FORT ORD NATIONAL MONUMENT, Calif. — For nearly 80 years, recruits going to Fort Ord in central California considered themselves lucky.
They felt privileged to live and work amid shimmering seas, sand dunes and sage-covered hills.
But there was a flip side: the soldier’s dirty work. Recruits threw live grenades into the canyons of “Mortar Alley”, sprayed soapy chemicals on burning scrap and solvent pits, and poured toxic substances down sewers and into leaking tanks they have buried underground.
When it rained, poisons percolated in aquifers from where they drew drinking water.
The soldiers and civilians who lived at the military base did not wonder if their tap water was safe to drink.
But, in 1990, four years before the closure process began as an active military training base, Fort Ord was added to the federal government. Environmental Protection Agency list of the most polluted places in the country. Dozens of chemicals, some now known to cause cancer, have been found in the base’s drinking water and soil.
Decades later, several Ford Ord veterans who have been diagnosed with cancers — particularly rare blood disorders — took to Facebook, asking: Are there more of us?
The group quickly grew to include hundreds of people who had lived or served in Fort Ord and feared their health problems were related to the chemicals there.
Rarely is there a way to directly relate toxic exposure to a specific individual’s health status. Concentrations of toxic substances are miniscule, measured in parts per billion or trillion, well below levels of immediate poisoning. Utilities, the Department of Defense, and some members of the Department of Veterans Affairs still believe Fort Ord’s water is safe and always has been.
But the VA is clean hazmat exposure websiteas well as scientists and doctors, agree that dangers exist for military personnel exposed to contaminants.
The problem isn’t just in Fort Ord. This happens all over the United States and abroad, almost anywhere the military has set foot. And the federal government is still learning the extent of pollution and health effects from its toxic legacy.
Records show the military knew chemicals had been improperly dumped at Fort Ord for decades. Yet even after the contamination was documented, the military downplayed the risks.
And sick veterans are being denied benefits because of a 25 year health check. The CDCs Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded in 1996 that there were no past, present, or future risks associated with 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 general, 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 diagnosis of multiple myeloma than general population of the United States.
They include veterans like Julie Akey.
Akey, now 50, arrived in Fort Ord in 1996 with a gift for linguistics. She joined the army in order to learn a new language. So the 25-year-old was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and lived in Fort Ord as a soldier. At this time, the base was mostly closed but still housed troops for limited purposes.
“It was unbelievably beautiful,” she said. “You have the ocean on one side and these vast beaches and the hills and mountains behind.”
What she didn’t know was that the ground beneath her feet and the water that flowed through the sandy soil into an aquifer that provided some of the base’s drinking water were polluted. Among the contaminants were cancer-causing chemicals, including trichlorethylene, also known as the TCE “miracle” degreaser.
She found out decades later as she tried to figure out how, at 46 and with no family history of blood cancer, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
“Nobody told us,” she said.
Despite Army claims that there are no health concerns associated with living and serving at Fort Ord or hundreds of other closed military bases, nearly every base closure has exposed widespread toxic pollution. and required massive cleaning. Dozens have contaminated groundwater, from Fort Dix in New Jersey to Naval Air Station Adak in Alaska.
Fort Ord has 25 years of cleanup as a Federal Superfund site, and it’s set to continue for decades.
The army acknowledged that the health of the troops could have been damaged by drinking contaminated water at a single US base: Camp Lejeune, North Carolina — and only for a 35-year window, between 1953 and 1987.
Federal epidemiologists found that military personnel at Camp Lejeune had higher death rates from many cancers, including multiple myeloma and leukemia. Men were developing 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 shutting down contaminated wells in the mid-1980s.
Soldiers are often stationed at different bases during their years of military service, but neither the Department of Defense nor the VA has consistently tracked toxic exposures at various locations.
Fort Ord’s primary mission was to train soldiers deployed in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Soldiers and their families lived in houses and apartments connected to its water supply system, and civilians worked at its airfields, hospitals and other facilities.
During combat readiness work, they spilled solvents in the pipes of the basedumped chemical sludge in underground storage tanks and dumped 55-gallon drums of caustic material in the base landfill, according to a 1982 Hazardous Waste Inventory Report.
Curt Gandy, a former airplane mechanic, remembers being sprayed with toxic chemicals on a regular basis from the 1970s through the 1990s. He said he sprayed planes with solvents, cleaned engine parts and stripped paint from fuselages without no protection. There were barrels of toluene, xylene, jet fuel and more.
“It gets on your body, it hits your face, you get splattered, and we use pumps to spray this stuff,” Gandy said. “It’s got 250 pounds of pressure, and we spray it in the air, and it’s atomized.”
In 1984, a an anonymous caller notified Fort Ord officials that “about 30 55-gallon drums” containing about 600 gallons of a “solvent-like liquid” had been illegally dumped there, an army report says. the state, which ordered a cleanup two years laterdetermined that the military had mismanaged the site in a way that threatened ground and surface water.
In 1991, when the Army began investigating what had actually been disposed of in the base dump overlooking Monterey Bay, officials told the public that the waste was similar to what would be found in the dump of any small town, according to transcripts of community meetings.
Although much of the waste entering this landfill came from nearby homes, army officials who spoke at the meetings did not speak of the toxic stew of paints and solvents that are now banned. in open landfills. The TCE solvent was among dozens of pollutants that scientists discovered as early as 1985 and still exists at concentrations above the legal limit for drinking water in the aquifer below, according to government water quality reports.
“Water from the aquifer above is flowing into the aquifer below, and the pollution is only getting deeper,” said Dan O’Brien, a former board member of the Marina Coast. Water District, which took over the wells from the Army in 2001. “The toxic material remains in the ground under which it was dumped. Each time it rains, more of the toxin in the ground s seeps into the groundwater.
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta grew up near Fort Ord, received basic training at the base and now runs a nonprofit institute there.
Panetta said the military too often does whatever is necessary on its bases to prepare troops for war, “and they don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the implications of what will happen once They will leave”.
He said the army was abandoning communities, leaving huge messes to clean up.
“I think they have every right to wonder if any physical ailments they may have were due in part to the lack of proper cleaning,” Panetta said of those affected. “And, in these situations, there is responsibility. And someone has to take care of the people who have been wronged.
For Akey and other veterans with cancer, it’s a matter of responsibility. Providing health insurance, disability benefits and acknowledgment of wrongdoing, she said, “isn’t asking too much.”
“You don’t just serve for six years, like me, and then you’re out,” she said. “If you got cancer, it’s a life sentence.”