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Jan-02-2010 13:55printcomments

El Toro and Lejeune: It's All About 'The Green'

Why on earth would the U.S. government throw Marines under the train?

El Toro Marine Corps Air Station
El Toro Marine Corps Air Station during the glory days
Recent photos of El Toro by Bonnie King

(SOMERDALE, N.J.) - The Navy and Marine Corps have denied any connection between Camp Lejeune’s contaminated wells and the cancer and other serious illnesses reported by Lejeune veterans and their dependents.

Aerial view: Camp Lejeune N.C.

CNN reported that Camp Lejeune dependents filed $35 billion in tort claims for injuries associated with the toxic well water. The Navy suspended any action on the tort claims, pending the results of water studies by the federal government.

The widespread use of trichloroethylene (TCE) and other chemicals by the military may have exposed thousands of veterans and their dependents to toxic chemicals.

In fact, the Air Force in 2003 reported that 1,400 military sites were contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE). While veterans (Feres doctrine) cannot sue the government for injuries sustained on active duty, their dependents can file tort suits. As evidenced by the Lejeune tort claims, the potential liability from dependents could easily run into the billions of dollars.

Like Camp Lejeune, former Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro, California, is just one of the military sites contaminated with toxic chemicals.

Signs of El Toro's past at the front gate MP shack.

Once the Marine Corps’ premier air station, El Toro now sits deserted, parts of the former base leased to Cal State Fullerton for classes, buildings demolished and with most of the runways, taxiways and aprons still intact.

As a young Marine, I was stationed at El Toro in the 1960's. In an August 2009 visit, I saw heavy earth moving equipment tearing up trees, shrubbery and the grass median strips in the most industrialized portion of the base. Mounds of topsoil were on hand to backfill the excavated area.

The southwest quadrant, the area formerly occupied by the Marine Wing Service Groups 37, was the most industrialized portion of the base, the location of the base wells and the origin of the trichloroethylene (TCE) plume, spreading miles into Orange County.

A trichloroethylene (TCE) toxic plume was discovered in 1985 during a routine inspection of irrigation wells near El Toro. The TCE plume was traced to El Toro where this chemical had been used as a degreaser for aircraft parts for decades.

As a direct result of the TCE plume, El Toro was placed on the EPA Superfund list in 1990, closed in July 1999, and most of the land sold at a public auction in 2005.

A joint venture headed up by Lennar Corporation of Miami, Florida, paid the Navy $650 million for most of the land occupied by the former base. Lennar paid another $200 million in developmental fees to the City of Irvine. The economic recession and the depressed Southern California real estate market squashed further development.

The Navy has spent several hundred million in remediation work at El Toro but nothing in health care monitoring for El Toro veterans and dependents.

The TCE plume cut a path right through the Navy wells. Both the Navy and EPA insist the principal aquifer under the base is not contaminated and the water from the base wells, now abandoned, was safe to drink. All of the Navy wells were sealed by 2006. However, the dates the wells were abandoned are unknown.

Pilot's view approaching MCAS El Toro

The Navy cites the purchase of municipal water as proof the base wells were abandoned as early as 1951. However, calculations show the supply of municipal water was not enough to meet the base water supply demands and El Toro engineering drawings show base wells as part of the water distribution systems years after this early purchase.

Why did the Navy purchase municipal water for El Toro? There’s evidence to support the purchase of municipal water was done to supplement the well water. The base wells were less than 10 years old in 1951. The shallow aquifer under the base had high levels of total dissolved solids (“salts”). Well screen intervals in the shallow aquifer would have allowed hardened water into the water distribution system. Hardened water can cause service disruptions to well pumps, water heaters and the entire water supply system.

One thing is for sure; there was no shortage of water in the aquifer under the base and water in Southern California is a scarce and expensive commodity.

El Toro in it's heyday, F-4 Phantom on the tarmac

As is the case with the other 130 military bases on the EPA Superfund list, no veteran, dependent or civilian employee has been notified of their possible exposure to contaminants of concern and their health effects.

The Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry (ATSDR) — a Federal government agency responsible for public health assessments of EPA Superfund sites — reported health problems in people of all ages from drinking water contaminated with organic solvents like TCE.

These include aplastic anemia, bladder cancer, brain cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, esophageal cancer, Hodgkin’s disease (TCE), and other serious diseases.

Over the past two years, Salem-News (Salem, OR) received an increasing number of reports of cancer and serious illness from former El Toro Marines and their dependents. These illnesses parallel those reported by Lejeune veterans and dependents.

Petitioners asked the Navy and ATSDR to evaluate the risks of occupational exposure to toxic chemicals at El Toro. Both agencies passed the buck. Like Lejeune, it’s all about “the green.”


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 1960's. 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 This subject is where Bob intersected with 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, Environmental and Military Reporter, at this address:

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