UC Davis irradiated beagles during the Cold War. Now it’s agreed to clean the laboratory landfill

The LEHR site in Davis, seen in 1976, once performed radiation research on animals.
The LEHR site in Davis, seen in 1976, once performed radiation research on animals.

In the early years of the nuclear age, scientists at UC Davis began studying the impact of radiation on beagles in a laboratory complex a mile south of the main campus. The lab and an adjacent landfill became a Superfund site, a toxic stew of chemicals, contaminated soils and dangerous metals such as hexavalent chromium and strontium-90.

The radioactive materials were cleared away and the laboratory buildings got cleaned years ago, and now UC Davis plans to clean up the rest of the site, more than a half century after the radiation studies began.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it has reached a settlement agreement that calls for UC Davis to spend $14 million to clean up a landfill adjacent to the former Laboratory for Energy-Related Health Research, a cluster of buildings where studies were conducted on hundreds of dogs.

The entire site covers 25 acres south of I-80 and east of Old Davis Road. The buildings are occupied by a university program called the Center for Health and the Environment, a successor to the original research program at that location.

“This settlement is an important step toward addressing several decades’ worth of contamination at UC Davis,” said EPA regional administrator Mike Stoker in a prepared statement. Deputy Director Mohsen Nazemi of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control said the cleanup will include installation of a “multi-acre protective cap” that will keep toxic substances from spreading to neighboring properties.

“This is a site we have been proactively addressing since the 1990s,” said university spokeswoman Melissa Blouin in an email. “This announcement reflects the EPA’s approval of our long-term plans for this portion of the property.”

The radiation program was originally called Project Four, according to the UC Davis website. In the early 1950s, university researchers began exposing beagles to strontium, radium and other radioactive metals under an agreement with a unit of the Defense Department that had overseen the Manhattan Project during World War II. The unit eventually became the Atomic Energy Commission, which was succeeded by the present-day Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The program expanded in the early 1970s, when an “irradiator facility” was built at the lab to study “the effects of chronic exposure to gamma radiation,” according to EPA records.

The research activities ended in 1988, as the Cold War was winding down, and the entire area was placed on the EPA’s Superfund list in the mid-1990s.

The federal government spent millions of dollars decontaminating buildings and hauling away the remains of hundreds of dead dogs, with the work reaching completion about a decade ago.

UC Davis was left to clean up the adjacent landfill, which is contaminated with pesticides, lead, chloroform and other toxic materials, said EPA spokeswoman Soledad Calvino. There are no radioactive materials in the landfill, Calvino added.

Blouin said that a few small sheds and storage buildings on top of the landfills will be demolished as part of the cleanup.