Toxic legacy: Veterans worry chemicals at California base left them to face cancer

At Fort Ord, chemicals were allowed to seep into an aquifer that supplied some of the base’s drinking water. Vets are demanding action over cancers they developed.

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Photos of Julie Akey during her time at Ford Ord on a table at her home in Herndon, Va. What she didn’t know while working at the military base was that the ground under her feet and the water that ran through the sandy soil were polluted with a cancer-causing class of chemicals including benzene and trichloroethylene.

Photos of Julie Akey during her time at Ford Ord on a table at her home in Herndon, Va. What she didn’t know while working at the military base was that the ground under her feet and the water that ran through the sandy soil were polluted with a cancer-causing class of chemicals including benzene and trichloroethylene.

Patrick Semansky / AP

FORT ORD NATIONAL MONUMENT, Calif. — For nearly 80 years, recruits reporting to central California’s Fort Ord considered themselves lucky.

They felt privileged to live and work amid sparkling seas, sandy dunes and sage-covered hills.

But there was an underside: the dirty work of soldiering. Recruits tossed live grenades into the canyons of “Mortar Alley,” sprayed soapy chemicals on burn pits of scrap metal and solvents and poured toxic substances down drains and into leaky tanks they buried underground.

When it rained, poisons percolated into aquifers from which they drew drinking water.

The soldiers and civilians who lived at the Army base didn’t question whether their tap water was safe to drink.

But, in 1990, four years before it began the process of closing as an active military training base, Fort Ord was added to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s list of the most polluted places in the nation. Dozens of chemicals, some now known to cause cancer, were found in the base’s drinking water and soil.

Decades later, several Ford Ord veterans who were diagnosed with cancers — especially rare blood disorders — took the question to Facebook, asking: Are there more of us?

The group soon grew to include hundreds of people who had lived or served at Fort Ord and worried their health problems might be tied to the chemicals there.

There rarely is a way to directly connect toxic exposure to a specific individual’s medical condition. The concentrations of the toxics are tiny, measured in parts per billion or trillion, far below the levels of an immediate poisoning. Utilities, the Defense Department and some in the Department of Veterans Affairs still sy Fort Ord’s water is safe and always has been.

But the VA’s own hazardous materials exposure website, along with scientists and doctors, agree that dangers do exist for military personnel exposed to contaminants.

The problem isn’t just at Fort Ord. This is happening all over the United States and abroad, almost everywhere the military has set foot. And the federal government is still learning about the extent of both the pollution and the health effects of its toxic legacy.

Records show the Army knew that chemicals had been improperly dumped at Fort Ord for decades. Yet, even after the contamination was documented, the Army downplayed the risks.

A sign warns Fort Ord visitors to stay out of an area that might contain unexploded ordinance. Among the dozens of pollutants that scientists discovered as early as 1985 was the solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, a caustic chemical that still exists in concentrations above the legal limit for drinking water in the aquifer.

A sign warns Fort Ord visitors to stay out of an area that might contain unexploded ordinance. Among the dozens of pollutants that scientists discovered as early as 1985 was the solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, a caustic chemical that still exists in concentrations above the legal limit for drinking water in the aquifer.

Noah Berger / AP

And ailing veterans are being denied benefits based on a 25-year-old health assessment. The CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded in 1996 that there were no likely past, present or future risks from exposures at Fort Ord.

But that conclusion was based on limited data and before medical science understood the relationship between some of these chemicals and cancer.

In generally, veterans have higher blood cancer rates than the general population, according to VA data. In the region that includes Fort Ord, veterans have a 35% higher rate of multiple myeloma diagnosis than the general U.S. population.

They include veterans like Julie Akey.

Akey, now 50, arrived at Fort Ord in 1996 with a gift for linguistics. She enlisted in the Army aiming to learn a new language. So the 25-year-old was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and lived at Fort Ord as a soldier. By then, the base was mostly closed but still housed troops for limited purposes.

“It was incredibly beautiful,” she said. “You have the ocean on one side and these expansive beaches and the rolling hills and the mountains behind.”

What she didn’t know was that the ground underfoot and the water that ran through the sandy soil into an aquifer that supplied some of the base’s drinking water were polluted. Among the contaminants were cancer-causing chemicals including trichloroethylene, also known as the “miracle” degreaser TCE.

Julie Akey in her back yard in Herndon, Virginia. . What she didn’t know while serving at the Fort Ord military base in California was that the ground under her feet and the water that ran through the sandy soil were polluted with a cancer-causing class of chemicals. She’d learn this decades later, while trying to understand how, with no family history, she was diagnosed with a terminal blood cancer.

