Air Force’s High Desert Legacy: Untold & Unknown Contamination Levels

By Daniel Ross
Two memories stand out to Terrine Crooks from her arrival at George Air Force Base in the summer of 1980. One is the sense of apprehension she felt at seeing for the first time the broad, flat, barren expanse of the base on the skirt-tails of the Mojave Desert. “I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I was a New Hampshire girl who’d left a beautiful green land.”
The second, she said, was how she was told by in-processing personnel not to get pregnant while stationed there.
“I was young. I didn’t question it,” she said. “I already had a daughter.”
Crooks quickly settled into life at George. She met her future husband there. And toward the end of 1981, she did indeed become pregnant. In April of the following year, however, her son Brian arrived 13 weeks prematurely. Within his first few months of life, Brian suffered multiple brain hemorrhages, and eventually developed an array of ongoing health conditions and disabilities, including cerebral palsy. Then, when Crooks turned 30, her own health began to deteriorate.
She had a hysterectomy at 31, after suffering for years with endometriosis, uterine fibroids and heavy bleeding during menstruation. When she turned 40, she had a bilateral mastectomy.
A few years ago, Crooks stumbled across an article on the web chronicling the multiple toxic cleanups at George, which includes a federal Superfund site. She connected the dots between her illnesses and the contaminants found at the base, took her claim to the Veteran’s Association and, in 2014, won her case.
In the rating decision, it states how her medical conditions were “at least as likely as not” caused by her military service, and specifically mentions George, where she was stationed until 1985.
Crooks was also stationed at three other air bases: Davis-Monthan in Arizona, Pease in New Hampshire and Kadena in Japan, all of them known toxic contaminated sites.
Now living in Florida, Crooks and her husband continue to care daily for Brian, 33, while following the toxic cleanup unfolding at their former home. Only, the remediation there faces fresh scrutiny. Two former base schools now in public hands are poised to undergo soil tests for chlorinated pesticide contamination, while new links have emerged between the base and the nuclear proliferation programs of the Cold War era.
“I support the military 100 percent, but I’m pissed off and angry that they could do this to me and my family,” said Crooks, now 58. “I’m mad as hell, to be honest.”
Though toxic contamination has been known to exist at the base as far back as the early 1970s, a broad cleanup of the base involving state and federal agencies has been ongoing since 1990. The cleanup addresses a chemical cocktail consistent with many other decommissioned Air Force bases. Heavy industrial solvents like trichloroethylene (TCE), chlorinated pesticides like dieldrin and aldrin, as well as common jet fuel constituents like ethylene dibromide, benzene and naphthalene are among a long list of known contaminants found in the soil and groundwater.
All these contaminants can cause an array of chronic human health problems, and many are known carcinogens.
The Air Force has already spent roughly $101 million in remediation costs, with another $53 million projected to finish the job. George was decommissioned in 1992, and much of the base — roughly 75 percent — has been transferred into public hands. It is now known as Southern California Logistics Airport.
“In consultation with our environmental regulators, the Air Force has determined that all our cleanup remedies are protective of human health in either the long or short term,” said Linda Geissinger, a public affairs specialist for the Air Force, in a written statement.
Despite Air Force assurances, question marks hang over the thoroughness of the base cleanup. These include the concern that dangerous chlorinated pesticides — which were used heavily at George for decades — are present in the ground surrounding two former base schools that were transferred over to the Adelanto Unified School District in 1995, prompting the local water board to urgently push for soil testing to be conducted there.
The schools in question are the Excelsior Charter School, and the former George Elementary School.
Repeated exposure to small quantities of chlorinated pesticides can build up in the human system. In large quantities, they can cause chronic health problems, including Parkinson’s disease, breast cancer and damage to the immune, reproductive and nervous systems. Emerging science is finding links between exposure to pesticides, particularly insecticides, and acute lymphocytic leukemia and brain tumors. Dieldrin, one of the chemicals of concern, was banned in 1987.
But the use of chlorinated pesticides at the base presents only one part of the puzzle.
Known groundwater contamination at George encompasses approximately 1,800 acres, while a trichloroethylene plume spanning roughly 700 acres threatens the adjacent Mojave River. Because there are data gaps in the scope of the current monitoring wells, regulators admit that the Mojave River may already have been impacted by contaminants.
Multiple municipal water supply wells are similarly threatened by the contamination at George, including wells supplying water to a federal prison facility built on land that formerly belonged to the base. Trichloroethylene contamination has also forced the nearby Victor Valley Wastewater Reclamation plant to abandon use of its water supply well. Employees are now provided with bottled drinking water instead.
“We’re asking for targeted monitoring in areas where we know there are some data gaps,” said Mike Plaziak, supervising engineering geologist of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. “That’s constantly pushed by the water board.”
