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Jul-23-2008 11:19printcommentsVideo

Sick Marines and Contaminated Water: Questions Surround El Toro Marine Air Base (VIDEO REPORT)

Marines who served here need to know the possible health hazards so they can seek treatment. TCE causes mutations, intestinal disorders and cancer.
Photo and video by Tim King

(EL TORO, Calif.) - El Toro Marine Air Station used to be the premiere Marine Corps aviation facility on the west coast. It closed in 1999 and is in the midst of big change; a park will soon occupy the land and new homes are being built. But while the politicians move forward and families move into new homes on the former base, contamination in the base's water system from a degreasing chemical is staying off the radar.

Most Marines who served at the El Toro Marine Air Station in Orange. County, California would hardly recognize the place today. Since its closure in 1999, the land that used to be the Irvine Ranch, has been a hotbed of controversy. Many people wanted to see it become a large airport for Orange County, others wanted to see a more public use, and that is where it is heading.

But a group of veterans that growing quickly in number, say El Toro, along with the active Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune on the east coast, is a major TCE contaminant zone. TCE, Trichloroethylene, was a chemical degreaser used to clean the parts off Marine Corps jet fighters.

It is believed that for years, the toxic chemical invaded the water system here.

Marines have died, children have been born with birth defects, and experts like’s Dr. Phil Leveque, who as a toxicologist had one of the first TCE-related court cases in the U.S., says the effects of this chemical are far reaching.

According to records, the contaminated wells were shut down in 1970, but residue from the poisonous degreaser continued to affect people because it was in the ground.

The group of watchdog Marines bringing the story forward, also say there are eyewitness accounts of many 55 gallon barrels of TCE being buried in a hole here at El Toro.

The base is now incorporated into the city of Irvine.

Irvine’s city council met last night and one of the prime items was the redevelopment of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The Public Information Officer for Irvine, Louie Gonzales, explained what the city is doing with the property.

The most important thing is for Marines, family members and civilian workers who worked here, to learn of the possible health hazards so they can seek treatment.

TCE causes mutations, intestinal disorders and cancer. The federal government has not performed sufficient outreach to let Marines and former Marines know about the hazards they may face, now or in the future.

Tim King: Editor and Writer

Tim King has more than twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. Tim is's Executive News Editor. His background includes covering the war in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, and reporting from the Iraq war in 2008. Tim is a former U.S. Marine who follows stories of Marines and Marine Veterans; he's covered British Royal Marines and in Iraq, Tim embedded with the same unit he served with in the 1980's.

Tim holds awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing from traditional mainstream news agencies like The Associated Press and Electronic Media Association; he also holds awards from the National Coalition of Motorcyclists, the Oregon Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs; and was presented with a 'Good Neighbor Award' for his reporting, by the The Red Cross.

Tim's years as a Human Rights reporter have taken on many dimensions; he has rallied for a long list of cultures and populations and continues to every day, with a strong and direct concentration on the 2009 Genocide of Tamil Hindus and Christians in Sri Lanka. As a result of his long list of reports exposing war crimes against Tamil people, Tim was invited to be the keynote speaker at the FeTNA (Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America) Conference in Baltimore, in July 2012. This is the largest annual gathering of North American Tamils; Tim addressed more than 3000 people and was presented with a traditional Sri Lanka ‘blessed garland’ and a shawl as per the tradition and custom of Tamil Nadu

In a personal capacity, Tim has written 2,026 articles as of March 2012 for since the new format designed by Matt Lintz was launched in December, 2005. Serving readers with news from all over the globe, Tim's life is literally encircled by the endless news flow published by, where more than 100 writers contribute stories from 23+ countries and regions.

Tim specializes in writing about political and military developments worldwide; and maintains that the label 'terrorist' is ill placed in many cases; specifically with the LTTE Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, where it was used as an excuse to slaughter people by the tens of thousands; and in Gaza, where a trapped population lives at the mercy of Israel's destructive military war crime grinder. At the center of all of this, Tim pays extremely close attention to the safety and welfare of journalists worldwide. You can write to Tim at this address: Visit Tim's Facebook page (



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Comments Leave a comment on this story.

