A Few Good Men, Too Many Chemicals: Toxic Exposure of US Marines and Government Lies – Robert O’Dowd

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A Few Good Men, Too Many Chemicals is the story of the exposure of U.S. Marines at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, CA, and Camp Lejeune, NC, to organic solvents, benzene, and other carcinogens ingested in their drinking water and through dermal contact and inhalation while working with toxic chemicals without protective clothing and face masks. Thousands of veterans and their families were once stationed at El Toro, an EPA Superfund site and the premier Marine Corps jet fighter base until it closed in July 1999. At Camp Lejeune, another EPA Superfund site, the base wells were contaminated with organic solvents from 1953 to 1987 with an estimated one million people exposed to trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), benzene and other toxic chemicals. Legislation to provide health care for Camp Lejeune, an active military installation, was passed in the 112th Congress. In September 2016, Lejeune veterans were eligible for presumptive VA disability compensation for 8 of the 15 health conditions that the VA agreed were linked to toxic chemicals in the base’s wells. There is no presumptive health care and disability for El Toro Marines. El Toro veterans have to fight for health care and disability one veteran at a time. A Few Good Men, Too Many Chemicals documents the denial of responsibility and the cover-up by Marine Corps leadership of environmental contamination from veterans, their dependents, and the public at El Toro: no usage records on TCE and other organic solvents; El Toro’s denial of ownership for 16 years of a major TCE plume spreading for miles into Orange County until a lawsuit forced the government to accept responsibility; loss of all of the original well construction drawings (permanent records) and over 40 years of water distribution engineering drawings; no records on the dates the base wells were abandoned; engineering drawings showing the base wells part of the water distribution system after the purchase of a small quantity of softened municipal water; unexplained cut-off of pumping records when the base wells were clearly shown as not abandoned in an El Toro engineering drawings from 1975; a radiation contaminated hangar shuttered and sealed in 2016, years after the Navy reported the hangar free of radiation. The Radium 226 paint had entered the sewer lines under the hangar, delaying the release of the hangar from its restricted use category. At El Toro, 55-gallon drums of TCE waste were buried on the base to hid them from the Marine Corps Inspector General after their use was not authorized; the entire set of water distribution engineering drawings redrawn in 1986, the year after TCE was found in agricultural wells on and off the base and during the period when ten Camp Lejeune’s wells were found contaminated with TCE and abandoned; an El Toro Marine dead from Agent Orange exposure who never served in Vietnam; the dead Marine transported empty 55-gallon drums to the base’s landfills; other Marines reported use of Agent Orange to spray the fence line to kill vegetation growth. Over 900 acres of the former base transferred to the FBI. The transfer was initially made by the Navy to the FAA who passed ownership to the FBI. Southern Californians appear content to accept the government’s spin that “all is well; no need to worry.”


A Few Good Men, Too Many Chemicals: Toxic Exposure of US Marines and Government Lies

Hi Jennifer,

I just published A Few Good Men, Too Many Chemicals on Amazon. The above link is to a Salem-News article on the story of U.S. Marines at El Toro and Camp Lejeune who were exposed to organic solvents, benzene, and other carcinogens through ingestion in the drinking water, and through dermal contact and inhalation while working with toxic chemicals without protective clothing and face masks.

In the court of public opinion, the Navy’s position on El Toro base wells would be unsupportable. The Navy maintains that El Toro’s base wells were abandoned with the early purchase of municipal water in 1951. The facts don’t support this argument. Six wells were in the footprint of the TCE plume spreading off base into Orange County. TCE over the wells averaged greater than 500 ug/L. The early purchase of softened municipal water from the Metropolitan Water District was insufficient to meet the demands for water for both El Toro and Santa Ana. At the time, the wells were less than 10 years old and good producers. There is a heavy concentration of TDS in the SGU at El Toro (>1,000 mg/L) and this would have caused service disruptions from the effects of salts on pumps and water lines. Hence, the reasons to purchase a small quantity of softened water from MWD in 1951 was most likely than not done to reduce the levels of TDS in the water distribution system. The Navy and EPA would have you believe that the wells were like other Orange County wells, drawing water from the Principal Aquifer with depths of 400 to 600 feet bgs. But, the very first Navy well destruction report in 1998 showed that the well screens were opened in the contaminated SGU. The wells were all constructed in early WW II. He same construction technique was likely used for all the wells. That is, the driller cut vertical slots by torch in the well casing to use as well screens. This was an old technique and used extensively at the time (the early 1940s). Without the well construction drawings, the only way to determine the locations of the critical well screen intervals was to inspect each well before sealing them in concrete. Instead, the Navy looked the other way and destroyed the remaining wells without knowing the locations of the wells screen intervals. Like dead men who tell no tales, they are all sealed in concrete.