As the Air Force seeks to offload the remaining portion of the base, a tug of war has developed between the local water board, which is pushing for a more aggressive remediation effort, and the Air Force, which would prefer an approach of “monitored natural attenuation” — a process by which contaminants are essentially left to naturally degrade.
In a damning letter to the Air Force in January, the water board estimated that it could take as long as 40,000 years for some of the contaminants to naturally attenuate to safe levels. “Groundwater contamination impacts or threatens a primary water supply aquifer that serves adjacent communities,” the letter states, adding that demand for the groundwater is already high “and will probably become even greater considering drought conditions and climate change.”
Further complicating matters, however, is the emergence of documents that link the base with nuclear proliferation programs in the decades following World War II.
Last year, Frank Vera, a former serviceman at George, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request documents showing how a nuclear weapons testing decontamination center once existed at George.
Otherwise known as “hot washdown” areas, nuclear weapons testing decontamination centers are a relic of the 1950s and 1960s, when planes were flown into radioactive areas — including mushroom clouds produced by thermonuclear explosions — in order to take photos or samples of radioactive debris. After returning to base, these planes were brought to washdown areas for decontamination.
Several “Nevada Test Site (NTS) training operations” were staged from George, but the vast majority of all aircraft used in NTS tests were based out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, wrote Geissinger.
Cloud debris sampling flights — those likely to cause the worst radiological contamination — appear to have been staged exclusively out of Creech, she wrote, adding how a “radiological characterization study of Creech’s historical aircraft washdown areas concluded no significant health hazard, and sampling results appear consistent with background.”
According to Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, even when radioactive waste has been allowed to disperse below regulatory standards or is confused with background, this hasn’t eliminated the risk to public health. “It has simply spread it out so any impacts are difficult to detect,” he said.
It hasn’t yet been established where the decontamination centers existed on George, or how many centers there were. Nor is there any mention in the administrative records of any remediation of radioactive contamination from a decontamination center site.
Siegel said that radioactive material from the nuclear weapons program “has not and will not disappear for a long, long time.” And while washdown wastes can be collected, concentrated and isolated, he said, “this is difficult and expensive. Furthermore, there are no safe permanent repositories for nuclear waste.”
But the threat of radiological contamination is nothing new to George.
In 1985, an off-road enthusiast came across a low-level radioactive waste dump partially buried in soil at the “Southeast Disposal Area.” In the dump, an assortment of items containing small quantities of radionuclides like cesium 137, uranium 238 and thorium 232 were found. The site cleanup is now officially ended.
Despite the closure of that effort, records from 1986 show how groundwater beneath the base’s designated Southeast Disposal Area — which sits less than a quarter of a mile from municipal water supply wells — might contain levels of gross alpha and gross beta radiological activity in excess of federal standards. This groundwater was not remediated, and monitoring wells there aren’t currently analyzing for radiological contaminants. But the water board said that they are looking into the issue of whether more radiological testing is warranted based on previous groundwater results.
In 1979, an investigation by Dr. John Sabol, former Air Force chief of environmental and contract programming, suggested that more radioactive waste was dumped in the disposal area than has been officially documented.
And last year, the Sentinel published an investigation determining how atomic weapons-grade materials were indeed handled at the base, refuting the Air Force’s prior claims that it “didn’t have a nuclear mission at George.”
Regulators say that that they are not currently analyzing for radiological contaminants at any of the cleanup sites.
Given the holes in George’s radiological history, and given that no one can currently pinpoint the exact whereabouts of the former decontamination center, there needs to be sitewide soil testing for radioactive contaminants, said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics and a leading environmentalist in California.
“People could already have been exposed to radiation and not even be aware of it,” she said.
The water board said until more data emerges to locate the site of the decontamination center and the processes used there, it’s hard to focus limited resources toward tackling the issue.
“If there was a document that says they did decontamination with 10,000 gallons of water in this area here, we’d be all over that,” Plaziak said.
The Air Force continues to research whether an investigation of aircraft decontamination at the former George Air Force Base is warranted, wrote Geissinger.
Through the course of this investigation, a number of former service members and military family members have come forward to share with Truthout personal accounts during and after their life at George. Below are just a few of these stories.
One female service member — a 52-year-old Air Force retiree who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of government reprisal — was 17 when she went to George on active service in 1981. During an initial in-processing briefing at the base, she, like Crooks, was advised not to start a family while stationed there, she said. “I was told by the hospital during their briefing, ‘We recommend that you don’t get pregnant while you’re here because we have a high infant mortality rate.'”
The service member added, “I remember telling my mother, ‘Oh my God, they must have really bad doctors.'”
The service member suffered a miscarriage in January 1993, she said. “However, I had just gotten back from Kuwait in October of 1992, and I later found out that while I was there, I was exposed to lead and depleted uranium.” She was never able to have a child, and had a hysterectomy when she was 47.
