Hot Water Has Navy in Really Hot Water

Photo by Myles RobinsonDocuments obtained by the Weekly show that county officials and the Navy are engaged in a quiet battle over an explosive discovery: radioactive ground water beneath the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

In January, two county consultants reviewing a government report found evidence that the Navy had detected radioactive contaminants called radionuclides “in ground water in the vicinity of [El Toro's] former landfills and former EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] range.”

That finding transcends the issue of international airport vs. Great Park. Indeed, the consultants worry that the contamination will make the base unusable for any purpose. Worse still, ground water beneath El Toro may carry the contaminants into local sources of drinking water.

But Navy officials in May told a citizens board overseeing El Toro cleanup “that the radionuclides are naturally occurring” and therefore require no cleanup.

No one in Orange County was satisfied with the Navy's response. “I'm very uneasy with the answers we're getting from the Navy,” said Lake Forest City Councilwoman and El Toro Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) member Marcia Rudolph. “My major concern is about their assumptions concerning the radioactivity's genesis. The bulk of the radiation, they're saying, is background.”

But the source of the radiation isn't clear-cut. A June 30, 2000, California Regional Water Quality Control Board report mentions alleged radionuclide ground-water contamination at the base but says this “could be naturally occurring, or they could be originating from landfills at the base.”

Some have suggested the source is depleted uranium rounds that Marines might have dumped in base landfills—a charge the Navy denies. According to the minutes of a Sept. 27, 2000, RAB meeting, Navy consultant Bruce Christensen said, “There is no evidence that [depleted uranium] munitions were ever used at MCAS El Toro.” But Christensen quickly added, “If there are pieces of depleted uranium present, the Navy will find them.”

Depleted uranium rounds were used to great effect against Iraqi tanks in the Gulf War. There's some evidence that their extensive use in that war might account for Gulf War Syndrome, the mysterious illnesses that plagued thousands of returning Gulf War vets.

A Jan. 3, 2001, memo from the county's consultants shows Navy officials have acknowledged that depleted uranium may indeed be the source of the radioactive contamination. They cite a Navy cleanup plan that notes, “[W]astes disposed at the landfills, including depleted uranium from munitions, may be [a] potential source of radionuclides in ground water” (emphasis added). The county consultants went on to note that the Navy “does not seem to consider the EOD range, where munitions were detonated, to be a potential source of radioactive material, which could have impacted ground water.”

RAB meeting minutes from late 1999 through the spring of 2001 indicate RAB members like Rudolph are entertaining several other possible sources of man-made contamination: possible use of “radioactive-tainted effluent from the former sewage-treatment plant as irrigation water for the station's golf course” and a so-called “radium room” located in Hangar 296 that was used to refurbish radium-painted gauges and displays in the years before phospholuminescent paints.

“We got word that there was a problem with this radium room where people were painting gauges,” said one individual familiar with the El Toro planning and cleanup efforts, who asked for anonymity. “We heard that the Navy took all the stuff and buried it, but no one is really sure where it is today.”

In mid-1999, Rudolph and two other RAB members—Gail Reavis, recently elected to the Mission Viejo City Council, and Dr. Chuck Bennett, who suffered a fatal heart attack in December 2000—took a great step toward answering that very question when they discovered an old radioactive radium-painted gauge in an El Toro landfill located in the base's northeastern quadrant. The Navy was at first angry three RAB members would take something from an old El Toro landfill while on an unauthorized tour of the base but later agreed to conduct a new round of radiation testing. That investigation is ongoing.

The Navy's plan is to collect samples from 23 monitoring wells near seven toxic sites, including numerous landfills; the “Ferrocene Spill Area,” the site emitting the massive TCE plume in Irvine's ground water; and the area where Marines disposed of old munitions.

The Navy has already completed similar studies. The county's consultants say those studies already prove the presence of highly radioactive contamination. “Results of this sampling indicated that gross alpha activity exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for drinking water,” they wrote. “Despite this, [the Navy] reported that the activity was representative of natural ground water background.”

The consultants questioned the Navy's rationale for selecting sampling locations, wondered why the Navy discounted the EOD range “as [a] potential source of radionuclides,” and were skeptical about the Navy's quick conclusion that uranium couldn't have migrated into ground water in the first place.

(County El Toro spokeswoman Michelle Emard didn't return the Weekly's repeated calls for comment on the county memo.)

The Navy's final report, originally due Sept. 14, is still not finished. Navy spokesman Lee Saunders said the report's release date is unknown but the Navy has again concluded the radioactivity is “naturally occurring.” Rudolph says she doesn't know when it will be done, but she will certainly bring it up at the next RAB meeting on Nov. 28.

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