The Santa Susana Mountains in Southern California. The Brandeis-Bardin Institute is located in the foothills of the mountains. Photo from Wikipedia

Government agencies at odds over chemical cleanup near Camp Alonim

new draft report from the U.S. Department of Energy has revealed a division between federal and state officials over how thoroughly to clean up contamination from the shuttered Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a former nuclear and rocket testing center in the Simi Hills that abuts a popular Simi Valley Jewish youth camp.

The report does not include any mention of the removal of low-level chemicals in soil in a remote area of the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University in Ventura County. Camp Alonim is located on the campus.

The department in December said it was considering such a removal, but a federal official now says the levels of pollutants on the campus are so low that they do not warrant cleanup.

Meanwhile, state officials, when questioned about the draft report from the Department of Energy (DOE), say they intend to hold the federal agency to a more stringent 2010 cleanup agreement that it made with the state. California toxics regulators are in charge of the cleanup.

The outcome could determine whether any soil containing chemicals would be removed from a little-used area of the Brandeis-Bardin campus, which sits downhill from the field laboratory.

The federal government conducted nuclear reactor tests on a portion of the Santa Susana site in the 1950s and ’60s, and a series of accidents, including a partial meltdown of one reactor, occurred there.

The DOE, which is responsible for cleaning up waste from the Santa Susana property, in January issued the lengthy draft environmental impact report that details how to remove polluted soil and groundwater, and clear away old buildings from the 290-acre site where the testing occurred.

All three cleanup options listed in the report differ from a more stringent 2010 cleanup pact that the DOE struck with the state of California. That pact would have to be revised to make any of the alternatives feasible, the draft report states.

The DOE’s proposal spurred a pointed response from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) that stated federal officials would be held to comply with the pact, known as an administrative order of consent (AOC).

DTSC will hold DOE accountable for complying with the 2010 AOC,” Russ Edmondson, a DTSC spokesman, said in an email. The DTSC staff is reviewing the DOE draft and expects to submit comments, he said.

The toxics regulators are preparing a state draft environmental impact report for how to remove contamination there. Still unclear is whether or how that report would mesh with the DOE draft report.

At a crowded Feb. 21 public hearing in Van Nuys, residents who live near the Santa Susana site called on federal officials to abide by the 2010 state agreement. Some said they worried that contaminants left behind could move downhill into their neighborhoods.

More than 1.41 million cubic yards of soil at the site exceed the state cleanup standards in the 2010 pact, according to federal officials. Of that soil, the DOE plan would leave at Santa Susana between 480,000 cubic yards and 1.27 million cubic yards of soil, according to figures in the report.

The DOE already has completed some cleanup work and has removed more than 200 buildings at the site, with 18 remaining, the agency reported in January.

Public comments on the draft DOE environmental impact statement are due by March 14.

The Jewish Journal reported in December that the DOE had verified what it called low levels of chemicals in soil in a steep, rugged area of Brandeis-Bardin. No radioactive waste was found.

The chemicals, including metals and hydrocarbons, were found in soil around seasonal stream beds that run north from the former nuclear testing site through a land buffer to the campus.

The chemical levels posed no risk to human health, according to DOE and state officials.

American Jewish University (AJU) spokesman Rabbi Jay Strear cited those findings in emphasizing the safety of the camp, saying that the chemicals could have come from past brush fires and the use of herbicides and pesticides for agricultural purposes.

Even so, under the 2010 pact the chemical concentrations still could require cleanup or other treatment. In December, the DOE said it was weighing whether to remove the soil where the chemicals were detected or try other treatments.

John Jones, director of the DOE’s Energy Technology Engineering Center Closure Project, the unit tasked with handling the site cleanup, said in a Feb. 21 interview that his agency “absolutely” does not plan any cleanup on the Brandeis-Bardin property because the levels of chemicals there are too low to merit such an effort.

Strear said AJU officials are studying the DOE draft.

