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Tens of thousands of children who attended a popular camp in the hills northwest of Los Angeles over the last 65 years may have been exposed to radioactive waste and toxic chemicals from a former nuclear and rocket testing facility right next door, the Santa Susana Field Lab, according to documents and scientific studies obtained by the NBC4 I-Team.
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Families who sent their kids to the camp, as well as former camp staff and board members, say top leadership, including a famous TV personality, covered up evidence of the risk and continue to hide important information.
"It's criminal not to disclose this," said Erwin Sokol, a counselor at the camp in the 1950s, who later sent his own kids there, and whose wife Caren served on the board of directors. "There are people's lives at risk."
Sokol is referring to the Brandeis-Bardin Institute next to Simi Valley, a world famous center for Jewish learning, which runs Camp Alonim for kids and teens and hosts retreats for college students and adults. Purchased in 1947, the 2,800-acre camp is believed to be the largest piece of Jewish-owned land outside of Israel. It sits just over the hill from the Santa Susana Field Lab.
Former Santa Susana Field Lab workers told NBC4 during our LA's Nuclear Secret investigation that for years, barrels of radioactive waste were burned in a pit right above the Brandeis property, and the radioactive smoke often blew toward the camp.
Workers also told the I-Team how they were ordered to secretly release radioactive gases into the air from crippled nuclear reactors, often when the wind was blowing the gases toward Brandeis and Simi Valley. John Pace, who worked the controls of one of the reactors, told NBC4, "The truth needs to be told" about the secret releases of radiation.
Families Ask I-Team to Investigate
Over a dozen former Brandeis senior staff, camp families and board members told the I-Team they tried for years to find out the truth about potential contamination at Brandeis, but were stonewalled by the Institute's top leaders.
"This is about protecting the health of children," said Erwin Sokol.
So they asked the I-Team to investigate.
"We were always told that we were safe," said David Dassa, who spent 44 years at Camp Alonim.
His father directed the camp's famous dance program, then David took over for his dad, and sent his own kids to the camp.
"We really didn't know what we were being exposed to while we were growing up there," Dassa told NBC4.
Contamination at Brandeis
The I-Team found reports, studies and tests that show campers and staff could have been exposed to radioactive materials and toxic chemicals from the Santa Susana lab that migrated onto the Brandeis property through groundwater, surface water and wind.
Buried away at a National Archives warehouse in Riverside County, the I-Team found a 1997 report done by a scientist, Joel Cehn, who has worked for by Brandeis for years to monitor contamination on its land.
In the report, Cehn writes that after reviewing studies of Brandeis, in his opinion, "Brandeis property is contaminated... with radiological and chemical contaminants. Contaminated groundwater is moving toward the center of the Brandeis property (from south to north)."
Cehn also says, "Surface water, when present, also moves toward the center of Brandeis... some of this water is contaminated with tritium, strontium-90 and dioxins. Soil on the Brandeis property is contaminated... During rainwater runoff events, this soil is carried... to central and northern areas of the Brandeis property. Vegetation on the Brandeis property is contaminated."
"If I had seen this document, I would not have taken the job," said Rabbi Lee Bycel, who became president of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in 2000 and served until 2003.
He said before accepting the job, he asked to see all documents and tests relating to contamination on Brandeis land. He said he asked then-chairwoman of the board, Helen Zukin, and past chairman, Judge Joseph Wapner, of TV's People Court.
"I was told there was no need to see those documents. Trust us, the place is safe," Rabbi Bycel said Judge Wapner and Zukin told him.
Past members of Brandeis Board of Directors also said they asked Judge Wapner or Helen Zukin to see test results of the soil and water, but were rebuffed.
"I said, 'Is everything safe here?' And, I was never given a direct answer," said former board member Caren Sokol. "I felt there was information being hidden."
Sokol wanted information like the tests done in 1991 by Rocketdyne, the owner of the Santa Susana Field Lab at the time. Rocketdyne tested wells at Brandeis and found radioactive tritium in one of them and Trichloroethylene -- a toxic carcinogenic chemical used heavily at the Field Lab -- in two wells. One sample was "more than three times the maximum contaminant level allowed by California EPA."
And in September of 2003, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control confirmed the presence of the chemical perchlorate in a groundwater well at Brandeis, at least five times the state standard for drinking water.
Groundwater was used for human consumption for decades at the camp until the early 1970s, according to a document filed in a court case by Brandeis. And, according to a history of the camp called "The Brandeis Bardin Institute, A Living History," groundwater was used in the early years to fill the swimming pool and was available "for all our needs."
"We played in the water, we played in the creeks, we drank the water," said former camper and staffer David Dassa. "We went everywhere on those grounds. There was nowhere we didn't go."
