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Aug-07-2010 14:40printcomments

El Toro's Unwanted Legacy: Toxic Chemicals

Marines at El Toro were exposed to toxic chemicals, none were notified.

Courtesy: U.S. Navy, MCAS El Toro
Courtesy: U.S. Navy, MCAS El Toro

(IRVINE, Calif.) - I don’t believe in ghosts. If I ran into one or two, maybe I’d change my mind. The stories of lights in the former Marine Corps Air Stations El Toro’s control tower when the power was cut off in July 1999 may be just someone’s wild imagination or I guess if you believe in paranormal activity, maybe the ghosts of Marines who served on the base and returned to haunt the place. No question there’s good reasons for haunting the place.

At night, the former base takes on the appearance of a ghost town.  With the power to buildings cut off and hundreds of dilapidated buildings still standing, moonlight can play tricks on your mind.  Shadows move or seem to move and it doesn’t take too long before normally rational  people see things that are not there.

Placed on the National Priority List (EPA Superfund) in 1990 as a result of a trichloroethylene (TCE) plume spreading into Orange County, it was only a matter of time before El Toro was closed. The Navy’s investigation identified 25 contaminated sites on the base, 11 of them were in the most industrialized southwest quadrant where the Marine transport aircraft were serviced in two huge maintenance hangars.

TCE at El Toro

In the 1960s, the hangars were used to maintain the aircraft, primarily C-130s, R4Ds (or C-54s), and several R5Ds (C-47s or Dakotas).  The R5Ds and R4Ds were WWII aircraft while the C-130s were the state-of-art transport aircraft in the 1960s.  All of these multi-engine transports used an extensive amount of TCE as a degreaser.    At one time, El Toro ran a “kind of drying cleaning like operation for aircraft parts.” using 55 gallon drums of TCE hoisted by crane and dumped into a heated vat.  Parts were dipped into the vat and just like in your neighborhood cleaners, out came the formerly greased parts, now pristine and ready for use.      

A retired Marine Corps SgtMaj described “the drying cleaning like operation” in Hangar 296, “When I was a member of VMR 352 or 152 in the early ’50′s I worked in the engine shop in Hanger 296. One of my duties was to degrease engine parts. That was done in the large tank or vat into which I periodically hoisted 55 gallon drums, using the overhead crane, and emptied the contents of TCE/PCE into the water in the tank. By heating the mixture a vapor was released into which I lowered a large metal basket containing parts to be cleaned and in seconds it was done. I have no idea how the waste was disposed of. I believe the tank was located in the attached Bldg. on the east Side of 296 as it is shown.  I and my family spent 1967-1969 in the Lejeune area, first as Sgt Maj of 1/6 then as Sgt Maj of MACS 5 at New River. You could probably find many other Marines and their families that would be considered as getting a double whammy.” 

Other Chemicals of Concern (COCs) 

TCE was the used as degreasing agent for decades in these hangars.  No usage records were kept, but based on the engineering estimates of the soil and groundwater, literally tons of TCE in 55 gallon drums were used without regard to environmental concerns.  Waste products was dumped into sanitary drains or the ground.

TCE is not the only COCs or ‘chemicals of concern,’ an EPA’s euphemism for chemicals that are an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.  My read is that exposure EPA’s COCs can make you very sick and even kill you. The complete list of EPA’s COC for El Toro is posted on the EPA website and with the health effects of exposure as determined by another government agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (ATSDR).  El Toro’s COCs were found in the soil and groundwater; some of them throughout the base while others only in the most industrialized portion in the southwest quadrant.