“Based on this evaluation, we will determine whether or not to submit comments on the document to the DOE,” Strear wrote in an email response to a request for comment.

Federal officials still need to review public comments on the draft and complete the final environmental report before it can be approved, a process expected to last into 2018.

Editor’s note:  The U.S. Department of Energy has extended its deadline from Tuesday, March 14, to April 13 for public comment on its draft environmental plan to clean up the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

Comments on the DOE draft can be submitted online at or via mail to Stephie Jennings, NEPA Document Manager, SSFL Area IV, EIS U.S. Department of Energy, 4100 Guardian St., Suite 160, Simi Valley, CA 93063.

DEBORAH SCHOCH has reported on environmental health issues during 18 years as a Los Angeles Times staff writer and as senior writer at the USC Center for Health Reporting. She can be contacted at

Remote Brandeis-Bardin area may need cleanup, state officials see no health threat

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has verified that it has detected what it calls low levels of chemicals in soil in a remote area of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, downhill from a well-known former nuclear and rocket testing site.

The chemicals — found on rugged land almost two miles from the center of the institute’s popular Jewish summer youth camp, Camp Alonim — are not radioactive and pose no risk to human health, according to information the DOE provided to the Jewish Journal.

The department is weighing several options, including removing some soil from Brandeis-Bardin land, and will make sure that any cleanup will protect human health and the environment, according to the DOE.

The news comes as California regulators are preparing a major report on how to direct an upcoming cleanup of the shuttered, 2,850-acre testing site known as the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. Santa Susana is widely known among scientists as one of the most complex chemical and radiological sites in the nation.

The decontamination project could take 18 years and employ 250 workers, according to a July 2016 draft plan written by officials with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and reviewed by the Journal.

DTSC officials, when asked about those figures, declined to confirm them, calling the draft plan a preliminary document that staff and managers had not fully reviewed and which is still being revised.

The chemicals detected at Brandeis-Bardin include metals, dioxins, pesticides, herbicides, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, according to a DOE list provided by the DTSC.  It, too, said they were not found at levels harmful to human health.

The DOE testing was done in dry drainages in rocky, hard-to-reach terrain far south of the camp’s most active area. The sources of the chemicals are not known. Some may date to early agricultural operations on the land, which later housed the laboratory, the DOE information indicates.

Brandeis-Bardin spokesman Rabbi Jay Strear, in a prepared Nov. 28 statement issued to the Journal, described the substances as chemicals commonly associated with plastics, herbicides and pesticides, and the residue of forest fires. Strear is executive vice president of American Jewish University, formed in 2007 when the University of Judaism merged with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.

A longtime Santa Susana site cleanup advocate, Daniel O. Hirsch, provided a different perspective. Hirsch, who directs the University of California, Santa Cruz program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy and is president of the nonprofit environmental group the Committee to Close the Gap, said that, based on his analysis, some of the chemicals may be tied to previous agricultural practices and many others could be associated with the old laboratory.

“This is not a huge risk, but it’s not zero,” said Hirsch, who has been monitoring the Santa Susana site for 37 years.

The recent chemical findings are yet another development in the old Santa Susana laboratory’s long history of generating controversy. Suspicion has dogged the cleanup debate for decades. Some nearby residents do not believe that state toxics regulators are being truthful about the risk of many contaminants remaining at the old site. Other residents call those concerns overblown.

The Journal learned about the soil findings from the July 2016 draft chapter of the long-awaited draft blueprint — called a Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Report — that DTSC is preparing to guide the laboratory cleanup. The report may be released for public review this winter.

The group Consumer Watchdog obtained the draft document disclosing the possible DOE soil cleanup as part of a California Public Records Act request. The nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group based in Santa Monica agreed to share the document with the Journal.

The draft mentions two other possible sites being eyed for soil removal.

One of the sites, also on Brandeis-Bardin property, could be in line for soil cleanup by NASA, the draft states. The testing for that site, too, was done in drainages in the remote, far southern reaches of the property. The amount of soil listed in the draft as a possible cleanup target would add up to one acre.