Records obtained by the I-Team show contamination continues to be detected in Brandeis' groundwater. Boeing -- the current owner of the field lab -- has reported to the LA Regional Water Quality Board that there were 57 times when polluted water flowed from Santa Susana toward Brandeis, between 2008 and 2014. Boeing has been fined $1.2 million since 2002 for allowing contaminated water to be released into areas such as Brandeis.
Even if contaminated groundwater isn't used for drinking, it still poses a risk, according to Dr. Ali Tabidian, who conducted a state-funded study of water flowing from Santa Susana.
"Contaminated groundwater could surface as seeps and springs... and hikers and bikers could get exposed," Dr. Tabidian told NBC4.
After rains, surface water coming down from Santa Susana flows through creeks at Camp Alonim, in which campers have played.
Brandeis own internal 1997 report, written by their consultant Joel Cehn, said "soil on the Brandeis property is contaminated with tritium, strontium-90, cesium-137, PCB, dioxins, toluene, and petroleum hydrocarbons."
Two studies reviewed by the U.S. EPA, in 1993 and 1995, also found "radioactive elements" at Brandeis. In 1995, the EPA said the levels of radiation found "do not pose a threat to human health." But the EPA has since tightened its standards of safe levels of radiation. And, the National Academy of Sciences now says even "the smallest dose" of radiation can "cause a small increase in risk" of getting cancer.
"There is no safe level of radiation exposure," said Dr. Robert Dodge, who has studied the effects of radiation from Santa Susana to surrounding communities for the Nobel Prize winning nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility. "Children are the most vulnerable part of our population when it comes to the toxic and radioactive exposures."
Dr. Dodge added that radioactive elements found in the dirt at Brandeis, such as Strontium-90, embed in bones and teeth and act like a time bomb, sometimes triggering cancer decades after a person comes in contact with them.
Brandeis Declines to Speak to NBC4
The I-Team requested an interview with the current owners of Brandeis, the American Jewish University, to discuss the contamination.
They declined, and instead emailed us a statement saying, "There's absolutely no question that the Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI) property is safe, and has been for decades if not longer."
"Based on an exhaustive records review and the conclusion of scientific experts, we found no cause for concern about the health and safety of campers, staff, or other visitors-past or present" the statement said.
But state and federally funded studies and scientists interviewed by NBC4 say there has been and remains a risk to children and adults at Brandeis camp. Even one of the few documents that AJU was willing to share with NBC4 suggests a problem.
Brandeis Withholds Key Documents
Last month, the I-Team asked Brandeis' owner, the American Jewish University (AJU) to provide us with records of all tests ever done to determine contamination on their property.
The AJU has told NBC4 "groundwater is tested multiple times each year," and that "soils, milk, and agriculture" are tested "on a periodic basis." AJU said there are "thousands of pages of test results" for Brandeis.
But the AJU provided NBC4 with just 45 pages of memoranda summarizing tests. And even with this limited information, the I-Team found evidence of contamination in the May 2006 Brandeis testing memo. That memo shows that in 2004 they found perchlorate in the milk of a Brandeis milk cow at a level more than twice the state's regulatory limit for drinking water.
Another memo from 2006 also showed elevated perchlorate in vegetation from the Gan Area Garden. The remaining memos show little or no contamination for the areas and contaminants that were tested during that year. But in the reports provided to NBC4, there was no comprehensive testing of the entire property for all of the contaminants believed to have migrated from the Santa Susana Field Lab, and the actual lab reports were not included.
Most notably, the AJU gave us no data at all for the first 49 years of Brandeis' existence. And for the last 21 years, they failed to give us any test results for 13 of those years.
"The documents Brandeis provided to NBC are sketchy and troubling," said Dan Hirsch, director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at U.C. Santa Cruz.
Hirsch reviewed the limited test results AJU gave to the I-Team.
"There's absolutely not enough information, in the tests Brandeis provided, for parents to be reassured of the safety of their children at this camp," Hirsch added.
Toxic Fumes, Toxic Risk
According to a 2006 UCLA study funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, one of the biggest threats in past years was from fumes from rocket tests that were conducted for over 50 years, right next door to Brandeis at the Santa Susana Field Lab.
"We would watch the whole sky light up, the ground would shake," during those rocket tests, said David Dassa.
The UCLA study says people in areas including Brandeis could have inhaled toxic exhaust from rocket tests, which included the toxic chemicals such as TCE and hydrazine.
"People (at Brandeis) were exposed, there's no doubt about that, to toxic fumes," said Dr. Yoram Cohen of UCLA, the lead researcher on the study. The study says those fumes could cause cancer of the lungs or liver, and kidney and liver damage.
High Cancer Rates
Another 2006 study funded by the Centers for Disease Control examined cancer rates near the Santa Susana Field Lab. The study, headed by epidemiologist Dr. Hal Morgenstern, found more than a 60 percent increase in rates of certain cancers among people living within two miles of the field lab, which includes many parts of the Brandeis property. Dr. Morgenstern told NBC4, "There's some provocative evidence, it's like circumstantial evidence suggesting there might be a connection" between the Field Lab and elevated cancer rates.
