MCAS EL TORO: Superfund Site 
by bob o’dowd

Veterans ‘Kept in the Dark’

The Defense Department does not notify veterans of military Superfund sites of contaminants and the health effects of exposure to them. However, after several deaths from TCE contaminated well water, legislation required the Navy and Marine Corps to contact veterans of Camp Lejeune regarding the TCE contamination of base wells.

<> Congress established the National Priority List or Superfund program in 1980 to clean up the country's most contaminated places. The Defense Department owns 133 EPA Superfund sites, the most of any entity.

Millions of Americans live near military Superfund sites. A June 12, 2006, statement from Representative Bart Stupak, House Energy and Commerce Committee noted: “Nearly one out of ten Americans live within 10 miles of a military site listed on the Superfund National Priority List for hazardous waste cleanup. The American people, military and civilian alike, deserve to work and live in communities where drinking the water and breathing the air do not threaten their lives.” (See:

If you’re one of the those 30 million Americans living near a military Superfund site, U.S. Representative Stupak’s assessment of DOD’s approach to sound environmental practices is not comforting: “[Trichloroethylene] or TCE is the most widespread water contaminant in the nation, and almost every major military base has a Superfund site with TCE contamination. Nevertheless, this obstruction of environmental prerogatives has been the modus operandi of the Defense Department for years now – since at least 2001, the Pentagon has sidetracked environmental regulations, opposed EPA efforts to set stricter pollution limits, stalled and under funded cleanups, and ignored federal and state environmental regulators.” (See:

Dependents Vulnerable

Veterans are not the only ones at risk for exposure to contaminants. Dependents are vulnerable, too. The California Birth Defects Monitoring Program (CBDMP) is a public health program devoted to finding causes of birth defects is funded through the California Department of Health Services. DBCMP reported that: “Women who lived within 1/4 mile of a Superfund site during the first 3 months of pregnancy had a greater risk of having babies with certain birth defects: Conotruncal heart defects, a group of serious heart defects, were 4 times as likely (increasing from 1/1000 to 1/250 babies.) Neural tube defects -spina bifida and anencephaly-were 2 times as likely (increasing from 1/1000 to 11500 babies.) Cleft lip and cleft palate occurred no more frequently than expected. Women who lived farther than 1/4 mile from sites were not at higher risk.” (See:

Imagine for a moment that you’re one of the millions of veterans who served at a base now on the EPA Superfund list. Like many veterans you now live far from your former military base, don’t have access to the internet, have no contacts with former military friends, may be seriously ill, and unable to “connect the dots” of your illness to military service. In fact, you may have been separated from the military for years and have no clue that your illness is related to military service.

Unlike someone injured on the job from exposure to contaminants, there’s no workman compensation for a veteran to cover medical expenses or even the possibility of filing a tort lawsuit for injuries.

Veterans Can Not Sue

Based on a Supreme Court decision, veterans cannot file a lawsuit against the government for injuries incurred on active duty. Assuming that you are aware of the connection of your illness to military service, you can file a VA disability claim.  The catch is that a successful claim requires medical evidence of injury and a nexus statement which links the injury to military service.  A doctor’s opinion that your injury is “at least as likely as not” related to military service may serve as a creditable nexus statement.  However, the VA disability process may take years to settle. A 100% disabled, unmarried veteran without any dependents receives $2,673 per month or $32,112 per year.  This is definitely not a lotto ticket. 

Knowing that a serious illness is related to military services may be helpful to a veteran’s doctors.  However, it appears that the government has little interest in spreading the bad news about military Superfund sites.  With the sole exception of Camp Lejeune, there is no requirement for the government to notify a veteran of the contaminants and their health effects of the 133 military bases on the EPA Superfund list


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While military service in time of war is a duty for every able bodied citizens, even the more zealous patriots may hesitant to volunteer if the environment pollution risks are known. Purple Hearts are not awarded for death from toxic chemicals.

MCAS El Toro’s TCE and Radium 226 Contamination

Many military Superfund sites are contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE).  Like many other bases, MCAS El Toro used TCE to degrease aircraft parts. In Hangar 296 at El Toro, 55 gallon drums of TCE were dumped into a heated vat. Aircraft parts were then lowered in a basket into the vat. Presto—super clean parts.  A major problem was that following acceptable industrial practices at the time, TCE waste was dumped into storm drains. Inevitably some of the waste wound up in the soil and groundwater. A TCE toxic plume was discovered spreading off of El Toro in 1985, the base placed on the BRAC, closed in 1999 and much of the land sold at a public auction in 2005 to a joint venture headed up Lennar Corporation of Miami, Fl.

At El Toro, veterans and dependents have reported cancer and other illnesses linked to TCE/PCE and radionuclides. Radium 226 (Ra 226) was used to paint aircraft instruments, mixed with other chemicals to produce a fluorescent paint. Some of the florescent paint wound up in landfills and eventually the groundwater.  The Navy found that the north mezzanine of Hangar 296 contaminated with Ra 226 in July 2002.  The California Department of Public Health has not yet approved this hangar for unrestricted use.  Exposure to Ra 226 can be deadly.  The half-life is over 1,600 years.  After 1,600 years, for example, 2 grams of Ra 226 will still be radioactive from a quantity of 4 grams.  No Marine veterans who worked in this hangar have been notified of their possible exposure to this deadly contaminant. 

Exposure to these contaminants can occur through ingestion (drinking contaminated water), dermal contact, and inhalation. There’s no evidence to suggest that the municipal water at El Toro was ever contaminated. The water from the base wells is another story.

El Toro base wells are now abandoned and sealed. Millions were spent by the Navy for municipal water. There’s no explanation from the Navy for the purchase of municipal water. The Navy was unable to locate the contract files so the reasons for the purchases are unknown. The government’s municipal water contract files from 1951 and 1969 may have been destroyed. Navy regulations only required that the contract files be retained for 6 years and 3 months after final payment.  One possibility is that total dissolved solids ("salts") >1,000 mg/L in the shallow aquifer may have caused service disruptions, forcing the purchase of municipal water and the eventual abandonment of the wells.

The Navy and EPA estimated 8,000 pounds of mostly TCE in the soil and groundwater under the highly industrialized portion of the base. The City of Irvine's consultant estimated 700,000 pounds of TCE in the same area. The Navy disputes the Irvine estimate. There is no dispute that the TCE plume went through the area of the base wells.

Despite the Navy’s lack of concern, the risk of exposure to TCE/PCE in the drinking water is evident from the corrosion in the well casings found before their destruction, placement of well screens in the contaminated aquifer, and the levels of TCE/PCE found in the shallow aquifer. (See:

There's no good reason why veterans of Superfund sites should not be notified of the risk of exposure to contaminants and their health effects. It’s the right thing to do for those who served honorably.  Realistically, it appears that DOD will not take any action without Congressional legislation or an Executive Order.