NASA’s Santa Susana site project director, Pete Zorba, said through a spokeswoman that the space agency has not specified any soil removal on Brandeis property. Given that the July 2016 DTSC document is a state record, Zorba referred questions to the DTSC, the spokeswoman said.

DOE and NASA both did extensive testing at the old laboratory and are two of three agencies responsible for decontaminating it.

The third is the Boeing Co., which confirmed last week that it has been working to remove contaminants on 18 acres occupied by Sage Ranch Park, a popular hiking and camping area close to the old laboratory. The contaminants are largely remnants of small pellets of lead and clay targets left by a former Rocketdyne employees’ gun club, a Boeing spokeswoman said.

Deborah Schoch has reported on environmental health issues during 18 years as a Los Angeles Times staff writer and as senior writer at the USC Center for Health Reporting. She can be contacted at

Camp Strear Brandeis Letter to Jewish Journal_16-1129 by Jeff Hensiek on Scribd

CAMP DTSC STREAR Answers to DS Questions Nov by Jeff Hensiek on Scribd

Bipartisan Senate legislation to combat anti-Semitism on campus

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) on Tuesday introduced bipartisan legislation to grant the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) the necessary statutory tools at their disposal to investigate anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act would codify the definition as one adopted by the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

“It is incredibly important that we work together to stamp out anti-Semitism and other forms of religious discrimination across our country,” Scott said in a statement. “By clarifying exactly what anti-Semitism is, we will leave no question as to what constitutes an anti-Semitic incident.”


Ruling on campus hate

Over the past decade, as anti-Israel demonstrations have become a regular occurrence on many U.S. college campuses, Jewish nonprofits and individuals have turned to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) for relief, and with some success. They convinced the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), for one, to investigate anti-Israel speech and actions at three University of California campuses, arguing that such speech is tantamount to anti-Semitism and violates the civil rights of Jewish students. 

Yet some of those investigations have remained open for years; none have found evidence of wrongdoing by the universities, and last week a coalition of civil rights groups led by the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) urged the DOE to dismiss the still-open investigations. 

In a letter sent to two DOE staff members on May 14, CAIR and seven other groups argued that the OCR investigations into anti-Israel speech and actions at UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley have dragged on for too long, far longer than the office’s internal benchmark of 180 days. The letter also faults the OCR for not allowing Arab, Muslim and pro-Palestinian students to have input into the investigations, which, these civil rights groups allege, has effectively quashed the students’ ability to express their political opinions about actions taken by Israel against the Palestinians. 

A DOE spokesman acknowledged that some complex cases take the OCR longer than its internal goal of 180 days to resolve, and reaffirmed its position that rules for campus speech must be in line with the First Amendment. He declined to comment on any of the open investigations.

The coalition’s letter represents the latest salvo in a war over campus speech between the organizations purporting to represent Jewish and pro-Israel students and the groups claiming to speak on behalf of Arab, Muslim and pro-Palestinian students. The result has so far been a perpetual stalemate, with advocates on each side claiming that the students on the other side are intimidating, marginalizing and silencing the students they represent. 

Over the years, representatives on both sides have turned to lawmakers in Sacramento and UC leaders in an effort to bolster their claims. But the matter before OCR is of particular importance, in part because, as a federal agency, its decision could have the most far-reaching impact. 

At its core, the question facing OCR investigators is whether anti-Israel speech can be anti-Semitic and, as such, violate the civil rights of Jewish students. 

Since 2004, when OCR first affirmed its policy of investigating allegations of discrimination against students who shared both ethnic and religious characteristics — including Jewish, Muslim and Sikh students — Jewish individuals and groups have filed complaints against a handful of universities under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

By and large, the complaints focus on the way anti-Israel demonstrations and speeches on campus make Jewish students feel, and when OCR agreed to open investigations into a number of those complaints, advocates including the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which initiated two separate complaints against UC Irvine, heralded the decision as a partial acknowledgement of their claims’ validity. 