A Death Linked to Brandeis?
At least one prominent Brandeis family believes the death of a loved one might be linked to contamination from Santa Susana.
"My mother paid a dear price for that," Nomi Wallace said of her mother Tova Dershowitz, who died last June of complications from a brain tumor.
Nomi's father, Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, was director of Camp Alonim at Brandeis in the early 1960s, so the family lived on the property year around. Years later, her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor, that Wallace said her family believes might have been caused by exposure to radiation from Santa Susana.
"My mother felt that her tumor was connected to living at Brandeis during those critical years, when there was so much exposure, so many pollutants coming into the air and through the groundwater from Santa Susana," Nomi Wallace told NBC4.
Brandeis Sues, and Confidentially Settles
By the 1990s, The Brandeis-Bardin Institute was so concerned about contamination on its property that it sued Rocketdyne--then the owner of the field lab--in federal court. Although the lawsuit did not make personal injury claims, in the suit, Brandeis alleged that "hazardous materials" from Santa Susana had "seeped into" the "soil... and groundwater" of Brandeis, which "is injurious to the environment..."
According to court records, Brandeis' lawyers assembled evidence, and dozens of witnesses who would testify that Santa Susana had seriously contaminated the camp's land. But days before trial, Brandeis agreed to a confidential settlement with Boeing, which had recently bought the Santa Susana Field Lab from Rocketdyne.
The I-Team obtained a copy of the $3.2 million settlement: Brandeis' lawyers got 35 percent or $1.1 million plus another $217,000 for expenses; Brandeis received nearly $1.7 million from Boeing. In return, Brandeis waived its right to ever sue Boeing again over issues of contamination, and Boeing agreed to buy nearly 180 acres of contaminated Brandeis land. Boeing did not admit any liability in connection with the settlement. The agreement also provides that Boeing shall be responsible for continued investigation and remediation under the direction of regulatory agencies.
Most Institute leaders involved in the settlement don’t want to talk about it.
"I don't know an awful lot about the lawsuit. It was settled after I left," former Brandeis Executive Vice-President Alvin Mars told NBC4 when contacted by phone, even though Mars' name appears on multiple legal documents finalizing details of the settlement and on correspondence attempting to negotiate Boeing's acquisition of the contaminated land.
Researchers said there is an ongoing threat of more contamination washing down from Santa Susana to Brandeis, because as a 2012 US EPA study found the field lab has never been cleaned up and is still contaminated in some places with radiation. Boeing's own studies have found chemical contamination throughout the site.
"Because groundwater moves, whatever contaminants you have in there will move," said UCLA's Dr. Yoram Cohen.
Cohen and others are especially concerned if California gets hit with heavy El Nino rains this winter.
"Large rains cause tremendous runoff," said Dr. Dodge of Physicians for Social Responsibility. "It will wash and migrate toxins and radioactive agents down to Brandeis."
Families Demand Full Disclosure
In the wake of NBC4's investigation, Brandeis families and former staff -- who all say they love Brandeis and want to see it continue -- are demanding that the Institute make public every test ever done to find contamination on its property so they can see what risk there is and has been in decades past.
"I would like Brandeis to share any information that they have, from any point in time, openly and transparently," Nomi Wallace told NBC4. "As difficult as it is to air dirty laundry in public, we need to do that."
"They need to release everything they have and everything they know," said former Brandeis Institute President Rabbi Lee Bycel. "It is the Jewish thing, the moral thing, to say 'show us all your tests.' That shows you care about the Institute," Bycel said.
Families Not Giving Up
Former Brandeis families and staff who spoke to NBC4 said they don't plan to give up on their efforts to get the Institute to share all information it has about contamination.
"I think a fence should really be put around it and it should be locked up, until we found out more what's going on," said Erwin Sokol, a Brandeis parent who has contributed financially to the Institute. "The health of children is the number one issue."
The I-Team contacted former Brandeis Board Chairpersons Judge Joe Wapner and Helen Zukin. Both were unavailable for comment. You can read the AJU's complete statement including a six-page letter they sent to NBC4 by clicking here.
A message from Steve Carlston:
As the President and General Manager of KNBC-TV, I am writing to address recent statements made by American Jewish University about our reports on contamination related to the Santa Susana Field Lab and the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.
I want to make it clear, we stand by our reporting. Our team of investigative reporters has examined this subject thoroughly and rigorously. We have offered and continue to offer AJU the opportunity to participate in our reporting and to share its views in an on-air interview.
Editor's Note: NBC4's Joel Grover attended the Brandeis-Bardin Institute's Camp Alonim one summer in the 1970s.