By Mark Gutglueck
VICTORVILLE— The environmental remediation at what was formerly George Air Force Base, while targeting a host of substances now acknowledged as having been in use during the base’s active military engagement from 1941 to 1992, does not officially include radioactive and other non-nuclear weapons grade materials known to have contaminated the facility and which were buried at two sites on the air base grounds.
Shuttered by the Department of Defense in 1992, George for the past two decades has been undergoing a civilian use reconfiguration, and is today known as Southern California Logistics Airport, which is managed, essentially, by the city of Victorville.
The base was built in 1941, just prior to the United States’ entrance into World War II. Then known as the Victorville Army Airfield, it was utilized for training Army Air Corps pilots during the war. It was placed on standby status in September 1945, shortly after hostilities in that conflict concluded. In 1950, three years after the Army Air Corps was reconstituted as the Air Force, the base was reactivated in June of that year and renamed in honor of Brigadier General Harold Huston George.
Over the years George was a key component of U.S. involvement in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, as well as being a primary base for the Western Air Defense Force. As such it was home to the 1st Fighter-Interceptor Wing, the 94th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 27th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron the 71st Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 94th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 452nd Light Bombardment Wing, the 116th Fighter-Bomber Wing, 131st Fighter-Bomber Wing, the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing, the 456th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 518th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 327th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 329th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, the 413th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 831st Air Division, , the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing, the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 431st Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, the 32nd Tactical Fighter Wing, the 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 479th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 479th Fighter-Bomber Wing, the 479th Fighter-Day Wing, the 479th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 131st Fighter-Bomber Wing, the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 434th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 434th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, the 435th Combat Crew Training Squadron, the 4435th Tactical Fighter Replacement Squadron, the 4452nd Combat Crew Training Squadron, the 20th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 21st Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, the 21st Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 21st Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, the 4535th Combat Crew Training Squadron, the 561st Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 563rd Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, the 563rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 39th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the 35th Tactical Training Wing, the 35th Tactical Wing, the 37th Tactical Training Wing, the 32rd/8th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 562nd Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, and the 561st Tactical Fighter Squadron.
Among the aircraft deployed at the base were F-51 Mustangs, Douglas B-26 Invaders, North American F-86 Sabres, Republic F-84 Thunderjets, F-102s, A F-106s, F-4 Phantoms and F-105s.
George Air Force Base was officially decommissioned in December 1992.
In 1977 there were reports of contaminated soil on the base, including pesticide contamination around base housing. The Air Force initially denied those reports, but by 1979, acknowledged that such a problem existed. In 1981, base medical personnel were advising active duty female Air Force personnel and the wives of airmen stationed at the base that it was inadvisable for them to become pregnant while stationed at the base because of the high infant mortality rate experienced there.
Beginning in the early 1980s, the Air Force undertook efforts to quantify the level of contamination and then decontaminate the soil and groundwater there. An initial survey identified 213 spots on the 5,062-acre base where significant concentrations of contamination existed. Acknowledged by the Air Force was that the base environs was heavily laden with jet fuel, gasoline, paints and solvents. It was subsequently established that base housing and other buildings contained lead and asbestos.
Unacknowledged by the Air Force was that weapons grade materials, both conventional and atomic, were cavalierly handled at the base, having been jettisoned into a dump at the installation known as the southeast disposal area, as well as at another burial site proximate to the base’s alert hangar.
In the early and mid-1990s, in anticipation of and shortly after the shuttering of the base, efforts at environmental remediation were ongoing as the county of San Bernardino, the cities of Victorville and Hesperia and the town of Apple Valley, under the aegis of the Victor Valley Economic Development Authority, competed with the city of Adelanto for the right to assume ownership and control of the base on the basis of competing civilian conversion and reuse plans. Ultimately, the Victor Valley Economic Development Authority, with the city of Victorville in the lead, would prevail in that competition.
Meanwhile, however, controversy was attending the base contamination remediation effort. While the Cold War appeared to be drawing to a close, with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost reaching fruition, the de-erection of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and ultimately the fragmenting of the Soviet Union, the Pentagon was yet reluctant to make full disclosure of the nuclear policy and military strategy and tactics that had been employed by the U.S. military. Denise Caron, the civilian Air Force employee who was then overseeing the clean-up of George, publicly stated that no radioactive materials had been present on the base. “We didn’t have a nuclear mission at George,” she asserted. “We didn’t use nukes. We didn’t use tactical nukes.”
