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Oct-06-2008 00:20printcomments

Marines Unaware of Risks

More information about the toxic waste exposure of Marines at the El Toro Air Station is emerging, but government data regarding the site remains elusive.
The now-closed El Toro Marine Air Station in Orange County
Photo by Tim King

(SOMERDALE, N.J.) - The Marine Corps takes great pride "in taking care of its own", but the Naval services have not done a good job notifying veterans who were stationed at former MCAS Toro that they are at risk for exposure to toxic chemicals as a result of the contamination of the soil and groundwater. Very few know of their exposure.

Marines who served at Camp Lejeune, El Toro and possibly several locations, have been exposed to trichloroethylene (TCE) and Perchloroethylene (PCE), and they may suffer serious health consequences, and have no idea of what hit them. Most Marine and Navy veterans stationed at El Toro have no knowledge of the toxic chemicals found on the base, its place on the EPA Superfund, eventually closure in 1999, and sale at a public auction by the Navy in 2005 to a joint venture for $650 million.

But it is a fact that a number of Marines report serious illnesses linked to toxic exposure, and neither the Navy nor the Marine Corps have made any attempts to notify El Toro veterans.

TCE and PCE are highly toxic and if not handled and disposed of properly can cause a number of diseases, including cancer and death. In fact, there’s no legislation requiring the government to notify veterans when a military base has serious contamination issues, even when the base is an EPA Superfund site and many may be facing life threatening illnesses.

MCAS El Toro was commissioned in 1943 and for many years the base obtained drinking water from fresh water wells on station. In 1997, the EPA confirmed that the aquifers are "not currently a source of municipal water." In late 1969, El Toro obtained its drinking water from the Irvin Ranch Water District. There is no explanation from the Navy for the reason for the purchase of municipal water, but the high salt content (total dissolved solids) in the groundwater may have corroded the wells.

A TCE plume was discovered off base in 1985. Six of the base wells were in the MWSG-37 area (EPA Site 24) in the path of the TCE plume. With the possible exception of one well, the actual dates the wells were abandoned are unknown. Well water may have been used for years after the purchase of municipal water for swimming pools, irrigation, fire service, and washing of aircraft and vehicles. Contaminated well water would have exposed Marines, dependents, and civilian workers to these carcinogens.

MWSG-37 was ground zero for the TCE plume. In 1997 the EPA reported that the MWSG-37 area was the source of the toxic plume. EPA found that: "approximately 1,500 pounds of TCE are estimated to be present in soil gas; an additional 4,000 pounds of TCE would be present in the soil moisture. The mass of TCE in groundwater beneath Site 24 is estimated to be approximately 8,000 pounds."

EPA traced the "hot spot" to MWSG-37's maintenance hangars: "the primary VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) source is present beneath Buildings 296 and 297, extending to the south with decreasing concentrations to the southern Station boundary. Several smaller source areas exist in the soil beneath Site 24, including a PCE soil gas plume located west of Building 297. The VOC concentrations in soil gas generally increase with depth, and the highest concentrations occur near the water table. VOCs in the area of Buildings 296 and 297 extend to groundwater directly beneath those buildings." How much TCE/PCE was used at El Toro? It's anybody's guess. El Toro kept no TCE usage records. These are not the only records that are missing.

The Navy couldn’t locate many records for El Toro's base wells. Detailed construction drawings, missing pumping records and with the possible exception of AW #4, the dates the wells were abandoned are unknown. The first well was destroyed in 1998 and the last in January 2007. AW #4 was the first well destroyed under a permit issued by the Orange County Health Agency. The permits were obtained by the Naval Facility Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Southwest District who contracted for the destruction of the base wells. NAVFAC’s decision process on not locating other well screens after the first one was found in the shallow aquifer is questionable and may reflect the Navy’s concern with limiting law suits from injured parties.

The location of the well screen determines the first point that water and contaminants can enter the well. For AW #4, the consultant video taped the well, finding that the driller had hand cut vertical slots by torch in the steel casing as a continuous well screen from 210 feet below the ground surface (bgs). The contaminated shallow aquifer under MWSG-37 ran to 260 feet bgs.

This meant that 50 feet of the well screen was in the shallow, contaminated aquifer. Were the other well screens in the shallow aquifer, too? No attempt was made by the Navy to locate the other well screens despite the findings from AW #4 and the obvious importance of this information to the contamination of the base's water supply. Did the driller follow this technique in constructing the other MWSG-37 wells? With the driller's logs and construction drawings missing, only an inspection of the wells could answer this question.

In addition to the well water, the risk of serious illness for those who worked in MWSG-37 in or near the maintenance hangars was high because of exposure to toxic vapors from open containers and from vapor intrusion. Others on the base were at some risk for exposure from vapor intrusion from the contaminated soil and groundwater. If contaminated well water was used in swimming pools and for irrigation, the risk for exposure to these carcinogens through dermal contact is evident. In the words of one toxicologist El Toro “was a toxic waste dump.” At least one national law firm has taken an interest in injuries from toxic exposure at El Toro.