You’re familiar with the use of Radium 226 in Hangar 296 and the expensive cost of remediation. What is unknown is the cost to the men who worked in the contaminated work space. I’m one of them. Three cancers and a forced retirement because of ill health, and the continual fight to maintain my health while consuming too many meds is part of the cost. Others have not been so lucky. The Marine who had the top bunk (we slept on duty watch in the Radium contaminated work space) died of glioblastoma 15 years ago. When near death, he had to write important things down because of the cancer and its effects on the brain. You don’t forget these things.

As you know, DTSC list dioxin (as 2,3,7,8-TCDD TEQ) as a potential contaminant of concern for El Toro. In our brief telephone discussion the other week, you didn’t know where dioxin was found on the base. Some guesses are soil and water samples taken from the crash crew burn pits and base landfills. However, it’s within reasons that El Toro used Agent Orange to control vegetation in areas on the base that were part of a wild fire zone. The base’s panhandle comes immediately to mind; the ammo bunkers were located in this area and that last thing that El Toro needed was a wildfire in that area. The explosions would have been heard in San Diego! Of course, the Navy and EPA will deny that AO was ever used at El Toro but my sense is the probability is very high that it was used in the 1960s. Do you have any records of soil samples in El Toro’s panhandle showing dioxin? I know that 900 acres in this area were turned over (with a few exceptions) to the FBI, contrary to a 1996 agreement between the feds and local and state governments that guaranteed a wild life corridor be maintained in the panhandle. If the FBI fences off this area, then the wild life corridor is gone forever. But, if Agent Orange was used in this area to control vegetation, it will eventually work its way into the aquifer and into Orange County’s principal aquifer. We have reports from Marines that AO was used by them along the fence line, too. My sense is that much more was used in the wild fire zone in the panhandle, but I doubt that the FBI would be willing to allow the state to take soil samples now.

ATSDR’s position is that El Toro is an indeterminate health risk due to the lack of on-station data. I can’t fault ATSDR since they have no subpoena power and DOD funds their public health assessments. Those who worked with TCE/PCE/TCA/fuels without protective clothing and face masks know the health consequences of exposure to these carcinogens. For many of them it’s too late.

Camp Lejeune is another story. Marine veterans with the help of the North Carolina Congressional delegation were able to obtain VA health care for 15 medical conditions and presumptive disability compensation for 8 medical conditions. An estimated one million people were exposed to Lejeune’s contaminated wells.

At El Toro, the Navy’s official position is that the base well were abandoned decades ago, but the dates the wells were abandoned are unknown, the original well construction drawings missing, over 40 years of water distribution engineering drawings missing and the year after OCWD (1985) found TCE in agricultural wells off and on the base, the entire set of water distribution drawings were redrawn with only one well in the set (Irwin Well No. 55). This and the original 1942 drawings are the only complete sets of water distribution drawings for El Toro.

Tim King, another El Toro Marine and the founder of SN, and I continue to receive many emails from El Toro Marines with cancers (e.g., bladder, prostate, kidney, breast cancer, lung cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, breast cancer, etc.). We do our best to help. The government ignored our requests for assistance, closed the base, and moved the air wing to Miramar. El Toro Marines are left on their own to fight the battle for VA health care and disability compensation. Most will lose the fight. But, they will not quit without a fight, even those who are on their dying beds. That’s the way we were trained.

For El Toro Marines ‘Semper Fi’ looks like a one-way street. We gave our all and the Marine Corps leadership looked the other way. I guess that “responsible for environmental contamination and injuries and deaths to Marines” doesn’t look good on officers’ OERs.

You indicated that Navy (no doubt at the state’s insistence) will run the video camera and detection equipment in the sewer line under Hangar 296 out to the old waste water treatment plant. Excellent idea. Ra 226 has long half-life and if there’s any of it in the sewer line, I will be there for a long time. The costs of this work is not inexpensive and should be borne by the Navy, not the state.

Without getting too involved in the EPA/Navy bureaucracy, I think that the exclusion of Marine veterans as stakeholders from participating in RAB meetings was unfortunate. We lived and worked on the base and are in a better position to discuss the use of chemicals than the local population. That may be part of the reasoning to exclude us from membership as ‘stakeholders.’

Sorry for this lengthy email. It’s too late for the Marines who were exposed to contaminants at El Toro. There’s no magic pill for toxic exposure.

I enjoyed talking to you the other week and hope to hear from you again. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to email me or call me.


Bob O’Dowd.

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