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Veterans `Kept in the Dark`Robert J. O'Dowd for Salem-News.com
The Defense Department does not notify veterans of military Superfund sites of contaminants and the health effects of exposure to them. However, after several deaths from TCE contaminated well water, legislation required the Navy and Marine Corps to contact veterans of Camp Lejeune regarding the TCE contamination of base wells.
(SOMERDALE, N.J.) - Congress established the Superfund program in 1980 to clean up the country's most contaminated places. The Defense Department owns 133 EPA Superfund sites, the most of any entity.
Millions of Americans live near military Superfund sites. A June 12th, 2006, statement from Representative Bart Stupak, House Energy and Commerce Committee noted: “Nearly one out of ten Americans live within 10 miles of a military site listed on the Superfund National Priority List for hazardous waste cleanup.
The American people, military and civilian alike, deserve to work and live in communities where drinking the water and breathing the air do not threaten their lives.” (See: nergycommerce.house.gov/Subcommittees/OI-Stupak/061207.CampLejeune.pdf)
If you’re one of the those 30 million Americans living near a military Superfund site, U.S. Representative Stupak’s assessment of DOD’s approach to sound environmental practices is not comforting:
“Tetrachloroethylene or TCE is the most widespread water contaminant in the nation, and almost every major military base has a Superfund site with TCE contamination. Nevertheless, this obstruction of environmental prerogatives has been the modus operandi of the Defense Department for years now – since at least 2001, the Pentagon has sidetracked environmental regulations, opposed EPA efforts to set stricter pollution limits, stalled and under funded cleanups, and ignored federal and state environmental regulators.” (See: energycommerce.house.gov/Subcommittees/OI-Stupak/061207.CampLejeune.pdf)
Eighteen military bases make up 20% of California’s Superfund sites. This list includes: Alameda Naval Air Station, Treasure Island Naval Station, Edwards Air Force Base, Castle Air Force Base, Fort Ord, March Air Force Base, Barstow Marine Corps Logistics Base, Moffett Naval Air Station, and MCAS El Toro. (See: epa.gov/superfund/sites/npl/ca.htm)
Veterans are not the only ones at risk for exposure to contaminants. Dependents are vulnerable, too. The California Birth Defects Monitoring Program (CBDMP) is a public health program devoted to finding causes of birth defects is funded through the California Department of Health Services.
DBCMP reported that: “Women who lived within 1/4 mile of a Superfund site during the first 3 months of pregnancy had a greater risk of having babies with certain birth defects: Conotruncal heart defects, a group of serious heart defects, were 4 times as likely (increasing from 1/1000 to 1/250 babies.) Neural tube defects -spina bifida and anencephaly-were 2 times as likely (increasing from 1/1000 to 11500 babies.) Cleft lip and cleft palate occurred no more frequently than expected. Women who lived farther than 1/4 mile from sites were not at higher risk.” (See: mindfully.org/Pesticide/Birth-Defects-Superfund-Proximity.htm)
Imagine for a moment that you’re one of the millions of veterans who served at a base now on the EPA Superfund list. Like many veterans you now live far from your former military base, don’t have access to the internet, have no contacts with former military friends, may be seriously ill, and unable to “connect the dots” of your illness to military service. In fact, you may have been separated from the military for years and have no clue that your illness is related to military service.
Unlike someone injured on the job from exposure to contaminants, there’s no workman compensation for a veteran to cover his or her medical expenses or even the possibility of filing a tort lawsuit for injuries. Based on a Supreme Court decision, veterans cannot file a lawsuit against the government.
Assuming that you are aware of the connection of your illness to military service, you can file a disability claim with the VA. The catch is that a successful claim requires medical evidence of injury and a nexus statement which links the injury to military service.
For example, a doctor’s opinion that your injury is “at least as likely as not” to be related to military service may serve as a creditable nexus statement. The VA disability process may take years to settle. A 100% disabled, unmarried veteran without any dependents receives $2,673 per month or $32,112 per year.
Knowing that an illness is related to military services may be helpful to a veteran’s doctors. It may provide some comfort knowing the cause of an illness, even if there’s no magic pill for a cure.
However, it appears that the government has little interest in spreading the bad news about military Superfund sites. For one, military recruitment may suffer. While military service in time of war is a duty for every able bodied citizens, even the more zealous patriots may hesitant to volunteer if the environment pollution risks are known. Purple Hearts are not awarded for death from toxic chemicals.
An injured dependent or civilian worker may file a tort suit. There is no monetary limit under the Federal Tort Claim Act.
Unlike veterans, dependents and civilian workers are not barred from filing a tort claim for injuries. At Camp Lejeune, the site of PCE contamination from an off base dry cleaner, a number of claims have been filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). PCE and TCE are similar components. A number of the military Superfund sites are also contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE).
MCAS El Toro used TCE to degrease aircraft parts. In one hangar on the base, 55 gallon drums of TCE were dumped into a heated vat. Aircraft parts were lowered in a basket into the vat.
Following acceptable industrial practices at the time, TCE waste was dumped into storm drains. Inevitably some of the waste wound up in the soil and groundwater. At El Toro, a TCE toxic plume was discovered in 1985, the base closed in 1999 and most of the land sold in 2005 to Lennar Corporation of Miami, Florida.
At El Toro, veterans and dependents reported cancer and other illnesses linked to TCE/PCE and radionuclides. Also Radium 226 was used to paint aircraft instruments, mixed with other chemicals to produce a fluorescent paint. Some of the florescent paint wound up in landfills and eventually the groundwater.
Exposure to these contaminants can occur through ingestion (drinking contaminated water), dermal contact, and inhalation. There’s no evidence to suggest that the municipal water at El Toro was ever contaminated. The water from the base wells is another story.
El Toro base wells are now abandoned and sealed. Millions were spent by the Navy for municipal water. There’s no explanation from the Navy for the purchase of municipal water. The Navy was unable to locate the contract files. The government’s municipal water contract files from 1951 and 1969 may have been destroyed. Navy regulations only required that the contract files be retained for 6 years and 3 months after final payment.
The Navy and EPA estimated 8,000 pounds of mostly TCE in the soil and groundwater under the highly industrialized portion of the base. The City of Irvine's consultant estimated 700,000 pounds of TCE in the same area. The Navy disputes the Irvine estimate. There is no dispute that the TCE plume went through the area of the base wells.
The Navy was unable to find the municipal water service contracts and technical supporting documentation so the reasons for abandoning the wells are unknown. One possibility is that total dissolved solids ("salts") >1,000 mg/L in the shallow aquifer may have caused service disruptions, forcing the purchase of municipal water and the eventual abandonment of the wells.
Despite the Navy’s lack of concern, the risk of exposure to TCE/PCE in the drinking water is evident from the corrosion in the well casings found before their destruction, placement of well screens in the contaminated aquifer, and the levels of TCE/PCE found in the shallow aquifer. (See: Salem-News article by Dr. Phil Leveque: 'A Few Good Men, Lots of Chemicals')
In November 2008, El Toro Marine veterans started a petition to require the Defense Department to notify El Toro veterans and other veterans of military bases classified as EPA Superfund sites of the risk of exposure to contaminants and their health effects. (See: epa.gov/fedfac/documents/mynpl2008.htm#3 and Salem-News article by Tim King: TCE Expert Talks With Former El Toro Marine About Toxic Waste (VIDEO))
There's no reason why veterans of Superfund sites should not be notified of the risk of exposure to contaminants and their health effects. Realistically, it appears that such action will require Congressional legislation or an Executive Order.
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