Waits & Luxemburg, P.C., a national law firm, advertises on the internet for civilians affected by El Toro's toxic pollution. Marine and Navy veterans are prevented by law from filing file tort suits against the government for service connected injuries. There’s no legal requirement for the government to notify veterans of exposure to toxic chemicals. Unlike Camp Lejeune where legislation required the Marine Corps to notify veterans of TCE contamination of the water supply, El Toro Marines have not been notified, no legislation is pending, and most Marines are in the dark.

In the absence of political pressure, it's unlikely that the Navy will be forthcoming in disclosing the reasons for the purchase of municipal water, the failure to follow-up on the location of well screens, and the dates the wells were abandoned. Both the purchase of municipal water and the well destruction process raise serious questions: Why purchase water when there's no apparent shortage of water in the aquifer? Why not look for other well screens before destroying the wells? After the municipal water purchase, did El Toro continue to use well water for non-potable purposes? Good questions; no clear answers, yet.

Tim King, reporter for Salem-News El Toro articles, is doing a series of investigative reports/videos on El Toro. King's reports raise more questions about the base's contamination, the impact on the local community and the significant amount of money changing hands in the sale of the base to real estate interests. Continuing media attention may help to raise awareness.

Bob O’Dowd is a former U.S. Marine with thirty years of experience on the east coast as an auditor, accountant, and financial manager with the Federal government. Half of that time was spent with the Defense Logistics Agency in Philadelphia. Originally from Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 19, served in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings in 52 months of active duty in the 1960s. A graduate of Temple University, Bob has been married to Grace for 31 years. He is the father of two adult children and the grandfather of two boys. Bob has a blog site on former MCAS El Toro at This subject is where Bob intersected with Bob served in the exact same Marine Aviation Squadron that Salem-News founder Tim King served in, twenty years earlier. With their combined on-site knowledge and research ability, Bob and Tim and a handful of other ex-Marines, have put the contamination of MCAS El Toro on the map. The base is highly contaminated with TCE, trichloroethelyne

  • . You can email Bob O’Dowd, Environmental and Military Reporter, at this address:

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    Larry October 30, 2015 6:37 pm (Pacific time)

    Worked at HAMS-11 Ordnance. Cleaning MERS & TERS. 77-79. Various ailments with no known source. Nothing identifiable. Wondering where to find more definitive information regarding effects of exposure.

    inetryconydot September 20, 2015 8:03 am (Pacific time)

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    Grant March 27, 2015 9:56 pm (Pacific time)

    Stationed at El Toro 87 to 92 this has got my attention because I suffer from pain that has gone unexplained, doctors have called it everything from chronic fatigue syndrome to fibromyalgia. I was an F-4 Phantom hydraulics mechanic and we use solvents containing trichloroethylene on a daily basis. Most of the effects of exposure that I have found involve cancer however I am finding some connection to central nervous system disorders and inflammation. I am now talking with the VA and may be receiving a service connected disability.

    George February 17, 2015 2:33 pm (Pacific time)

    I was stationed at El Toro in 1986, I was with MWSS-371 I remember our motorpool had several 55 gallon drums that were marked (AIRCRAFT CLEANER) our LT had us fill spray bottles with the contents and spray it on the undercarriage of our trucks.At that time we were dressed only in camis with sleves up.I remember it burned our arms and it was veryhard to breath..We did that for a couple of weeks, when we complained the barrels were taken away.I still today have sores on my arms that come and go.

    Reggie March 20, 2014 8:15 pm (Pacific time)

    I'm sorry to let Tim know that he is wrong. Veterans most certainly can bring suit in Federal Court against the United States Government. Fill out Form SF-95 and send it to the appropriate V.A. Regional Council Office.

    Reggie, I can't let our readers believe that, I am not wrong and it is widely known. "Feres Doctrine. A doctrine that bars claims against the federal government by members of the armed forces"

    A doctrine that bars claims against the federal government by members of the armed forces and their families for injuries arising from or in the course of activity incident to military service.

    The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1950, in Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135, 71 S. Ct. 153, 95 L. Ed. 152, that the federal government could not be held liable under the statute known as the Federal Tort Claims Act (28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1291, 1346(b), (c), 1402(b), 2401(b), 2402, 2671-80) for injuries to members of the armed forces arising from activities incident to military service. The Federal Tort Claims Act allows persons intentionally or negligently wronged by a government employee to sue the government for their injuries. The Supreme Court's decision barring suits involving injuries to members of the armed forces became known as the Feres doctrine. The doctrine remains in force, as the Supreme Court has rejected attempts to over-rule the decision.