All comments and messages are approved by people and self promotional links or unacceptable comments are denied. January 22, 2017 5:38 pm (Pacific time)

I am a retired Marine of 24.5 years active duty service and served most of my military years on the west coast, Camp Pendleton (1972-1975),MCAS El Toro (1980-1985) and then at Camp Lejune (1990-1992. I had never heard about the possible contamination of water at El Toro and I lived there with my wife and three children in base housing and the children attended local elementary schools there. My wife developed breast cancer in 2002 and later past away from it in June 2006 and in 2001 I experience problem with my kidneys and had a TURRP procedure performed. Has there been any determination of benefits for these locations as presumptative as has been made with those stationed at Camp Lejune? I have not been identify any type of material relating to this.

Henry July 28, 2008 2:11 am (Pacific time)

I'd like to add. Recently I had a cancer marker test for something but I came out ok. Not to say this TCE problem is nothing to worry about but out of curiosity I just ran a search and found this promising medical report that could help put some people at ease: "The results from this large scale cohort study of workers followed up for over 3 decades provide no clear evidence that occupational exposures at the aircraft manufacturing factory resulted in increases in the risk of death from cancer or other diseases. Our findings support previous studies of aircraft workers in which cancer risks were generally at or below expected levels. "

Henry July 28, 2008 2:05 am (Pacific time)

I was stationed in EL Toro for about a year..around 1980. I then did 1.5 years in aviation in Iwakuni. Alot of shops such as our ordnance shop had solvent tanks for cleaning parts and there was also alot of paint stripping going on everywhere. I recall working the solvent tanks and having paint stripping duty but can't recall where all this stuff was disposed of. I don't recall any special trucks coming to pick it up. Someone mentioned above that there should be no worry if people don't drink the water but if I'm correct...pollutants can also enter the body through the skin such as from showering. I have no contact for years with anyone stationed on El Toro but do know of one Marine from our ordnance shop there who died og cancer at a young age. I remember we were given gloves for working the solvent tanks but most Marines just did it barehanded.

Linda July 25, 2008 2:13 pm (Pacific time)

I agree--this tce stuff is very dangerous, and we have a lot of it at el toro and in the surrounding area the city of irvine doesn't want anybody to know about.

Tim King July 25, 2008 11:52 am (Pacific time)

Alan Severs, Environmental Scientist July 24, 2008 3:04 pm (Pacific time) wrote: "but residue from the poisonous degreaser continued to affect people because it was in the ground." This is very poor non-scientific reporting. If no one is drinking the water, how could it continue to "affect people"? The TCE plume was fully investigated under the supervision of US EPA, CA EPA, CA DTSC, and CA RWQCB and the extent of the contamination was no secret.”

 This reply is written by Robert O'Dowd and other Marines working with me on this investigation:

EPA reported a estimated 8,000 lbs of TCE in the soil and groundwater under Site 24 (MWSG-37). One well destroyed in 1998 (AW #4) had 50 feet of its well screen in the contaminated aquifer. TCE in excess of the MCL was found in this well in the late 1990s. After destroying AW #4, the Navy made a decision not to locate other well screens in the well destruction process (1998-2007). All of the original well construction drawings are missing. It’s possible that the other well screens were in the contaminated aquifer, which would have contaminated the drinking water on the base. By the way, the wells were the only source of water prior to 1970 and may have been continued to be used even after municipal water was purchased. The actual dates the base wells were abandoned are unknown. One definitely contaminated well and missing documentation on all of the base wells raises serious questions to exposure to TCE in the drinking water.

