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18 people file claims against federal government for chemical exposure at George Air Force Base

Victorville's George Air Force Base (The National Map, United States Geological Survey/WikiCommons)

At least 18 people, most of whom are military dependents, allege in recently filed federal claims they suffer from leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and other serious ailments as a result of exposure to at least 67 different toxic chemicals at the former George Air Force Base.

The damage claims were obtained from the Air Force earlier this month through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Frank Vera, a 67-year former airman at George who has been diagnosed with radiation exposure causing seizures, emphysema, chronic pain syndrome and a litany of other maladies.

“I’ve been told for years that several groups had filed claims but the Air Force always shot them down,” said Vera, who manages a Facebook group and website exposing George’s environmental problems and what he maintains is a cover-up by the military. “I wanted to see what the logic is going forward with new claims.”

The claims, stemming from contamination at the Victorville base from the 1970s through the early 1990s, have been submitted to the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps by the Military Accountability and Transparency Alliance.

The Air Force did not respond to requests for comment.

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MAATA is a nonprofit organization that aims to help veterans, their spouses, and dependent children with issues surrounding chemical exposure at military bases across the United States. It was formed in June to specifically address environmental issues at George, which was decommissioned in 1992, and has about 300 members.

Claimants were required to pay a $1,200 fee to MAATA to cover court costs and expert witness expenses. However, MAATA President Lisa McCrea Tichenor said Thursday the fees have been eliminated and claims are submitted for free.

Nonprofit leading the charge

Tichenor declined to say where she resides or how much money her organization has collected.

For some potential claimants, the fees imposed by MAATA have been prohibitive.

Pamela McKay, 60, of Montrose, Colorado, a cervical cancer survivor, and her then husband, a welder for the Air Force, lived on base housing at George from 1979 to 1981. They later divorced.

McKay, who believes she and her ex-husband, who he died from multiple sclerosis in 2007, were poisoned by contamination at George, would like to file a damage claim through MAATA but couldn’t afford the $1,200 fee.

“We have been struggling,” said McKay, a single mom with three sons who works two jobs to make ends meet. “That’s a big amount for us and I just don’t have it.”

The claims submitted by MAATA are heavily redacted but nevertheless offer a glimpse into allegations being leveled against the Air Force.

One claimant with lingering health problems alluded to contaminated water at George as the likely culprit before and after birth.

“My parents ate about two meals a day for more than three years at the base cafeteria, which includes drinking several gallons of water as well as being exposed to the water as a result of good hygiene,” the claims says. “I drank over 22.5 gallons of water my first eight months of life. Prenatal chemical exposure can have lasting detrimental impacts on the lives of children and can cause diseases that show up in adulthood.”

The claimants range in age from the 40s to the 70s, McCrea said. Seventeen claimants identified themselves as dependents and one is identified as a former service member.

Federal law prohibits service member suits

However, the Feres Doctrine bars individuals injured during military service from suing the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The only exception are cases involving medical malpractice, which allows them to file an internal claim with the Department of Defense for damages, said Dwight Stirling, an attorney who is chief executive officer of the Center for Law and Military Policy in Garden Grove.

The Feres Doctrine does not apply to the families of service members.

“As such, dependents who allege to have been harmed by the water contamination at the George Air Force Base will have standing to file suit against the federal government,” Stirling said. “Unlike their service member spouses or parents, their suit will not be barred by the Feres Doctrine.”

Stirling said he is unfamiliar with any previous cases in which dependents have successfully sued for injuries caused by on-base pollution. “It would be a positive outcome if these dependents were able to do so,” he said. “Accordingly, a legal victory by the George Air Force Base dependents would be groundbreaking.”

MAATA expects to file at least 100 more claims with the Air Force by the end of the month, Tichenor said, adding she hopes to collect enough participants to hire an attorney and file a class-action suit against the federal government,

Tichenor also is a claimant, having suffered two miscarriages and numerous illnesses, including asthma, fibromyalgia, and ovarian cysts attributed to living in base housing from 1987 to 1991 while her now ex-husband was stationed at George.

“It’s a long, scary list (of illnesses),” Tichenor said in an email. “I’ve been sick since stepping foot on that death trap of a base. It’s a miracle any of us survived. We have people dying by the week.”

History of environmental problems

George, which was situated on 5,347 acres on what is now a Superfund site, is among at least 126 military installations with higher than acceptable levels of perfluorinated compounds, which may cause cancers and developmental delays among fetuses and infants, according to the Military Times.

Also lurking in the water supply and soil beneath the former base are 33 hazardous chemicals, including plumes of spent jet fuel and trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent used to degrease planes. The chemical can harm the nervous system, kidneys, heart and other vital organs, and, according to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency has been found to cause cancer in mice and rats.

A plume containing about 3.5 million gallons of jet fuel was discovered about 160 feet beneath a group of above-ground fuel storage tanks, according to the Air Force. Twenty-two monitoring wells were installed in 2010 to determine the expanse of the plume.

Dieldrin, a pesticide used for termite control at base housing, also has contaminated groundwater.

“When the base was operational, a lot of irrigation was being used, pushing contaminants like dieldrin into the aquifer, where it has become another plume,” the Air Force said.

The Air Force had proposed to let Mother Nature clean the water over time through natural filtration and other human-free processes known collectively as “monitored natural attenuation.”

However, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board in Victorville, responsible for monitoring environmental cleanup at George, estimated that process could take more than 500 years before the groundwater quality would return to normal.

Efforts to clean up soil and groundwater contamination at George have been underway since 1981, costing more than $113 million. The federal government expects to spend about $60 million more through 2023 for labor, maintenance, operations and remediation.

“Much has been accomplished at George, including removal of tons of contaminated soil and more than 80 underground storage tanks, closure of a hazardous waste storage yard, and removal of 493,495 gallons of jet fuel, the Air Force said. Additionally, more than 2.4 million pounds of what’s known as Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons as gasoline have been removed.

Cleanup efforts have little impact on redeveloping the property because no water beneath the former base is being used as drinking water, the Air Force said.

Water is pumped in from the city of Victorville to the Victorville Correctional Complex located where George once stood. In 2018, the federal prison gained notoriety for housing as many as 1,000 immigrant detainees.

Better late than never, claimants say

As the Air Force’s remediation efforts continue, for some claimants seeking a modicum of justice, the damage has already been done.

Catherine Bandele, 61, of Overlea, Maryland, who is bedridden from multiple sclerosis, hypothyroidism, neuropathy large granular lymphocyte leukemia and other debilitating illnesses, maintains her poor health is due to chemical exposure she suffered while living at George, where her now ex-husband was stationed from 1989 to 1991.

“If I would have known what was happening I never would have gone there,” she said of her time living in base housing.

She applauded MAATA for exposing environmental problems at George and welcomes a financial settlement from the government, but says it likely won’t ease her suffering.

“I have no life,” she said.”I don’t live, I just exist.”

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© 2020 The Orange County Register