     My goal is not to disagree with you but the facts are the facts.  



    Jeannie Mc Intosh February 20, 2014 9:20 pm (Pacific time)

    My husband was told about this incident as I was searching History of El Toro,,,Doug Mc Intosh. HE SERVED FROM 1972 /1973. He was doing fine until 2002 when he just fell balance issue. Doctors diagnosed him with a Brain Tumor Grade 4 Oligoldendro Cancer. They removed it and it returned 2010 Veterans removed it and now battling a third with Chemo only because it would be to dangerous for using any more Radiation,or surgery. He is on Dilantin for siezures since 2002. On February 19/2012 he Filed a claim for hearing loss and Titenitus when stationed at El Toro...Working in Avionics,electronics in Airplanes. We tried to File a Class Action Law suit after reading sad stories of Marines,etc. but Veterans in Palo Alto ,CA...would only handle the hearing.Recommended seeking a Lawyer. Doug is 62 and im on Family leave as his care giver,God Bless all in Jesus Name

    Jeannie so sorry to hear about this, if you don't mind can you please email me at ?  I was there exactly ten yeas after your husband. Thank you.

    Tim King

    Ken2012 May 9, 2012 7:13 pm (Pacific time)

    What does Agen Orang have to do with El Toro Contamination?? I was at El Toro and also before that was in Altilar I Khe Sahn. Apples And ORANGES don't mix. Get real and stop finding excuses for suig someone

    Tim King: Ken, the VA has already approved the first Agent Orange claim for a Marine who never left El Toro,  I wasn't there, but the stuff was loaded on planes and taken to the war, that is my understanding of what happened.  As for suing, sue who?  The Feres Doctrine blocks Veterans from ever suing the government, the most anyone has tried to really do is get taken care of by the VA, that isn't too much to ask for is it?  Really sorry you're angry or whatever, that is the last thing we want from a fellow Marine.  We're all hard working people just working for the benefit of other Marines, do you even know about Camp Lejeune? Anyway, you are entitled to see it any way you wish, any of the guys at Khe Sahn have my ultimate respect, even if in disagreement here.  Semper fi

    Ken2012 May 9, 2012 7:09 pm (Pacific time)

    I was stationed at El Toro with VMFA 531 I NEVER saw any disregard to the environment. The only compaint was a bunch of old rich people complaining about the Afterburners when we were chasing intruders away from our country. Wake up people "Freedom Is Not Free" The ones complaining are the same ones who will complain because we did not do enough.

    Tim King: Really Ken?  I saw a lot of it at MWSG-37 and its you guys  in the MAG-11 and MAG-13 areas who are indeed behind most of it, but I don't hold it against you.  We didn't use TCE, at least not to any great extent, we are the TAFDS guys who spilled our share of fuel.  If you look at the layout, everything regarding gravity and the water tables, pushes it over to MWSG-37 and my friends who have buried kids and suffered really unkind things like male breast cancer won't appreciate being questioned.  Look at it this way; the Navy contractors hired to evaluate the base are the ones who red flagged it and then the EPA declared it a Superfund site.  I take responsibility for being part of the problem, you should appreciate that we all likely contributed, but it was not our responsibility to know, right?  There is a great deal of innocence on the part of all of us who were the Marines on the ground making things happen, ensuring that the jets flew, etc.

    So you launched jets to defend this country from invaders from El Toro?  I am trying to get my mind around that one, please explain.  Your squadron drove those smoky Phantoms and yeah, afterburners made all conversations end until they were done.  That is the sound of loud archaic jet exhaust Ken, not the sound of freedom.  The sound of freedom is honesty, truth, you know?  The old people you referred to were part of a big plan that began many years ago.  For most of its life, El Toro planes never passed over homes.  These take off and landing patterns were changed in later years to piss off the old rich people you talked about.  This is how the wife of Chris Cox was able to nominate the closure of El Toro to BRAC, the Base Realignment and Closure Committee.  It was all part of a plan to turn the base into high dollar real estate, and they failed to anticipate the enormity of the contamination, and they didn't understand the pending power of the Internet, that is where we come in.  Have no doubt that the base and the water underneath it are a big mess, it isn't a theory brother Marine.  

    Gregg45365 April 24, 2010 6:25 pm (Pacific time)

    Myself and other Marines that served on NWS yorktown,Va are going thru some rough times medically.Being disabled since 2002 with immune diseases that hit us out of the blue.That base is a Superfund site as well.Back then we swam and fished in the local ponds and ate the wildlife (fish and deer).Now we find out that those areas in which we pulled duty and recreated might just be the underlying causes of our illnesses.For those in which we served under to not tell us is truely a lession for us who servred then, as it is for the way they're treating the vetrans of today's wars.