For the Marines, dependents, and civilian workers on the former base, this is an unwanted legacy of their service at El Toro. There’s no magic pill to take, if exposed these COCs.  Morbidity or the incidence of ill health depends upon various factors, including an individual’s immune system, the toxicity of a particular COC, the route of exposure, and the duration of exposure.  Like most Superfund sites, the EL TORO’S  TOXIC SOUP DU JOUR is long: 1,1,1-trichloroethane, 1,1,2,2-pca, 1,1,2-tca, 1,1,2-trichloroethane, 1,1-dca, 1,1-dce. 1,1-dichloroethene, 1,2-dichloropropane, 2-butanone, 2-hexanone, 4,4-dd, 4,4-dichlorodiphenyldichloroethane, 4-methyl-2-pentanone, acetone, aluminum (fume or dust), aluminum (metal), aroclor-1254, aroclor-1260, arsenic, benzene, benzo(b)fluoranthene, benzo[a]anthracene, benzo[a]pyrene, beryllium, bromodichloromethane, bromoform, carbon disulfide, carbon tetrachloride, chlorobenzene, chloroform, chloromethane, chrysene, dibenzo(a,h)anthracene, dibromochloromethane, dieldrin, ethylbenzene, indeno(1,2,3-cd)pyrene, manganese, mcpp, methylene chloride, pce, styrene, tca, tce, tetrachloroethene, toluene, trichloroethene, trichloroethylene, trichlorofluoromethane, vinyl chloride, and xylenes . 

The Navy sold El Toro at a public auction in 2005 to a joint venture headed up by Lennar Corporation for $650 million.  Hundreds of millions were spent by the Navy in the on-going clean-up of contaminated soil and groundwater of this EPA Superfund. The real estate bust in Southern California and the country’s economic downturn put a real dent in the planned development. For now, it’s on hold. 

Today, El Toro is almost unrecognizable from its former pristine state. It was  abandoned over 10 years ago and it looks it.  The first thought that comes to my mind is shabby. 

David Whiting, columnist for The Orange County Register, described the changes to the Irvine Blvd. entrance, “the entrance is guarded by a steel gate, a thick chain and a padlock. A sign on the gate reads: “Enter At Your Own Risk.” Another sign, behind some weeds, sits on the ground and leans against the shack: “Heritage Fields, Restricted Access.”

On Pusan Way, Whiting continued, “you pass row after row of some of the most dilapidated buildings I’ve seen in years (and in May I was in Nogales, Mexico.) What were once 23 barracks for men and women in uniform are now slowly decaying structures. Broken windows seem as common as the now dominant weeds.”

The four runways are mostly intact. Recycled Materials Company, Inc.(RMCI), the contractor who the bid for the removal and recycling of El Toro’s runway, pulled out when payment for work stopped. 

According to the contractor’s website, “El Toro’s 3.5 million tons [runways, taxiways, concourse maintenance and loading facilities] is to be reused in many ways at the project, including for decorative drainage areas and as crushed, colored rock for park trails.”  The plan was to demolish the concrete for “free” and then sell the recycled material back to the developer.

In my last visit to the base in the summer of 2009, about the only activity visible during the day was huge earth moving equipment tearing up what little grass and shrubbery remained from the 200 acres of the most industrialized portion of the base in the southwest quadrant, the source of the trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE) plume, the location of eleven contaminated sites and my former duty assignment.

Early History

El Toro was constructed at the beginning of WW II, long before Disneyworld, Knott’s Berry Farm and the Los Angeles Angels existed.

On May 5, 1942, Marine Lt.Col. William J. Fox was ordered to survey southern California for the best sites for a Marine Corps air base.  Lt.Col. Fox liked what he saw in a huge lima bean field owned by the James Irvine, owner of the Irvine Ranch. 

The bean field seem perfect for an airfield, located in a valley at the base of the Saddleback Mountains, fog free for most of the year, close to the Pacific Ocean (short hop for aircraft from Navy carriers), bordering the main line of the Santa Fe Railroad and close to Camp Pendleton. 

The story goes that James Irvine was hesitant to give up his most productive lima bean field. He offered to lease the bean field to the Marine Corps for $1 a year. His offer was not accepted. The Marines wanted the field. The condemnation proceedings and court settlement was not completed until June 1944. The government paid the Irvine Company $950,000 that year for the former lima bean field. In 2009 dollars that’s about $11 million.   

El Toro on NPL

I had worked for the EPA Inspector General in the 1970s, I knew that El Toro’s placement on the National Priority List (Superfund List) was not good news. I didn’t know the reasons for the base’s placement on the list, but I knew something was seriously wrong.     

The infamous Love Canal was an EPA Superfund site.  Love Canal,  a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, became the subject of national and international attention following the discovery of 21,000 tons of toxic waste that had been buried beneath the neighborhood.  This tragedy in large part led to the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly referred to as “Superfund” because of the fund established within the act to help the clean-up of toxically polluted locations.  