Shari July 25, 2008 11:29 am (Pacific time)

To Alan Severs - first off this is not a scientific article. Second off, TCE in the ground can emit vapors and continue to affect people even if noone is drinking the water. I am also an Environmental Scientist - you need to read up on the vapor intrusion exposure pathway that is commonly one of the elements modeled during a Health Risk Assessment.

Outreach Efforts July 25, 2008 9:18 am (Pacific time)

Your comments in the video about Marines not knowing about TCE and its health effects are right on target. Active duty personnel have coverage for medical care. For the military or the VA to do outreach to veterans exposed to TCE, it will take Congressional legislation. The Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) can do outreach but they don't have the medical expertise to counsel veterans. The VA has the medical staff to do the job, but the government has to notify personnel that they were exposed to TCE. That’s the rub: there’s no legal requirement for notification. Until that’s changed, any veteran who becomes seriously ill from TCE exposure may not be able to “connect the dots” to military service.

Any Sources? July 24, 2008 10:43 pm (Pacific time)

I thought reporters were supposed to source their stories. Who is saying that the water is contaminated? Who are the other veterans getting sick? One person getting sick and thinking that it is due to a chemical without any additional evidence just is not credible.

This is part of a continuing series; sorry if you are just finding it at this point.  I am one of the former Marines from the most affected area, so this is not quite like your standard reporter story, does that make sense to you?  I have been living this for over twenty years as it turns out, and two of my sons have experienced serious health issues very likely as a result of TCE.   The Navy and Marines have both confirmed for many years that TCE is a bis issue around El Toro, that is not a matter of opinion and it is not just being revealed here for the first time.  It is not by the way about one person getting sick; it is about many people getting sick.

CANDY July 25, 2008 4:45 am (Pacific time)


Alan Severs, Enironmental Scientist July 24, 2008 3:04 pm (Pacific time)

"but residue from the poisonous degreaser continued to affect people because it was in the ground." This is very poor non-scientific reporting. If no one is drinking the water, how could it continue to "affect people"? The TCE plume was fully investigated under the supervision of US EPA, CA EPA, CA DTSC, and CA RWQCB and the extent of the contamination was no secret.

Shari July 24, 2008 1:05 pm (Pacific time)

I would be interested to know whether the base housing up on the hill outside the gate (off IRvine Avenue) was served by any on-base water wells. Or did all base-related water come from the base wells? We lived up on the hill and I am thinking maybe we had imported water from the local water district, but I honestly don't know.


Tim King to Shari:  That is part of what we are studying and we should over time be able to provide that answer for you.

Jude Gleason July 23, 2008 9:06 pm (Pacific time)

I live near the El Toro base and had no idea this was going on. We are very shocked and dismayed and look forward to your other reports on this.

Bob O'Dowd July 23, 2008 3:06 pm (Pacific time)

Tim, Good story. One issue that I don't know is resolved is the actual dates the base water wells were abandoned. We do know from the Irvine Ranch Water District that NAVFAC San Diego awarded a contract to them in late 1969 for municipal water. I've been unable to obtain confirmation of the dates the base wells were abandoned from either EPA or NAVFAC. It's possible that one or more base wells continued to operate for some time after 1970. This is especially important to know since six of the wells were in the MWSG-37 area in the path of the TCE plume. Both the EPA and the Navy maintain that the wells were deep wells drawing water from the uncontaminated principal aquifer under the base. However, the first well destroyed under a well destruction permit issued by the Orange County Health Agency permit (AW #4) under a NAVFAC contract instructed the consulting engineer to locate the well screen. The consulting engineer reported that 50 feet of the well screen in the contaminated shallow aquifer. This would have allowed water and contaminates to enter the well at 210 feet below the ground surface—in the lower shallow aquifer. NAVFAC has yet to explain why they stopped looking for well screens after this well. Also, we do not know the reason for the purchase of municipal water. Given the high levels of total suspended solids (“salts”) in the shallow aquifer, El Toro may have experienced corrosion in the steel well casings (circa 1942), which would also have allowed contaminates to enter the base water supply

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