis property and in nearby neighborhoods were not mentioned in the Tetra Tech report, including a 1997 report by Brandeis' longtime environmental consultant Joel Cehn. In his report, Cehn concluded "the Brandeis-Bardin property is contaminated with radiological and chemical contaminants...moving toward the center of camp."

Cehn based his opinions partly on years of soil and water tests he did at the property, starting in 1991, some of which the camp's owners have so far declined to make public. AJU, who took ownership of the property in 2007, say some of the historical documents are no longer in their possession.

Brandeis included the Cehn report as evidence when it sued the owners of the Santa Susana Field Lab in 1995, claiming "hazardous materials" from the Field Lab had "seeped into its soil and groundwater." That federal lawsuit was settled.

The Tetra Tech report also makes no reference to data from a 2007 federally funded study, done by Dr. Yoram Cohen of UCLA, which concluded that contamination from the Field Lab had affected neighboring areas including the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.

"We noted that there was ample evidence that contaminants have migrated off-site," Dr. Cohen told NBC4.

In their letter, American Jewish University said no portion of their property "was impacted by contaminants originating from the SSFL at levels creating an unacceptable risk to human health."

American Jewish University also points to Tetra Tech's Gamma Radiation Survey as evidence that the site is safe. They said Tetra Tech used "new technology that was not available in past years" to test for radioactive contamination and that survey didn't turn up anything of concern.

"The Gamma test can't see much of the radioactivity of concern from Santa Susana," said Hirsch.

He said that a Gamma Radiation Survey does not detect one of the most prevalent types of radioactive contamination that could migrate onto the camp from the Field Lab -- Strontium 90 -- because it's what's called a "Beta Emitter."

And, the American Jewish University acknowledges that Tetra Tech did find an elevated level of radioactive Strontium-90 in one of their 14 samples at a level "greater than that found in the background sediment samples that Tetra Tech collected at a nearby park."

But AJU said it's "significantly lower than 0.7 pCi/g, a level that EPA has described as 'typical U.S. background concentration' of strontium-90."

Hirsch said this is misleading because AJU is using a national average for strontium-90 that is much higher than what the EPA found in 2012 to be the normal levels of strontium-90 around Santa Susana. Based on the 2012 EPA number, Hirsch said the amount of radioactivity found in the Brandeis sediment sample is almost two-and-half times higher than what's normal for the area (EPA says the normal level for strontium-90 around the Field Lab is .075 pCi/g. The Tetra Tech sample was .182 pCi/g. AJU is using an EPA national average of 0.7).

American Jewish University also notes that the risk associated with this level of strontium-90 "was calculated as if a person (child or adult) was exposed to that sediment for 24 hours a day, for 350 days per year, and for a period of 26 years" and that the level of risk is "below the EPA and DTSC level of significance."

Both Hirsch and Alvarez reviewed these calculations and said that Tetra Tech excluded most of the ways children and adults can be exposed to the radioactive contamination underestimating the potential risk. In addition, they point out that Tetra Tech used a figure that 65 times more lax than EPA's standard number for setting risk goals.

"If they had used the EPA number, it would have been above the EPA risk goal," said Hirsch.

And, the National Academies of Sciences now say even "the smallest dose" of radiation can "cause a small increase in (your) risk" of getting cancer.

"If you find a sample like that it should raise a red flag," said Alvarez. "They found something that should have warranted further exploration."

"The fact that even with only a handful of samples, Tetra Tech found contamination means it should have followed up and taken a lot more samples," Dan Hirsch told NBC4.

Hirsch also worries that Tetra Tech didn't test for many of the contaminants, including dozens of toxic chemicals and radioactive elements, found up the hill at the Field Lab.

"They looked for a tiny fraction of what they should have," said Hirsch. "They looked for only two kinds of radioactive materials when there are hundreds and they looked for only some metals and one other contaminant leaving out hundreds of toxic chemicals they should have addressed."

American Jewish University wrote in their letter to NBC4 that they chose to test for contaminants identified by Tetra Tech as "indicator constituents" that are "known to have been released in significant quantities at the SSFL" and "ones not associated with other, local sources of potential contamination, such as wildfires. AJU said "sampling for indicator chemicals is a reliable method to check for the migration of other contaminants."

But Tetra Tech didn't test for some of the contaminants listed in the 1995 lawsuit as having seeped into the property of Brandeis. AJU said that portion of the property was sold back to the owners of the Field Lab as part of the legal settlement.

Some parents who've sent their kids to this camp, and received letters about the new study, also contacted the I-Team with their concerns.

"I don't think you can prove anything with just 14 soil samples from such a large property," said one mother who asked not to be named. "My biggest concern is that the camp is literally downhill from a toxic site that hasn't been cleaned up."

But these parents along with Alvarez and Hirsch, have an even bigger concern about Tetra Tech. The company has been under investigation by the federal government, after Tetra Tech employees told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that they'd been ordered to falsify soil samples on a former nuclear test site in San Francisco, where a developer wants to build homes.

The same month Tetra Tech was taking samples at the Brandeis camp, the NRC's investigation concluded "it appears [Tetra Tech employees] had deliberately falsified soil sample surveys" at the San Francisco job site.

"It's fraud," former Tetra Tech employee Anthony Smith told NBC Bay Area.

Smith said his bosses told him to get rid of hundreds of potentially radioactive soil samples at the San Francisco site and replace them with soil from areas that had already been cleaned up.

"When I took a sample, it come back 'hot' (radioactive) and they made me get rid of it," Smith said.

Tetra Tech admitted, in a 2014 internal report obtained by NBC Bay Area, to "mishandling of soil samples and falsifying data."

The report blamed employees like Smith, who said employees were given an ultimatum by their bosses.

"If you don't like what we're doing, you can go home," Smith said he was told, regarding manipulating soil samples at the San Francisco job.

"I would have concerns about any firm that's been perpetrating fraud," said Alvarez. "I would not have used Tetra Tech had I known or bothered to do due diligence to discover whether or not they were an honest firm."

American Jewish University told NBC4 in a letter that they selected Tetra Tech because the company "has both the depth and breadth of experience to evaluate a site like the BBC," and at that time "were not aware that a very few of Tetra Tech's more than 16,000 employees have behaved in an irresponsible manner at one project site."

But they said, "having now studied the issue ourselves, we are both satisfied with and impressed by Tetra Tech's response to this incident," including their "voluntarily self-reporting the issue to the NRC, DTSC and DPH."

But Derek Robinson, the United States Navy's Environmental Coordinator for the San Francisco project told NBC Bay Area at a recent meeting that "the Navy is the one that found the Tetra Tech issue."

AJU also wrote that "the U.S. Navy, appears to have no concerns about Tetra Tech's integrity."

But the Navy's Robinson said "nobody is more upset about the Tetra Tech issues than I am. It's a real issue."

He added, "they have not been awarded new contracts since then."

That mother the I-Team spoke with isn't convinced that Tetra Tech can be trusted. After learning details of their study on Brandeis, the parent who asked not to be named said, "I would never allow any of my family members to go to that camp. I'm not convinced it's safe."

American Jewish University said this new Tetra Tech study confirms that their Brandeis-Bardin property is safe.

Hirsch and Alvarez said this new study doesn't convince them that the land is safe for campers and staff.

"It looks as though it were an attempt to give a clean bill of health to Brandeis with a preordained conclusion," said Hirsch.

Alvarez added, "These studies are really meant for public reassurance. They are not meant to prove a point scientifically."

You can read the entire American Jewish University letter by clicking here

On Wednesday night, American Jewish University emailed us again raising concerns about our story. We have posted that email here so you can read it for yourself.

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