A quick review of the EPA Superfund sites showed there were a total of 130 military installations on the NPL. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune was first listed on the NPL in 1989.  The contamination of the base’s wells [and ingestion of toxins in the drinking water] made national news on CNN.  In particular, the high incidence of male breast cancer drew the media’s attention.   

Camp Lejeune Marines, Sailors, their families and civilian employees have been affected by the contamination of the base’s water wells with TCE, PCE, benzene and a list of COCs similar to El Toro’s.  Report of illness link to the contaminated wells include: liver cancer, kidney cancer, breast cancer, bladder cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, cervical cancer, lung cancer, leukemia, non Hodgkins lymphoma, liver disease, miscarriages, birth defects (cleft palate, heart defects, Choanal atresia, neural tube defects, low birth weight, and small for gestational age). 

Over the past two years, Salem-News has received similar anecdotal reports from El Toro veterans, dependents, and civilian workers. 

The Navy, EPA, and ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) maintain that there’s no evidence that any El Toro Marine, dependent or civilian worker had been exposed to contaminants of concern. The only problem is that some of these folks said the same thing about Camp Lejeune, even when the evidence supported the contamination of the wells.  

Were Marines, their dependents and others unknowingly exposed to toxic chemicals at El Toro?   Based on my research and the work of investigative reporter Tim King of the Salem-News.com, the answer is YES.  

There’s no question that Marines and Sailor who worked directly with the degreasing solvent TCE and petroleum products [JP4, JP5, aviation gas, etc.] had dermal and inhalation contact with toxic chemicals. Some of the chemicals found in jet fuel include: benzene, toluene, hexane, xylene, and lead.  Benzene is a known carcinogen. For the most part, there’s no indication that personal protective clothing and face masks were used by military personnel who worked with these chemicals.  

El Toro’s Drinking Water    

Was the base’s drinking water contaminated?  The Navy and EPA say NO.  The Navy’s cites the early purchase of municipal water in 1951 and the lack of pumping records after that date as evidence that the base’s drinking water was safe.  Sounds reasonable except for the following: 

  • There are no records of the dates the base wells were abandoned;
  • The TCE plume cut a path right through the base wells, most of which were located in the southwest quadrant;
  • The original well construction drawings are missing so the locations of the well screen intervals are unknown except for Well #4;
  • Early engineering records show that one well was formerly an agricultural well owned by the Irvine Company and there’s no information to support that the Navy followed-up to obtain the original well construction drawings from Irvine;
  • TCE and petroleum products [possibly from a nearby leaking underground storage tank] were found in wells prior to sealing them;
  • For Well #4, inspection prior to sealing found 50 feet of the well screen was in the contaminated aquifer;
  • The justification for the early purchase of municipal water is unknown [contract file can't be located and may have been destroyed];
  • The wells were less than 10 years old when the decision was made to purchase “softened water” from the Metropolitan Water District.  A follow-on contract was made with the Irvine Ranch Water District in 1969;
  • Engineering records after 1951 show the base’s water wells as part of the water distribution system.  

Independent Scientific Board Needed 

Earlier this year, Senator Daniel Akaka, (D, HI) introduced S.3378 to establish an independent scientific board to investigate environmental hazards (e.g., EPA COCs) on military installations and, if supported by the evidence, to make recommendations to the VA and DOD to award compensation and health care coverage to veterans and dependents. 

As is the case with most legislation, S.3378 is not perfect but up to this point, it is the only proposed legislation addressing the widespread contamination on military installations like El Toro. 

At the moment, there are no co-sponsors to S.3378 nor companion legislation in the House.  

The widespread use of chemicals needed to support the military mission (e.g., jet fuels and degreasers like TCE), unsafe disposal practices, and failure to use personal protective clothing and equipment have lead to environmental contamination and unnecessary human suffering. 

Under S.3378, individuals would be eligible for government health care or compensation whenever the Advisory Board finds that they “were exposed to sufficient amounts of environmental hazards to warrant health care or compensation.” 

