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Mar-09-2012 21:38printcomments

Marine Hangar Was 'Witches Brew'

MCAS El Toro’s Hangar 296 was “ground zero” for TCE plume spreading miles into Orange County and the only building on the former base contaminated with radiation.

Hangars at MCAS El Toro
Hangar 296 is the large hangar in the center of the photo, hangar 297 is the large hangar above it, in this image.
Photo courtesy: Google Earth

(IRVINE, CA) - Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro has been an EPA Superfund since 1990, primarily from the TCE plume from Hangars 296 and 297 spreading into the Orange County aquifer. Both hangars were over 200,000 square feet in area, constructed in 1944, and used 55 gallons drums of trichloroethylene (TCE) to decrease aircraft for decades.

Hangar 296 at MCAS El Toro

TCE waste from these two hangars contaminated the aquifer under MWSG-37 and formed a TCE plume, threatening the Orange County principal aquifer off base. Millions have been spent by the both the Navy and local government in the clean-up, an effort that will not be completed for decades.

Once the premier Marine Corps jet fighter base, MCAS El Toro was closed in July 1999 and the Navy sold most of the land on the former base at a public auction for $650 million to a real estate joint venture in 2005.

In July 2002, a Navy contractor reported that the north mezzanine of Hangar 296 was contaminated with radiation (no radiation was found in Hangar 297).

TCE, a known carcinogen, and radiation from a Ra 227 paint room in Hangar 296 are an environmental health risk to Marines who were unknowingly exposed to these toxins and developed cancers years later.

The TCE plume from both hangars swept through the area were the base wells were located, averaging 50 to 500 ug/L over the wells or 10 to 100 times the EPA acceptable level of TCE in water.

Overview of El Toro

The Navy purchased a small quantity of softened municipal water in 1951 and much larger quantity in 1969.

Missing original well construction drawings and water distribution engineering drawings make it difficult to pinpoint the exact date when the base wells were abandoned by the Marines.

One engineering drawing from 1975 showed that the base wells were still part of the water distribution system at that late date.

The missing key is the location of the critical well screen intervals, the first point that water and contaminants enter a well.

The Navy asked its consulting engineering in 1998 to locate and video tape the well screen interval on Well No. 4, the first well designated for sealing in concrete. The results were not encouraging.

Over 40 feet of the well screen interval on Well No. 4 was located in the contaminated aquifer. The remaining base wells were sealed in concrete without an inspection to locate their well screen intervals. In 1986, the water distribution engineering drawings for El Toro were redrawn. Only Irvine Company Well No. 55, now an agricultural well, was the only well remaining in the water distribution system.

Consistent with DOD policy, no Marine Veterans were notified of their possible exposure to organic solvents and radiation by the Navy and Marine Corps. However, DOD and the various Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) have the capability to link to the EPA Superfund database for El Toro and all 130 military bases that are Superfund sites. The EPA database identifies the chemicals of concern and their health effects, useful information to Veterans and their medical health care providers. No Congressional committee has raised this issue with DOD and it appears to fall into the category of ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’

Even though it’s been over 40 years since I worked and slept on duty watch in Hangar 296, I have vivid memories of El Toro, once the premier Marine Corps jet fighter base, and home to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, relocated to Miramar in July 1999 when the base was officially closed.

Most of my memories of El Toro are good. In 1963, the Vietnam War had not consumed the country with anti-war fever; the draft was in effect and no one cut across the border to Canada to avoid military service.

Buddies from the Corps will remain in my memory until the good Lord calls me home.

I still call one retired Marine Captain I served with overseas and at NAS Glenview, Illinois. We were both Corporals in 1964-1966. Even though his brother died this week and he was on his way to the funeral, he called my home to pass on information to help me track down Marine veterans who might be able to confirm information the VA needed on my disability claim.

The Marine who had the top bunk while I slept on the bottom at El Toro died of brain cancer on November 10, 2002, the Marine Corps birthday. We had served together right out of boot camp. Can’t forget that date. He’s in my prayers every day.

Believe me, we were not choir boys in the Corps. The first sergeant, who passed out our Good Conduct Medals in Japan, looked each of us in the eye and said “Thanks for not getting caught.”

To say that I was shocked to learn that MCAS El Toro was a Superfund site a few years ago would be a gross understatement.

