November 21, 2019

News reports revive AJU environmental debate

Nuclear expert Dan Hirsch made a promise in 1979 that would drag him into a three-decade fight he didn’t ask for, a fight that has since drawn in Boeing, an alphabet soup of regulators and, most recently, American Jewish University (AJU).

Hirsch’s students at UCLA had dug up some files detailing a partial nuclear meltdown in the Simi Hills in 1959 at a site bordering the 3,000-acre Jewish retreat known as the Brandeis-Bardin Campus. Hirsch immediately took the files to KNBC. 

When the story ran in 1979, a Thousand Oaks woman called Hirsch asking him to help, saying she believed the accident had caused her child’s leukemia. He promised he would.

“One tries to live up to promises,” Hirsch told the Jewish Journal in an interview. “But who ever could have conceived that it would have been a third of a century?”

Hirsch unwittingly lobbed an environmental hot potato that has been passed around ever since. In recent weeks, a new, yearlong investigation by KNBC4 has brought to the surface some once-confidential details, raising new hackles and painting AJU into an uncomfortable corner. (Four segments have aired thus far, all of which remain available on the station’s website, nbclosangeles.com.)

In response to the investigation, AJU announced to community members on Nov. 18 a new round of environmental tests it hopes will “reconfirm the safety of the property.”

AJU merged with the Brandeis-Bardin Campus northwest of Los Angeles in 2007, and with it inherited the site’s environmental baggage: The campus is adjacent to the Santa Susana Field Lab, an out-of-commission nuclear and rocket-testing site now owned by Boeing. On the north flank, closest to the Brandeis-Bardin Campus, is a tract called “Area IV,” where an experimental sodium reactor partially melted down in 1959.

That environmental disaster was just the beginning of the site’s woes.

Every time KNBC airs a segment, the reporter, Joel Grover, reveals disquieting details that raise alarm among the scores of Jewish Angelenos who have spent time at the retreat, which includes Camp Alonim. The report has included descriptions of the Santa Susana Field Lab’s nuclear burn pits, poisoned groundwater and radioactive gas released into the breeze.

The latest KNBC segment, which ran Nov. 19, revealed that the institute’s founder, Shlomo Bardin, called the sheriff in 1957 about sludge from the field lab that had ended up in a stream that bisects the educational campus. 

AJU has responded to the recent reports by saying the NBC4 I-Team is spinning tall tales, “relying on innuendo, partial information and speculation rather than evidence and facts.”

In a Nov. 21 statement to the Jewish Journal, AJU wrote, “Testing has consistently found the property to be safe — and nothing presented in recent news reports leads to a contrary conclusion.” (For the full text, click here.)

NBC4’s Joel Grover points to the site of the Santa Susana Field Lab from Sage Ranch Park in Simi Valley.

The statement adds that AJU is committed to transparency, and that “our entire staff takes our stewardship responsibilities very seriously.”

Previously, the TV station’s report charged the university with withholding information from its stakeholders — one segment in the KNBC series was titled “Camp Cover-Up.”

Now, documents uncovered by reporters Grover and Matthew Glasser are pushing AJU to reckon quite publicly with the land’s past, most prominently, its settlement agreement in a 1996 lawsuit BBI filed in federal court against Boeing. The results of that settlement remained confidential until KNBC obtained a copy.

In a related complaint uncovered by KNBC, BBI’s lawyers wrote that hazardous material produced at the field lab had “seeped into, and come to be located in the soil and groundwater of the real property.”

The settlement agreement BBI signed shortly after filing the lawsuit, published by KNBC, includes a sweepingly restrictive release of liability that curtails AJU’s current legal options. 

Jennifer Shaw, who witnessed the Santa Susana rocket tests from the balcony of her Simi Valley home in the 1980s, said that she tried to access the case files, but was told by the court they were sealed.

“Whoever Joel Grover got his stuff from has broken open a whole new area for this story,” she said.

For the parents and grandparents whose children are alumni of the camp or retreats on the property, the deluge of new documents is confusing at best, and, for some, a cause for concern.

KNBC reported that the Jewish youth program Diller Teen Fellows has cancelled a planned retreat at BBI following the reports. A representative of the program declined to comment.

When the first segment of the story aired in September, stakeholders at Milken Community Schools wondered if they should relocate retreats that traditionally have taken place at BBI. The school recently announced it ultimately decided to stick with the site, and a Dec. 4-5 Shabbaton is slated to take place there. 

The question was never about whether the site is safe, Milken Head of School Gary Weisserman said. He takes AJU at its word. But administrators admitted some parents might react negatively.

“We undoubtedly will have a couple of families who will decide not to send their child [to the Shabbaton], but that’s a choice that they’re making,” Weisserman said.

Parents can find some scientific justification on either side.

Hal Morgenstern, a University of Michigan epidemiologist who has studied cancer rates in the area around the field lab site, said his conclusions have been used by both sides: those seeking to prove the field lab was harmless, and those who doubt it.

The elevated cancer rates he found are provocative but circumstantial, he said.

Those who claim the land is safe read scientific studies on the topic as inconclusive, at worst. 

“All the evidence says, ‘Hey, you can relax about this,’ ” said Abraham Weitzberg, a nuclear engineer and former Santa Susana Field Lab official.

Weitzberg heads an organization called the Santa Susana Field Lab Community Advisory Group that generally vouches for the site’s safety. He also has papered the local press, including the Jewish Journal, with letters to that effect.

The debate has also rekindled the passions and rancor of both sides.

Weitzberg also maintains that Hirsch, the nuclear activist, is a puppeteer who has run a three-decade environmental witch-hunt. Hirsch, for his part, says Weitzberg is a Boeing mouthpiece, a claim Weitzberg finds ridiculous. 

Meanwhile, KNBC's Grover said on air that they will “stay with this story a long time.”