NO DEFENSE AGAINST TOXIC EXPOSURES-Robert O’Dowd

BETRAYAL is a book about Marine veterans and their dependents who were exposed to toxic chemicals at former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California, and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. BETRAYAL will be republished in several weeks on Amazon at the lowest price permitted by Amazon. This is necessary for two reasons: First, to inform veterans about the contaminants of concern they may have been exposed to and to price Amazon resellers out of the market of ripping off veterans by selling the book at outrageous prices.

Marines at El Toro and Lejeune were men and women who served their country honorably, were unknowingly exposed to toxic chemicals and developed deadly cancers and other serious diseases. I’m one of them.

It’s no secret that Marines are a band of brothers. It doesn’t matter if you were in the Corps yesterday or 50 years ago, once a Marine; always a Marine.

A skeptic might say: “Sorry to hear about your cancer, but many people get cancer that were not at these bases so what makes you think the disease was caused by something in the military?”

In fact, that is the very attitude our government has taken to deny any service connection to disease and contaminated water at Camp Lejeune and El Toro. Individuals have won VA disability and compensation claims but only after lengthy delays and payment of expensive independent medical evaluations in support of claims. Civil law cases were filed; but no win for the plaintiffs.

Both bases are among the 130 military EPA Superfund bases, the most toxic environments in the country. Think of Love Canal and Times Beach and you’ll get the general idea of how bad some of these military bases can be to your health. Millions were spent by the Navy in remediation at El Toro, sold at a public auction over 10 years ago, to a real estate joint venture. The Navy made $650 million from the sale. Not a dime went to any veteran or any effort to give them a heads-up that they may have been exposed to deadly toxic chemicals or radiation.

The evidence of contaminated drinking water at El Toro was shredded, lost, or trashed but it’s there. Like Lejeune and many other military bases constructed during WW II, El Toro’s drinking water originally came from base wells. The water under the base was free. The Navy purchased a small quantity of softened municipal water in the early 1950s. The dates the base wells were abandoned are unknown. What is known is that a major trichloroethylene (TCE) plume cut a path through the base wells with TCE levels exceeding 500 ug/L or over 100 times the EPA maximum contamination level over the base wells. Extensive corrosion was found in the wells before they were sealed and all the water supply lines to at least one dependent housing complex were corroded and had to be replaced.

Children died from leukemia at Camp Lejeune and El Toro. Leukemia has been linked to organic solvents in drinking water. Other veterans and dependents died from various cancers while Marines who served at both Lejeune and El Toro are literally walking dead men with stage 4 breast cancer, a very rare form of cancer for men.

The Navy and Marine Corps have not provided any medical monitoring for El Toro Marines, even though the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (ATSDR), responsible for public health assessment of EPA Superfunds, recommended annual physicals and medical monitoring for health changes for those stationed at Camp Lejeune when the well water was contaminated with organic solvents. Camp Lejeune Marines have presumptive health care and are beginning to receive presumptive disability benefits for certain medical conditions, too. It was a bitter fight for Lejeune veterans but they fought the good fight and deserve the benefits. But, anyone who served at El Toro and other Marine Corps air stations knows that we used an enormous quantity of TCE to keep Marine aircraft serviceable.

Organic solvents like trichloroethylene or TCE were used by industry and the military for decades. TCE is an excellent degreaser and at El Toro it was common practice in Marine Wing Service Group 37 to dump 55 gallon drums of the chemical into a vat with an overhead crane, and then dip a basket of aircraft parts into the heated vat—a quick and efficient way to clean parts and pollute the soil and groundwater from TCE waste product.

Tetrachloroethylene or PCE is used in dry cleaning. At El Toro, the base dry laundry used PCE, and was in the same area as the base wells.

At El Toro, the two huge maintenance hangars located in the same area as the base wells were the primary source of the TCE plume spreading into Orange County. Both hangars were used to maintain Marine transport aircraft over a fifty-year period. No usage records were kept, but it’s reasonable to conclude from the extent of the TCE plume that thousands of 55 gallon drums were used over El Toro’s 56 years of operations.

The environmental and human exposure risks of TCE and PCE are documented in medical literature. TCE/PCE has been linked by the Federal government to serious disease, often occurring decades after exposure.

Exposure to organic solvents can occur through ingestion (drinking water), inhalation, or dermal contact. Marines working with organic solvents would normally be more at risk for disease, especially if protective clothing and masks were not used. If these chemicals contaminate the drinking water, then ingestion and inhalation (through hot showers) would expose everyone on the base, including dependents and civilian workers.

For Camp Lejeune, El Toro and the many military bases on the EPA Superfund list, these are not just examples of one or two drums leaching into the groundwater. For our military, dependents, civilian workers and in many cases those living near these bases, the volume of toxic chemicals in the soil and groundwater poses a serious environmental health risk.