Caron’s assertions resulted in a number of former airmen at the base coming forward to contradict her statements, including some who offered documentary and photographic evidence to back up their claims, such as a photograph reportedly taken on April. 11, 1961 of four members of an ordinance loading crew with the 329th Fighter Interceptor Squadron then stationed at George as they affixed a Douglas MB-1 Genie nuclear air-to-air missile to the undercarriage of an F-I05 interceptor. Caron’s claims were discredited under an avalanche of data, including lab tests ordered up by then-Congressmen George Brown and Jerry Lewis and performed by Helgeson Scientific Services, which involved gamma radiation counts showing enriched uranium-235 and unidentified radionuclides, believed to be Americium and strontium, had been present on the base. Also surfacing were surveys of water drawn from test wells sunk at various spots around the base showing the presence of radionuclides in the water table below the base.
The southeast disposal area is less than three-quarters of a mile upstream from residential, agricultural and commercial supply wells for Adelanto, Oro Grande and a portion of Victorville.
At that point, two of the region’s political figures weighed in on the issue. Terry Caldwell, an attorney and a long time council member and mayor in Victorville, publicly stated that Caron’s assertion that there had been no nuclear mission at George was patently false, as it was well understood that George was an important element of the Western Defense Force that involved jets, armed with nuclear-tipped missiles, tasked with the assignment of shooting down any incoming Soviet ballistic missiles or bombers incoming over the Pacific Ocean or the Arctic in the event of a Doomsday exchange between the Politburo and the White House. And Hesperia councilman/mayor Theron Honeycutt related that his company had been hired by the Air Force to go onto George and “cap,” i.e., fill will gravel and then cover with concrete, several existing wells.
Attention was then vectored to a Office of Special Investigations (O.S.I) investigation that had been undertaken at the base in 1989 and 1990, which was aimed at determining if weapons grade materials had been disposed of at the base. The investigator heading that inquiry was Christian Filipiak. The standards applied in that investigation required that findings of radioactive contamination not be reported until radioactive contamination readings from a single well were confirmed by two subsequent readings. According to Filipiak, who retired shortly after the investigation at George was completed, the wells at George that showed the presence of radiation were capped in each case after a second sampling showing radioactive contamination was drawn, thus circumventing any mandated report of that contamination.
In December 1993, Caron asserted that the O.S.I. investigation had ascertained that no weapons grade materials had ever been disposed of at the base. Filipiak, however, contradicted Caron, stating publicly that the parameters of the report, as dictated by the Air Force and the Department of Defense, had steered the investigation away from such a conclusion a priori by limiting the scope and content of both the investigation and its report.
In addition to the disposal of nuclear material at the base, also at issue was whether non-nuclear weapons grade materials had been placed into the unlined disposal areas at the base, identified as the base’s southeast disposal area as well as pits dug behind the base’s alert hangar. Some of that material would have included TNT and rocket/missile propellants containing perchlorate, a highly toxic contaminant known to cause thyroid damage in minute quantities.
When Freedom of Information requests for the report were made, in the 1990s, the Air Force refused to release the report on National Security Grounds. With the subsidence of the Cold War, another Freedom of Information request for any information pertaining to records of weapons grade contamination, nuclear or conventional, at George as well as for Filipiak’s report was made in 2011. That request was met with a response from Anne C. Costa, the chief of the information branch with the Air Force, stating “If there was a record it would have been destroyed after 25 years in accordance with Air Force Instruction 33-364 which governs all records disposition codes and retention” and “It has been determined that the Air Force Office of Special Investigations is not maintaining any information responsive to your request.”
Most of the environmental remediation work relating to closed-out military bases is carried out under the authority and protocol of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, (CERCLA) commonly known as Superfund, which was enacted by Congress in 1980. Congress gave the Department of Defense, including the Air Force, the right to withhold information about “classified environmental contamination” from the CERCLA deed restrictions, which come into play when title to former military base properties are transferred to others. Buried in the language of a subsequent version of the act, under the heading “Classified Information,” is this statement: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, all requirements of the Atomic Energy Act and all executive orders concerning the handling of restricted data and national security information, including ‘need to know’ requirements, shall be applicable to any grant of access to classified information under the provisions of this Act or under title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986.
In addition the Department of Defense and Air Force inserted a noteworthy clause in the Federal Facility Agreement for George AFB that gives them the right to withhold records pertaining to classified environmental contamination at the property. That clause, contained on page 43 of the document, states “Release Of Records 23.1 The parties may request of one another access to or a copy of any record or document relating to this agreement or the installation restoration program. If the party that is the subject of the request (the originating party [i.e., the Department of Defense and the Air Force]) has the record or document, that party shall provide access to or a copy of the record or document; provided, however, that no access to or copies of records or documents need be provided if they are subject to claims of attorney-client privilege, attorney work product, deliberative process, enforcement confidentiality, or properly classified for national security under law or executive order.”