Lisa McCrea grew up part of a family of sports fanatics. “I was a real outdoors type, always very active.” She married an airman, and they were sent to George in 1987. Their new start at the base was a cause for double celebration, as it coincided with news that they were expecting their first child.
After four months, however, McCrea started to suffer vaginal bleeding that became progressively heavier. “I was passing blood clots the size of grapefruits,” she said. The bleeding got so bad the doctors had to eventually perform an emergency dilation and curettage. On the operating table, they also learned that she was suffering from multiple fibroid tumors. “The doctor said he had never seen as many fibroid tumors in his life,” she added.
McCrea was never satisfied with the explanations given to her by her doctor about the miscarriage, while her husband was cautioned not to publicly question the circumstances surrounding the loss of their child. “My husband’s commanding officer threatened him if he opened his mouth about it,” she said. McCrea and her husband eventually left George in 1991.
Now 48, McCrea suffers from lupus, Raynaud’s phenomenon, ovarian cysts, gastrointestinal problems including colitis, chronic allergies, spinal degenerative issues and neurological problems like seizures. “There’s been so many issues over the years, doctors have been baffled,” she said.
Dr. Kenn Finkelstein, 69, was a jet engine mechanic when he was based at George between 1963 and 1965. “We were primitive in our work — we didn’t have the gloves and protective clothing that we do today,” he told Truthout. Within months, agonizing bumps started to appear on his heels. They became so severe that pills failed to numb the pain, and he eventually had to have the lumps burned off. Around this time, he suffered his first bouts of depression and mental illness — issues he still deals with to this day.
In 2004, Finkelstein was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In 2008, he had a stimulator inserted into his hip and spine to tackle deteriorating spinal disease. In 2009, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and had over half of his kidney removed through surgery.
“Our first sergeant, he would get on my case about being a Jew,” said Finkelstein, remembering an episode during his service at George. “He gave me an assignment once to dig up some dirt between two barracks. I remember he said to me, ‘Either I will kill you, or the soil will kill you.'”
According to Geissinger, in 2013, an ex-service member petitioned the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to reopen its 1998 public health assessment into George. The federal agency concluded that the new information didn’t alter the findings of its 1998 health assessment.
As for accusations that service members were advised not to start families, the agency concluded in 2013 that “the US Air Force Surgeon General’s office responded that they were not aware of any policy that would have recommended that women at George AFB not become pregnant.”
The Vietnam War was slowly stuttering toward its end when Frank Vera — a 21-year-old Mensan with ambitions to eventually join the FBI as an analyst — was assigned to George in 1973. “The best way to get into the FBI was to join the military, become an attorney for the military and get transferred over,” he told Truthout.
Vera found work in the gun shop on base, but after a workplace accident that same year, he was put on restricted duty. His health deteriorated rapidly, and he was given an honorable discharge. But because his medical records weren’t released as evidence, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) didn’t recognize his injury claim.
In 1986, Vera was homeless and unable to work, having suffered for years with chronic health issues. A doctor diagnosed his symptoms as typical of radiation exposure. And Vera believes that he knows when the exposure occurred.
Three months into restricted duty, said Vera, he visited what would become known in the cleanup as the Southeast Disposal Area, where he stumbled across a barrel half-buried in soil. Opening it, he found a material that was “tan with a yellow tint, like a ceramic.” Within hours, he had tremors and seizures, he said. Once taken to the base hospital, he had his stomach pumped before being sent back to barracks. But a few days later, Vera was back in hospital with searing migraines and bleeding from multiple orifices. His weight plummeted.
Years later, after the intervention of Congressional representatives and senators, Vera finally won his injury claim with the VA. The VA, however, never recognized his exposure to radiation as service-related.
He still suffers from myriad health conditions like osteoporosis, histiocytosis (a group of diseases affecting the immune system), Rosai-Dorfman disease, seizures, emphysema, chronic pain syndrome and depression. Because of all that has happened to him, Vera has spent the past few years digging into the toxic history of George, setting up a website, and sending FOIA request after FOIA request in an attempt to shed light on what had happened to him.
“At least 100 women must have contacted me and told me that they have each lost one to seven children through miscarriages, stillbirths, cancers and infant mortality at or shortly after leaving George Air Force Base,” he told Truthout.
“This has destroyed these women’s lives. The women internalize this — they blame themselves. Many have divorced. Some have friends who committed suicide. It’s destroyed families. There needs to be an investigation and people need to face criminal charges. Most importantly, these women need closure.”
As for the cleanup, the local water board is pushing for soil testing for chlorinated pesticides at the former base schools, as well as the analysis of results, to be wrapped up by the end of May. It’s believed that the Adelanto Unified School District will also conduct its own independent soil tests.
Copyright 2016, Truthout. Reprinted with permission.
Daniel Ross is a Los Angeles-based journalist who regularly contributes to Truthout, the Guardian, Vice Magazine, The Huffington Post and Yes! Magazine.

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