CAMP LEJEUNE

Camp Lejeune’s Tarawa Terrace, Hadnot Point, and Holcomb Blvd. water distribution systems were found to be contaminated with TCE, PCE and other contaminants of concern. For example, maximum concentration of TCE were reported for Hadnot Point (1,400 ug/L) and Holcomb Blvd. (1,148 ug/L) while PCE maximum concentration were reported for Tarawa Terrace (215 ug/L).

At Lejeune, the Navy and Marine Corps spent millions on studies to identify the cause of diseases linked to exposure to TCE and PCE. There’s no question about the contamination of the well water at Lejeune.

ATSDR reported the sources of the leaks “were leaks from off-base and on-base underground tanks, some of which were installed in the 1940s.”

ATSDR wrote that the source of the PCE in the Tarawa Terrace wells was an off-base dry cleaner. An estimated 75,000 Tarawa Terrace residents from 1957 until 1987 were exposed to PCE contaminated drinking water. PCE is a known carcinogen. ATSDR recommended that former residents get routine physicals and monitor their health for changes.

In June 2009, the Navy funded a study by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies of Science, who reported that “strong scientific evidence is not available to determine whether health problems among those exposed are due to the contaminants.”

The NRC concluded there was no need for additional studies and the Navy and Marine Corps “should take the appropriate action in light of the available sparse information that indicate exposure to toxic contaminants occurred and may have affected the health of the exposed population.”

The NRC report did not go down easily with ATSDR. The St. Petersburg Times quoted part of a letter from Dr. Thomas Sinks, ATSDR’s Deputy Director, to the Marine Corps:

“The direct funding of peer review by the agency responsible for contaminating the Camp Lejeune drinking water [the Marine Corps] creates a perceived conflict of interest unacceptable to the community of veterans and their families exposed.”

Mike Partain, a Tallahassee resident who was born at Camp Lejeune in 1968 and later diagnosed with male breast cancer, expressed the feelings of many veterans: “The NRC report smelled rotten.” (see: tampabay.com: Critics Say Marine Corps Contract on Camp Lejeune is Conflict of Interest).

As one former Camp Lejeune, dependent and cancer survivor told me, “It’s all about the greenbacks.” She may be right. The NRC report gives the Navy and Marine Corps “the scientific cover” to dismiss billions of dollars in toxic tort claims filed by Lejeune dependents.

In July 2009, Senator Richard Burr (D, NC) introduced S. 1518: Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act of 2009. This bill provides hospital care, medical services, and nursing home care to veterans and family members who were stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, while the water there was contaminated by volatile organic compounds, including known human carcinogens and probable human carcinogens. As of this date, the bill has 13 co-sponsors. A companion bill is expected to be introduced into the House shortly.

To prevent the Lejeune tort suits from being summarily dismissed by the Navy, Senators Richard Burr (R, NC) and Kay Hagan (D, NC) amended the Defense Appropriations Bill to prohibit the Navy from disposing of water contamination claims before critical scientific studies can be completed.

For now, the Camp Lejeune “poisoned patriots” battle for health care and compensation continues. In the words of the Lejeune dependent: “It all goes back to the greenback.”

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION EL TORO

El Toro was the premier Marine Corps jet fighter base and home of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing until a toxic plume of trichloroethylene (TCE) spread off the base into Orange County.

The TCE and other contaminants at El Toro led to its inclusion on the National Priority List (EPA Superfund), eventual closure in 1999 and public auction sale to a joint venture headed up by Lennar Corp. in 2005, the nation’s number two new home builder.

About a thousand acres at the former base were transferred to the FAA and the FBI, not included in the sale and not included in the Navy’s expensive remediation work. The base’s ammunition bunkers were in this area. This is a wild fire zone and logically an ideal location to use Agent Orange to kill vegetation that feeds wild fires. We know that Agent Orange was used at El Toro. The death of a Marine who served at the base in 1969 whose job was to carry empty 55-gallon drums to one of the base’s landfills, never served in Vietnam and whose VA doctors wrote that his incurable cancer could only come from Agent Orange exposure supports it. His widow won disability compensation from the VA after a lengthy fight. Other Marines told me that they used Agent Orange to along the fence line to cut the vegetation. Some of them had cancers.

A brief visit to the former base several years showed it to be almost unrecognizable from its former pristine state. The runways were mostly intact. Many buildings abandoned over the past ten years were deteriorated, some almost beyond recognition. About the only activity visible was huge earth moving equipment tearing up what little grass and shrubbery remained from the 200 acres of the industrialized portion of the base, the source of the TCE plume, the location of 11 contaminated sites and my former work assignment.

To me, what was distinctly recognizable was Hangar 296 where I worked and slept on duty watch as a young Marine. In addition to being one of the principal sources of the TCE plume, this hangar was the location of a Radium 226 paint room. Roy F. Weston, Inc., a Navy contractor, reported portions of the north mezzanine contaminated with radiation.

For the Navy and Marine Corps, El Toro is a success story. The public auction sale paid the Navy $650 million, more than enough to pay for remediation work at the base with millions left to fund other Navy base realignment activities (BRAC) and leave smiles on a few Admirals’ faces.