I had worked for the EPA IG as an auditor in the 1970s and knew that El Toro’s placement on the EPA Superfund list was not good news for anyone who lived and worked on the base, especially for someone who narrowly survived bladder cancer and seem to have multiple medical conditions not shared by his brothers and other family members.


I had been very lucky. Filling the toilet with blood after shoveling snow in December 2005, I knew that that I had a serious medical problem. I drove myself to the nearest ER, had a urine analysis confirming blood in my urine (something I already knew). The examining physician concerned that I might just blow this off, made it very clear on the need to follow-up with an urologist. I told him that I had seen so many urologists over the past 20 years that the AMA should erect a monument in my name or at least make me an ‘honorary urologist.’

This was a weekend. The following week, I had a cystoscopy in my urologist’s office, confirming a small tumor. Three weeks later I was operated on. The small tumor had grown and in the words of my urologist was “aggressive.” I had a good doctor. Follow-up chemotherapy was not pleasant but it worked.

The cancer remains in remission, but being a cancer survivor is a little bit ‘like looking over your shoulder’ for the bad guy to reappear and take you out.

When your life insurance agent tells you that you are uninsurable, I get the message.

For me, it was not comforting in the least to learn that the north mezzanine of Hangar 296 was contaminated with radiation from a Ra 226 paint room.

TCE and radiation? This is a little bit like ‘pick your poison,’ a game I rather not play. I didn’t get a choice of assignments in the Corps. I went where I was ordered to report to.

There is strong evidence that bladder cancer may be associated with exposure to ionizing radiation, according to scientists at the Center for Environmental Health Studies, Boston, MA.

The VA agreed that my stage 2/3 bladder cancer and hyperprolactinemia were “at least as likely as not” due to exposure to TCE/PCE and El Toro in the 1960s. But, radiation exposure may have been a factor, too.

No one in the 1960s knew that MWSG-37’s 200 acres would be the most contaminated area at El Toro, literally ground zero for the TCE plume, the most industrialized portion of the base, the area where the base wells were located, and where the Navy and EPA would identify 11 separate contaminated sites.

MWSG-37 may not have been an environmental cesspool or the military equivalent of Love Canal, but if you could have looked into a crystal ball and had the ability to select your duty assignment, no one but a fool would have volunteered to work in El Toro’s southwest quadrant.


Retired Marine Sergeant Major Bill Sears told me that:

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.

El Toro was a long way in time and space from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” and there were no witches dancing around the TCE vat (caldron) in Hangar 296, but it doesn’t take much of an imagination to see the very real toxic health effects to TCE vapors, dermal contact, and ingestion in the water supply to this deadly carcinogen.

If you’re still in doubt, just do a Google search on “the health effects of TCE exposure.”

If the TCE tank in Hangar 296 was not a ‘witch’s brew,’ it was the closest thing to it. The Marines who worked in the hangar had no idea of the deadly health effects of TCE.

Tim King, Robert O'Dowd and Jolh Uldrich in front of Hangar 296 in 2009
at the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Photo: Bonnie King


A FOIA to the Navy produced another, maybe even more frightening environmental nightmare for those exposed to it. Radiation.

In July 2002, Roy F. Weston (a Navy contractor) reported that the area in the north mezzanine of Hangar 296 was contaminated with radiation from a Ra 226 paint room.

Weston reported that:

According to (MCAS) El Toro drawings dated in the 1940’s, a radium room and supporting rooms were located in the north mezzanine of Hangar 296. Based on the drawings, it is possible that instruments and equipment containing radium luminous paint were cleaned and repaired in this area. Based on the 1940 drawings of the area, the radium facility consisted of a 1) radium room, 2) a dark room—area used to test the quality of the radium devices, 3) a worker inspection room—area used for inspection of radium devices, as well as worker egress, and 4) a toilet room no. 4—area used for both personnel wash up after working, as well as cleaning-up potentially radium contaminated equipment used in the radium room. The area previously occupied by the radium room and supporting rooms was used as office and workspaces until base closure in July 1999.

WSSD was located in the space previously occupied by the Ra 226 paint room and supporting room.

