This is Not Going to Help Recruiting

Military posts aren’t known for being the safest places on the planet, but now there is one more worry to add to the list, especially if you’ve ever lived at Fort Ord, California. According to The Washington Post, it was nine months ago that an Associated Press investigation discovered that anyone who lived and worked at Fort Ord in the 1980s and 90s was potentially exposed to toxic chemicals in the drinking water that has presumably led to hundreds of veterans and residents developing rare, often terminal types of blood cancer.

An old photograph of a sign located near one of the entrances to Fort Ord, training center, and Infantry, one each. Screenshot from YouTube and The Associated Press.


The reports that something was wrong at Fort Ord aren’t exactly breaking news. In 1990, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated Fort Ord as a superfund site. The program was started in 1980 to clean up some of the most contaminated areas in the country. Currently, there are 1,300 such sites in the US. The base, however, remained open for another four years, and even after it was officially closed in 1994, it was used for government housing. So Fort Ord is far from being the only military installation under investigation by the government for toxic pollution. There are 130 military bases and facilities listed as superfund sites. I don’t know about you, but that number blows me away. If you watch TV, chances are you’ve seen tons and tons of commercials from law firms about people who got sick from living at Camp Lejeune. Here’s a prediction; waves of similar Fort Ord commercials in the not-too-distant future.

Speaking of Camp Lejeune, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has recognized only that location as having a possible link between contaminated drinking water and a multitude of illnesses. And even then, it’s only for people who lived there between 1953 and 1987. Lejeune opened in 1942. In 1982 the Marine Corps found dangerously high levels of volitive organic chemicals in the drinking water from two of eight water treatment plants. Billions of dollars in lawsuits are now pending. The VA has denied the claims of anyone who was made ill from any other military installation, even the superfund sites like Fort Ord.

This image was taken from a Department of the Army memo dated 28 OCT 1985. The “Subject” line reads “Contaminated Groundwater.” Screenshot from YouTube and The Associated Press 

Without going too far down the technical rabbit hole, you can see that three wells tested in the summer of ’85 had levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) above what the state of California considered safe at the time. What is TCE? It’s terrible stuff. One of its uses is as a degreasing agent for old metal equipment. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH):

“TCE may be found in the air, water, and soil at places where it is produced or used. It breaks down slowly and remains in the environment for a long time. It readily passes through soil and can accumulate in groundwater. People in the general population can be exposed to trichloroethylene by inhaling it in indoor and outdoor air, drinking contaminated water, or eating foods that have been washed or processed with contaminated water. Because this chemical was used extensively by the US military to degrease equipment, contaminated soil and groundwater can be found near many current and former military bases.”

They say that “prolonged or repeated exposure to trichloroethylene causes kidney cancer.” Not “may cause” or “could potentially cause “…they say it causes kidney cancer. That’s an extremely direct language for the government and scientists in general. The NCI continues, “Some evidence suggests that it may be associated with an increased risks of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and, possibly, liver cancer.”

Bottom line: You don’t want to ingest it. You don’t want your kids out playing in soil contaminated with it. You don’t want to water your tomato plants with water contaminated with TCE unwittingly. You get my point. I won’t even mention the host of other chemicals they found in the water and soil at Ord.

That brings us to this week. The CDC is just now, in freakin’ 2022, decades after we’ve known of this stuff, decided to conduct a formal investigation into the potential health risks to the former residents of Fort Ord brought on by being exposed to the water and soil there. Patrick Breysse, the director of the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, wrote last Friday to a California lawmaker that “there are sufficient data and scientific reasons for ATSDR to re-evaluate health risks related to historical drinking water exposures at Fort Ord.” It’s about time. WaPo reports that “the Army found TCE in Fort Ord’s wells a total of 43 times in samples taken from 1985 through 1994. Eighteen of those tests showed TCE levels higher than legal safety limits.”