Dermal contact, ingestion, and inhalation are the three routes of exposure to toxic chemicals.  Evaluation by scientists with backgrounds in environmental exposure or environmental exposure assessment, health monitoring or other relevant field would be required to determine whether health effects experienced by El Toro veterans and others are linked to military service. It makes sense that the work of these scientists be the basis for rejection or approval of health benefits.

Millions were spent and continue to be spent by DOD in remediation work at EPA Superfund bases. However, there is no requirement to notify veterans and their dependents of the environmental hazards they may have been exposed to and their health effects. Most veterans are frankly in the dark, unable “to connect the dots” of their illnesses to military service.

It’s not a secret, but our government has not gone out of its way to inform individuals of the harmful contaminants they may have been exposed to. For one, this information would be useful to a medical care provider and may be a critical life saving piece of data. Why not pass the information on to the veterans’ service organizations, asking them to alert their memberships? 

For the very few veterans who have managed to “connect the dots of military service to illnesses,” it is an expensive and uphill fight to obtain government health benefits and compensation. For their dependents, the outcome is even bleaker. The only option for a dependent is to file a Federal Tort Claim. There’s no data on the number of tort claims filed by dependents, but you can bet, it’s unlikely to be many. If you’re in doubt, search the internet for a copy of SF-95. If you like doing income taxes, you’ll love this form. 

In WW II, some solider on Bataan composed a ditty, “The Battling Bastards of Bataan.”  Taking a clue from our dog face buddies, the following ditty seems appropriate for veterans of El Toro and other veterans exposed to chemicals of concern:   

“No mama, no popa, no Uncle Sam.

No aunts, no uncles, no nephews, no nieces.

No rifles, no planes, or artillery pieces.

And nobody gives a damn.

We’re the sick and dead who lived and worked on contaminated land.”


Bob O’Dowd is a former U.S. Marine with thirty years of experience on the east coast as an auditor, accountant, and financial manager with the Federal government. Half of that time was spent with the Defense Logistics Agency in Philadelphia. Originally from Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 19, served in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings in 52 months of active duty in the 1960s. A graduate of Temple University, Bob has been married to Grace for 31 years. He is the father of two adult children and the grandfather of two boys. Bob has a blog site on former MCAS El Toro at mwsg37.com. This subject is where Bob intersected with Salem-News.com. Bob served in the exact same Marine Aviation Squadron that Salem-News founder Tim King served in, twenty years earlier. With their combined on-site knowledge and research ability, Bob and Tim and a handful of other ex-Marines, have put the contamination of MCAS El Toro on the map. The base is highly contaminated with TCE, trichloroethelyne

  • . You can email Bob O’Dowd, Salem-News.com Environmental and Military Reporter, at this address: consults03@comcast.net

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    Darrell September 5, 2010 5:29 pm (Pacific time)

    I was stationed at El Toro, as a truck mechanic in the Corps, in 1969-1970. We used TCE on a daily basis to clean parts, with no protection. I have severe emphysema and have intestinal problems.

    Jim Davis, Veterans-For-Change August 7, 2010 7:07 pm (Pacific time)

    What’s truly sad about El Toro and the 129 other active and former military bases is the DON (Dept. of the Navy) and DoD (Dept. of Defense) won’t admit any wrong doing, or that thousands and thousands of veterans and former civilian workers were contaminated on all these bases as well as on board all Naval ships from their use and exposure to TCE, PCE, Benzene, JP-4 and JP-8 jet fuels and approximately 50+ other carcinogenic chemicals. Thousands and thousands of veterans, their spouses and children are all sick, dying and no real solution in sight to provide the much needed benefits and medical care and attention they deserve. Making matters worse is the Marine Corps has known dating back to 1957 and did nothing to stop or prevent others from being contaminated and made sick. They even went as far as to try and cover it all up. I’m a Marine Corps brat, and this is not the Marine Corps I grew up knowing, and if my father were still alive today after 26.5 years of service would be absolutely ashamed! The city of Irvine needs to step up to the plate and admit they wasted millions of dollars on very badly contaminated land which will never be useable for living or businesses and that they made a very serious mistake in not turning this into a better international airport to replace the John Wayne Airport.l That is unless they truly don’t care that potentially thousands more will become sick and die and never know why!

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