    Steve November 14, 2009 3:44 am (Pacific time)

    this to the person named Vic/Oct 8Th 2008 if karma sucks, I am a (force recon Marine! a sacred place by destroying our code of semper fi, if you were a marine you should rot in hell for even saying what you did on here if not just sit back and keep your mouth shut since you never had the guts to serve in combat or take a bullet for this great country. 

    LCPL R Hogue February 21, 2009 6:26 pm (Pacific time)

    Thanks for getting this news out. I was assigned to WTS-37 1977 to 1979. I spend the first six months washing trucks and equipment in the MWSG 38 area. I still healthy as far as I know. I do feel DOD and Department of the Navy need to step up and let the veteran know about this issue. I will not be holding my breath waiting.

    Van October 31, 2008 2:18 pm (Pacific time)

    This is a hearing before congress in 1987. TCE is the topic and it discusses the worst of the worst. It can be gotten from many universities. I have a copy but was only able to scan 120 pages of the 150 pages. The copy was of very poor quality. This hearing refers to many studies and may help. TCE is a huge problem and has been for at least 30 years. At least that's when the military acknowledges the problem. HAZARDOUS WASTE: PROBLEMS AT DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE FACILITIES HEARING BEFORE A SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE COMMITTEE ON GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES ONE HUNDREDTH CONGRESS SECOND SESSION NOVEMBER 5 1987 Library no. Y4.G74/7:W 28/6

    Robert O'Dowd October 13, 2008 5:03 am (Pacific time)

    Candy, I’m amazed at the tenacity of the women dependents at Camp Lejeune. The women involved in the Lejeune STAND are a “Band of Brothers.” The list of Lejeune’s chronic sickness and death from TCE exposure are staggering. The veterans and dependents at have been in this fight for justice for many years. Next year, former MCAS El Toro will be closed 10 years. It’s unlikely that we will know the full extent of exposure to TEC/PCE at El Toro. Many of the records from El Toro are just not available. Putting the pieces together to the “El Toro puzzle” is difficult and at some point in time will be impossible. In the meantime, Tim King is doing a yeoman’s job of spreading the word to others and for this I’m eternally grateful.

    CANDY October 10, 2008 4:39 am (Pacific time)


    Denise October 8, 2008 9:46 am (Pacific time)

    Vic, are you really that miserable of a person? Brother, I really feel sorry for you.

    Vic October 8, 2008 9:05 am (Pacific time)

    I should add that I personally know three ex-Marines from the Vietnam era..and they were drafted. I thought until recently that the Marines were always an all volunteer force. No one can fault draftees and I should add that because I think something may be "Karma", I am not saying that I think it is a good thing. I take no joy in hearing of sick people and children, just like I take no joy in reading of yet another wedding being bombed by US warplanes or another family blown up by a Predator missile. Jesus put it rather bluntly : "Those who take up the sword shall die by the sword". I didnt make this up.

    Van October 8, 2008 8:23 am (Pacific time)

    TCE is a problem at many bases inside and out of the US. Airstations are the worst offenders. The reason being in how they did things before the EPA came into existence.  The worst I've seen is on Guam.I have determined that the levels of TCE on Andersen AFB, Guam was about 1,000,000 ppb in the drinking water.
    The reason for this is because of how these bases did things back during Viet Nam and before.  On Guam every B52 is decontaminated(cleaned) with a mixture of TCE and water after each sortie. The mixture in those days weren't captured and disposed of. It was dumped onto the ground.  This is true for all flights.   All military installations that used TCE dumped or burned in those days. It is now coming back to haunt the US. throughout the world and is the number one contamination problem for our military.

     Editor: Van, thanks for this valuable information about TCE and Guam in particular.  We have a friend who lived there for years and always commented on how "you don't drink the water" and now it all comes together.  This is a tragic problem.



    Vic October 8, 2008 7:03 am (Pacific time)

    Karma sucks, doesnt it? I sign up to kill and abuse other people and end up sick...sounds like poetic justice to me...kind of like when a terrorist gets blown up by his own bomb that explodes prematurely. Every action has a it cause and effect, God's judgement, or Karma.

    JAMES E FROST FORMER SGT USMC October 7, 2008 10:00 pm (Pacific time)


    Phillip Smith October 7, 2008 6:02 pm (Pacific time)

    As a Retired Marine and Veterans Advocate, this information needs to get out to all those who were stationed there at one time or another it needs to be publicized. Those who have been exposed or have passed on due to conditions related to toxix or environmental waste or contamination, need to be aware and file a claim, if not a lawsuit. Family members as well.

    Denise, USN Veteran, El Toro Alumni October 7, 2008 12:00 pm (Pacific time)

    Just wanted to thank you Tim and Robert for spreading the word. Had you not, I may have never known that I and my unborn child had been exposed while serving at El Toro and bringing some understanding to my own health issues. Semper Fi!

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