My review of the following diagram from the Weston report clearly shows that the area previously occupied by the Ra 226 paint room and supporting rooms was converted to administrative work space and used by WSSD in the 1960s:

Weston didn’t report on when the Navy cleaned-upped the radiation but there’s a risk that those who worked and slept on duty watch in WSSD in the north mezzanine of Hangar 296 were exposed to radiation and suffered adverse health effects.

The lower mezzanine was literally on the hangar deck. Wooden stairwells lead to the upper mezzanine, maybe 15 feet above the hangar deck.

A freight elevator was used to transport material from the hangar deck to the upper mezzanine. We used the freight elevator for delivering computer punch cards to the computer room on the lower mezzanine and for returning with computer output product the next day.

To my knowledge there is no list of the shops on the lower north mezzanine, but I do remember a computer operation (IBM 1401) housed on the lower mezzanine in the 1960s.

The VA disputes that the El Toro’s Wing Supply Support Division (WSSD) was located in Hangar 296 and told me there’s no support for a supply clerk to work in a hangar.

My best guess is that at least a hundred or so Marines with MOS 3071 and 3072 worked in WSSD in this hangar over the years. The exact number is unknown and to my knowledge there are no duty rosters below the squadron level.


From January 1963 until October 1964, I was stationed at El Toro, attached to H&HS, MWSG-37 and assigned as a supply clerk (MOS 3071/3072) in WSSD in Hangar 296.

My medical doctor provided a nexus opinion to the VA that links a number of medical conditions to radiation and organic solvent exposure at El Toro.

The results of a VA urine and white blood cell count were negative for radiation exposure.

While that’s encouraging (no one wants to be exposed to radiation), Dr. Rosalie Bertell, an international renowned radiation expert, wrote the VA on my behalf stating that the “the only definitive test to rule out radiation is a chromosome blood breakage test…”

Dr. Bertell noted that “radon gas [a decay product of Ra 226] can pass directly to the brain via the olfactory channels. This has now been confirmed through studies of DU aerosol in the Gulf War.

The chromosome blood breakage test is available from two government laboratories, the Armed Forces Institute for Science and Education, Radiation Emergency Assistance Center/Training Site and the Cytogenetic Biodosimetry Laboratory in Oak Ridge, TN.

The Philadelphia VA ignored Dr. Bertell’s advice, denying the blood chromosome breakage test for two reasons: (1) there is no support that I worked in Hangar 296 in my SRB and (2) my chemotherapy for bladder cancer (linked to organic solvent exposure at El Toro but also a heath effect of radiation exposure) negates the use of the chromosome blood breakage test.

The VA is wrong, terribly wrong. Dr. Bertell categorically denied that chemotherapy injected directly into the bladder and removed from the body with urine had any effect on the body’s chromosomes.

The VA needs to take a hard look at their ‘denial stamp.’ This is not news to Veterans. It’s broken.

After a news story on Veterans Today and pressure from the Department of Pennsylvania, Marine Corps League, and the Pennsylvania War Veterans Council, the VA is now reviewing their decision on the denial of the chromosome blood breakage test.

Any El Toro Marine who worked in the north mezzanine of Hangar 296 needs to aware of their possible exposure to radiation.

The best possible news is that no Marine was affected by radiation exposure in Hangar 296. However, any Marine veteran with a serious medical condition should discuss their concerns with their medical care practioner. Marine veterans can obtain a copy of the Weston report from the Navy or directly from me at

Marines who worked in WSSD with supply MOS (MOS 3071 and 3072) will need to support VA claims for radiation exposure in Hangar 296 with evidence that they worked in the hangar.

The VA has taken the position that there is no support for a supply clerk to work in a hangar.

In the 1960s and for indeterminate time into the future, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing’s WSSD was located in Hangar 296 and the number of supply clerks within WSSD over the years may have been in the hundreds.

I have asked HQMC for confirmation that WSSD was located in Hangar 296 and will post the Marine Corps’ response on my personal website at

The fact that the north mezzanine was contaminated with radiation doesn’t mean that Marines who worked and slept on duty watch in this portion of Hangar 296 suffered health effects from exposure to radiation.

If you worked in WSSD in Hangar 296, please email me at


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 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:

Comments Leave a comment on this story.

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Rick Otts December 25, 2012 11:36 am (Pacific time)

This isnt surprising people back then didnt know or were not told of the dangers of the compounds they were handeling.

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