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Oct-27-2008 12:13printcomments

'A Few Good Men, Lots of Chemicals'

Camp Lejeune’s "The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten" website adds link for MCAS El Toro Marines veterans. Attempts to learn more about the exposure of El Toro Marines to toxic chemicals continue.

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(SOMERDALE, N.J.) - Former MCAS El Toro could be used as a movie script for the “perfect environmental crime.” Dump 8,000 pounds of TCE (trichloroethelyne) and other goodies into the soil and groundwater; watch a mostly TCE plume go through the area of the base wells into Orange county; put the base on the BRAC hit list; lose documentation; put thousands of acres up for sale; and pocket $650 million from the sale to a land developer. In this case, the victims are mostly “invisible Marine veterans,” who have no clue of what hit ‘em.

We’re a long way from understanding the extent of exposure of Marines at El Toro to TCE/PCE (perchloroethelyne)and other contaminants. This would be a “cold case,” if it were not for the efforts of a few El Toro veterans who refuse to accept the government’s “don’t worry; there’s not need for concern.”

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is attempting to locate documentation to determine the risk of exposure to TCE/PCE for El Toro Marines.

ATSDR, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is responsible for performing public health assessments of Superfund sites like MCAS El Toro. At the request of a number of El Toro veterans, ATSDR is attempting to locate documentation to determine the risk of exposure to TCE/PCE for El Toro Marines, dependents, and civilian workers. This is not going to be an easy job. I don’t envy these professionals.

ATSDR completed a public health assessment of MCAS El Toro in 1993. ATSDR determined that “based on the evaluation of available data and on current site conditions at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, follow-up public health actions are not being considered at this time. As more data become available, ATSDR will evaluate the data to determine if public health actions are indicated for the community near the site.”

In a nutshell, El Toro didn’t have enough data in ’93 for ATSDR to make any assessment of the impact on public health. The lack of data seems to be a recurring theme at El Toro.

In 1985, Orange County Water District employees found TCE off-base during a routine well inspection. Eight years later, El Toro doesn’t have enough data or identification of the source of the TCE plume.

My guess is that the Navy and Marine Corps will not welcome ATSDR's inquiries with open arms. Both Camp Lejeune, the home of the 2nd Marine Division, and MCAS El Toro, the home of the 3rd MAW until July 1999, were affected by TCE contamination. The Marine Corps acknowledges the contamination of well water at Camp Lejeune between 1957 and 1987. At El Toro, a one-time EPA Superfund site, the Navy was responsible for the clean-up of contaminants. Citing the lack of evidence of use of the base wells after 1951, the Navy's position is that there's no need to be concerned about contamination of the El Toro’s wells. There are good reasons to dispute this conclusion.

The closure of MCAS El Toro in July 1999 makes it very difficult to obtain copies of documents, even with the use of FOIA. Federal record retention requirements establish the time limits for retention of files and mandate their destruction at a specified point in time. The search for documentation is not like drinking vintage wine. It just doesn’t get better with age. For example, there’s no MCAS El Toro Public Works Dept. to contact, only a Navy BRAC office not particularly interested in helping Marine veterans determine their exposure to TCE/PCE chemicals.

No Federal agency has addressed the risk of exposure to TCE/PCE at El Toro from inhalation and dermal contact. For those Marines who worked with TCE/PCE or in areas where these chemicals were routinely used is an obvious risk.

Drinking TCE/PCE contaminated water is a common route of exposure to carcinogens. El Toro’s wells (6 out of 8) were in the path of the TCE plume. This should have been a “red flag” to any investigator, but there’s only the Navy’s reply that “there’s no evidence of use of the base wells after 1951.” Not terribly reassuring to anyone stationed at El Toro, especially when there’s no usage records of TCE/PCE for the base and too many records are missing (e.g., well construction drawings, pumping records, dates abandoned, repair records).

The Navy purchase of municipal water does not mean the base wells were completely abandoned. There’s no explanation from the Navy for the expenditure of millions of dollars to purchase municipal water. Nor, is there any explanation of why El Toro’s water distribution system shows 4 of the 6 wells and pump houses in the path of the TCE plume years after the initial purchase of municipal water. Only one well was ever marked as abandoned on engineering drawings of the water distribution system. The increase in municipal water purchase in 1969 would have allowed El Toro to abandon these wells. When were the base wells abandoned is the "million dollar question."

We know for sure is the dates the base wells were destroyed, the unsettling knowledge that the first well destroyed (AW #4) had 50 feet of its well screen in the shallow, contaminated aquifer; the Navy made no attempts to look for other well screens after AW #4; the extensive well corrosion found by consulting engineers during well destruction (1998-2007); and the high levels of total dissolved solids (“salts”) in the shallow aquifer increased the risk of corrosion.

With all of this negative news, it was good to learn that Camp Lejeune Marines affected by toxic chemicals at that base just added a page to The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten, to help spread the word to El Toro Marines. It’s nice to know that fellow Marines “have got your back.” (see:

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steve & pat February 3, 2009 8:52 pm (Pacific time)

This just like the sale of NAS AGANA GUAM AND its a SUPERFUND sight and ANDERSON AIR FORCE base. Both have bad wells with PCE and TCE . steve

Henry Ruark October 30, 2008 10:49 am (Pacific time)

To all: You are witnessing in this ongoing story by Tim and O'Dowd one of the strongest possible impacts of honest journalistic enterprise and endeavor, via the Internet and the new shape of the daily newspaper in this nation. Remember that, for great story to grandchildren later !! I can appreciate that impact from 50 working years on the print-side, with all its then obvious failings, now catching up inexorably with consequence from management failure to carry out First Amendment responsibilities despite all the subsidy and other support thus given to their business side.

Bob O'Dowd October 28, 2008 12:57 pm (Pacific time)

Archibald, Thank you for your encouragement. Tim King and I will continue to follow the trail to the end. To date, we’ve gotten email responses from a growing list of El Toro veterans. A number of them have illnesses linked to TCE exposure. The government has no legal requirement to notify veterans when a military base like former MCAS El Toro is placed on the EPA Superfund list. Most of us are geographically dispersed throughout the country so it’s quite likely that many veterans have no idea of the contamination found at El Toro or know that the base was closed in 1999 and much of the land sold at a public auction in 2005. In this sense, and the internet are helping to spread the word of El Toro to other veterans and their dependents. Semper Fi.

Archibald Noble October 28, 2008 6:36 am (Pacific time)

Excellent story. The Navy has a terrible record with regard to environmental contamination of its own facilities. I hope you can continue to pursue this on El Toro.

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