But in 2007, DOE dismissed the ZOA’s first UC Irvine claim, and has not released decisions about either ZOA’s second claim against UC Irvine (which OCR has been investigating since 2008) or the two other open investigations. 

CAIR and its allies argued in their recent letter that by not resolving the complaints, OCR is “causing a profound chilling of student speech,” and they dispute the basic charge that anti-Israel speech could be anti-Semitic. 

“While the DOE should thoroughly look into civil rights complaints, these allegations cross the line between protecting civil rights and targeting certain political views,” CAIR lead staff attorney Ameena Qazi said in a statement accompanying a text of the May 14 letter. 

But Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, who teaches Hebrew at UC Santa Cruz and who filed a Title VI complaint against her employer in 2009, argues that certain forms of anti-Israel speech do qualify as anti-Semitic under definitions adopted by the U.S. State Department and other official bodies. As such, -Rossman-Benjamin said the speech practiced by pro-Palestinian and Muslim students and student groups aren’t deserving of protection and wouldn’t be defended if they maligned another ethnic group. 

“What happened to freedom of speech with the ‘Compton Cookout’?” Rossman-Benjamin asked, referring to a 2010 incident of anti-black racism by white fraternity brothers at UC San Diego that provoked investigations by both the DOE and the Department of Justice. “Who argued for their freedom of speech? 

“I’m not trying to say anything about the response of the university to that,” Rossman-Benjamin continued. “I am trying to say that there is an egregious double standard that is discriminatory against Jewish students.”

Even as Rossman-Benjamin complains about certain forms of anti-Israel speech and demonstrations — including the “Apartheid Wall” that pro-Palestinian groups use to outline alleged human rights abuses by Israel — she herself has come under fire for comments. In a video posted on YouTube, Rossman-Benjamin appeared to suggest to an audience at a synagogue near Boston in June 2012 that students involved in pro-Palestinian activism on campuses have ties to terrorist groups. 

“These are not your ordinary student groups like College Republicans or Young Democrats,” Rossman-Benjamin said of groups like the Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). “These are students who come with a serious agenda, who have ties to terrorist organizations.”

The UC Santa Cruz chapter of SJP took offense and posted more than a dozen videos of its members responding to Rossman-Benjamin’s comments. The group also initiated an online petition urging outgoing UC President Mark Yudof to condemn Rossman-Benjamin’s remarks, which has garnered more than 1,800 signatures.
Rossman-Benjamin has stood by her comments, which she said were taken out of context. In a manner typical of the way each side’s claims in this debate often mirrors those of the other, Rossman-Benjamin said the SJP’s “campaign of defamation” is an attack on her own freedom of speech.

The debate has mobilized some more extreme groups on both sides — first and foremost, CAIR, which according to the Anti-Defamation League has offered “a platform to conspiratorial Israel-bashers and outright anti-Semites.” A local chapter of the anti-Islam organization ACT! for America — the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled it a hate group — recently urged its members to send letters supporting Rossman-Benjamin to UC President Yudof. 

More moderate voices have remained silent. In 2011, when Kenneth Stern, a longtime staff member with the American Jewish Committeen (AJC), co-wrote a letter warning about the perils of restricting speech, Rossman-Benjamin and others protested, and the AJC backed off. 

Stern declined to comment for this article, but his co-author, Cary Nelson, an English professor at University of Illinois and former president of the American Association of University Professors, described the argument that anti-Israel remarks are anti-Semitic in some as a “third rail” in academic discourse. 

And even though Nelson, who is Jewish, has at times made that argument, provoking howls of protest from his peers, he cautioned against taking Rossman-Benjamin’s approach, calling the Title VI complaints a “a portmanteau of very different kinds of impulses with very different origins.” 

“The solution to loathsome speech is more speech,” he said. “Trying to restrict hate speech on campus is certainly a mistake.”