Julie Akey in her back yard in Herndon, Virginia. . What she didn’t know while serving at the Fort Ord military base in California was that the ground under her feet and the water that ran through the sandy soil were polluted with a cancer-causing class of chemicals. She’d learn this decades later, while trying to understand how, with no family history, she was diagnosed with a terminal blood cancer.

Patrick Semansky / AP

She learned this decades later as she tried to understand how, at 46 and with no family history of blood cancers, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

“No one told us,” she said.

Despite the military’s assertions that there aren’t any health problems associated with living and serving at Fort Ord or hundreds of other shuttered military bases, almost every base closing has exposed widespread toxic pollution and required a massive cleanup. Dozens have contaminated groundwater, from Fort Dix in New Jersey to Adak Naval Air Station in Alaska.

Fort Ord is 25 years into its cleanup as a federal Superfund site, and that’s expected to continue for decades.

The military has acknowledged that troops’ health could have been damaged by drinking contaminated water at only one U.S. base: Camp Lejeune, North Carolina — and only during a 35-year window, between 1953 and 1987.

Service members at Camp Lejeune were found by federal epidemiologists to have higher mortality rates from many cancers, including multiple myeloma and leukemia. Men developed breast cancer, and pregnant women tended to have children with higher rates of birth defects and low birth weight. Like Fort Ord, Camp Lejeune began closing contaminated wells in the mid-1980s.

Soldiers often get stationed at different bases during their years of military service, but neither the Defense Department nor the VA has systematically tracked toxic exposures at various locations.

Fort Ord’s primary mission was training soldiers deployed during World War I, WWII, the Korean war and the Vietnam war. Soldiers and their families lived in houses and apartments connected to its water system, and civilians worked at its airfields, hospitals and other facilities.

In the course of work preparing for battle, they spilled solvents into the base’s drains, sloughed chemical sludge into underground storage tanks and discarded 55-gallon drums of caustic material in the base landfill, according to a 1982 hazardous waste inventory report.

Curt Gandy, a former airplane mechanic, recalls being routinely doused with toxic chemicals from the 1970s to the 1990s. He said he hosed down aircraft with solvents, cleaned engine parts and stripped paint off fuselages without any protection. There were barrels of toluene, xylene, jet fuel and more.

“It gets on your body, it gets in your face, you get splashed with it, and we’re using pumps to spray this stuff,” Gandy said. “It’s got 250 pounds of pressure, and we’re spraying it into the air, and it’s atomized.”

In 1984, an anonymous caller tipped off Fort Ord’s officials that “approximately 30 55-gallon drums” containing about 600 gallons of a “solvent-type liquid” had been illegally spilled there, an Army report said. The state, which ordered a cleanup two years later, determined the Army had mismanaged the site in a way that threatened ground and surface waters.

In 1991, when the Army began investigating what had actually been disposed of at the base’s dump overlooking Monterey Bay, officials told the public the trash was similar to what one would find in the landfill of any small city, according to transcripts of community meetings.

Though much of the trash going into that dump came from nearby houses, the Army officials who spoke at the meetings didn’t of the toxic stew of paints and solvents that today are banned from open landfills. The solvent TCE was among dozens of pollutants that scientists discovered as early as 1985 and still exists in concentrations above the legal limit for drinking water in the aquifer below, according to government water-quality reports.

“The water from the aquifer above leaks down into the aquifer below, and the pollution just gets deeper,” said Dan O’Brien, a former board member of the Marina Coast Water District, which took over the Army’s wells in 2001. “The toxic material remains in the soil under where it was dumped. Every time it rains, more of the toxin in the soil leeches down into the water table.”

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta grew up next to Fort Ord, went through basic training at the base and now runs a nonprofit institute there.

Panetta said the military too often does whatever is necessary at its bases to ready troops for war, “and they don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the implications of what will happen once they leave.”

He said the military is abandoning communities, leaving huge messes to clean up.

“I think that they have every right to ask the question whether or not whatever physical ailments they may have was in part due to the failure to provide proper cleanup,” Panetta said of those affected. “And, in those situations, there is liability. And somebody has to take care of people who have been adversely impacted.”

For Akey and other veterans with cancer, it’s a matter of accountability. Providing health insurance, disability benefits and an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, she said, “isn’t asking for too much.”

“You’re not just serving for six years, like me, and then you’re out,” she said. “If you’ve been given cancer, that’s a life sentence.”

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