As it turned out, the recession and the Southern California real estate bust has effectively squashed efforts to build homes on the Superfund site.

The layers of lies and secrecy surrounding El Toro are also lifting away, and the public, especially Marines, are discovering the deadly truth about the toxicity of this ghost city. It truly is a view to a kill.

To say that “drinking water or inhalation of these chemicals or dermal contact can be dangerous to your health” is an understatement. In simple terms, these chemicals can kill you, and death will come – but not in a peaceful or pleasant way.

TCE was used by both industry and the military as a degreaser for many years. In fact, many of the 130 military bases on the EPA Superfund list are contaminated with TCE and other organic solvents.

The initial response of the Marine Corps was to deny any responsibility for the TCE contaminants found in irrigation wells off the base in the 1980s. Marines by nature and training are aggressive so this might explain the “not me, Coach” attitude of El Toro to concerns raised by the Orange County Water District and others.

The contaminated irrigation wells were located down gradient of two huge maintenance hangars where TCE had been used for many years. Legal action forced the Marine Corps to accept responsibility for the off-site TCE plume.

The Navy purchased municipal water for El Toro and the nearby Santa Ana Air Facility from two municipal water districts. Water is a scarce and expensive commodity in arid Southern California. The Navy contract files would contain the technical justification for the purchases; both files are missing and presumed destroyed.

The only thing that is definite about El Toro’s water is that something had to be seriously wrong with El Toro’s well water, especially when there were no indications of shortages in the free aquifer water under the base.

El Toro’s wells went deep into the principal aquifer; some as deep as 500 and 600 feet below the ground surface (bgs). However, the location of the well screens and not the depth of the wells are critical since water and contaminants entered the wells through their well screen. Well screens opened in the contaminated Shallow Groundwater Unit—the aquifer contaminated with TCE and other toxic chemicals would have allowed the toxins into the base’s water distribution system.

When questioned about the location of the well screens, EPA San Francisco didn’t know the answer, deferring to the Naval Facility Engineering Command Southwest in San Diego, the agency responsible for sealing the wells and other base closing activities.

NAVFAC records showed that inspection of the very first well scheduled for closure in 1998 found 50 feet of the well screen interval in the shallow contaminated aquifer. Except for the agricultural wells converted in WW II, it’s reasonable to assume (all original well construction drawings are missing), that the wells constructed during WW II followed a similar pattern. After this inspection, the Navy stopped looking for the well screen intervals.

This is not good news for El Toro veterans and others who drank, showered, and cleaned with well water. In 1987, there were no wells in the water distribution system. In 1985, the Orange County Water District found TCE contaminated agricultural wells and off base. Sometime between 1985 and 1987, El Toro’s wells were taken out of service. There was no janitorial staff at El Toro; Marines maintained aircraft and cleaned their work spaces, stripped the wax from the decks (floors) with strippers containing TCE, cleaned aircraft with heavy concentrations of TCE without any protective clothing and face masks. This meant that many enlisted El Toro Marines had significant toxic exposures to TCE via dermal, inhalation and ingestion routes of exposures. You would have to have one helluva immune system to avoid the health effects of toxic exposures. My best friend who slept in the top bunk died of glioblastoma (brain cancer). The end of his life was not pleasant.

Unlike service in Vietnam, there are no casualty records of the seriously ill and death from toxic exposures at El Toro, no Purple Hearts. Except for their families and other veterans, very few give them a thought.

NAVFAC’s position on the base wells is that they were abandoned in 1951 and subsequent municipal water purchases prevented any contamination from entering the drinking water. To accept this, you must believe that the wells were abandoned when they were less than 10 years old and there was no shortage of water in the aquifer. When asked about the dates the base wells were abandoned, NAVFAC didn’t know.

Could the Marine Corps have kept the base wells operating after the purchase of municipal water?

Economically, it would make sense to continue to use water from the aquifer unless it was contaminated and didn’t meet water quality standards.

There’s no question that El Toro’s Public Works Department kept records on the base wells. The dates wells were taken out of service and/or abandoned would have been recorded. Were these records destroyed or lost during the base closing activities? Good questions; no clear answers.

Both the Navy and EPA dismiss any contamination of El Toro’s well water, even though the TCE plume cut a path through the base wells and the 200 acres where the wells were located had 11 contaminated sites, containing dioxins, VOCs, SVOCs, pesticides, PCBs, TPH, TRPH, herbicides, and metals.

I don’t believe in ghosts. The stories of police responding to 911 calls of lights in the El Toro control tower when the power was cut off years ago, and Marines in utilities walking guard duty when the last Marines left in July 1999 may be just someone’s wild imagination or just the type of crazy stories linked to ghost towns in the West. At night, the former base could easily look like a ghost town. If ghosts do exist, they couldn’t have picked a better place. There must be more than a few Marines who died from service at El Toro, who cursed the place in their dying moments.

Bob O’Dowd
Philadelphia, PA

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