The Air Force, while generally asserting that it is cooperating and has cooperated with all federal, state and local agencies in facilitating the transfer of George to the Victor Valley Economic Development Authority, when confronted with specific requests for data which it was unwilling to provide acknowledged withholding records and information from regulators, contractors, and the public about contamination.
In an Air Force Real Property Agency document dated May 8, 2003 entitled “Buried Radioactive Weapons Maintenance Waste,” the Air Force acknowledges “All activities supporting the nuclear defense program are highly classified to protect national security. Since this included weapons maintenance waste materials during the period involved, information on the amounts and locations of this waste was not found in the historical records searches originally performed as a basis for cleanup. The recent availability of the documents from the Cold War era has led to the discovery of locations where low-level radioactive waste from weapons maintenance activities may have been buried in the weapons storage areas.”
The Air Force touts the efforts it has made in cooperation with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California’s Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and Department of Toxic Substances Control in remediating pollution at George Air Force Base, which is now being run by the city of Victorville as Southern California Logistics Airport.
In publicly available documents, the Air Force has acknowledged groundwater at, around or below the base is “contaminated with jet fuel, trichloroethylene, pesticides and nitrates. Soil is contaminated with total petroleum hydrocarbons, dioxins, construction debris, medical wastes, pesticides, semi-volatile organic compounds and various inorganic compounds.”
Because of the extent and degree of some of that contamination, transfer of portions of the base property to the city of Victorville through the Victor Valley Economic Development Authority, has been delayed.
According to the Air Force, the remediation is slightly more than three-quarters completed. The Air Force has spent $105.9 million on its clean-up effort at George so far. Air Force officials are hopeful the full remediation will be complete by 2020, at which point it is anticipated the Air Force will have ventured something near $150 million in the environmental clean-up.
A major portion of the cost has consisted of attenuating trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination. TCE was a solvent widely used in the aeronautics industry as a degreaser.
The Air Force acknowledges having closed off six spots on the former base grounds that will be inaccessible even after the bulk of the base has been fully transferred to Victorville. It is believed at least two of those are “hot spots” where radioactive materials were discarded and where radioactivity is still present in the soil and water.
According to Linda Stone of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, “The water board has information regarding radiological waste at Site RW009, located in the covered portion of the southeast disposal area of the former facility on land currently owned by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, south of Air Expressway Blvd. The Air Force issued a Final Remedial Action Completion Report Radioactive Disposal Site RW009 in November 2013. The water board deferred review of the radiological issues to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) based on EPA’s expertise on human health risks. The EPA accepted the document and the Air Forces’s request for no further action at RW009.”
In the body of the text for the Remedial Action Completion Report, the Air Force seeks to downplay the seriousness of the contamination issue at the southeast disposal area. Page 2-4 of that document states “Site characterization activities were performed in 1994 and served to investigate the potential for the presence of low-level radioactive wastes. These activities determined background levels of total gamma radiation and quantified radionuclide concentrations. All excavated materials were radiologically screened via a material sorting plant and sampled for analysis where necessary. All soils which represented background were backfilled. This investigation thoroughly explored Site RW009 areas suspected of containing radioactive materials, and two radioactive sources were identified, a 2.3-microcurie cesium-137 source and an electron tube (vacuum tube) containing thorium and uranium. These items were disposed via destructive testing at an off-site analytical laboratory. The identification of very few radioactive materials indicated that large-scale disposal of radioactive waste did not occur at IRP Site RW009. This work demonstrated that no known radiological contamination remained and that the IRP Site RW009 disposal site was suitable for removal as an impacted site from the southeast disposal area.”
Stone further told the Sentinel, “The report also described two groundwater sampling events for radiologic constituents. The first event (1986) found gross alpha activities exceeded the maximum contaminant levels for drinking water in two of five wells at the site. The second event (1987) found all radiologic samples were below maximum contaminant levels in all five wells. Based on the data showing that the groundwater met drinking water standards, the Water Board did not require additional groundwater investigations for radiological constituents.”
Don Gronstal, the environmental coordinator with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center overseeing the Air Force effort at George whose office is at McClellan Air Force Base in Northern California, requested that the Sentinel’s questions relating to the environmental circumstance at the former George Air Force Base be put in writing. At press time, he had not responded to those questions.
By Mark Gutglueck