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Air Force moves to shutter community board overseeing toxic pollution at Kelly AFB

Photo: Michael Brajas, License: N/A

Michael Brajas

Robert Alvarado at his home in the Toxic Triangle last year.

At last week's RAB meeting, officials in charge of cleanup said the groundwater plumes, while still expansive, have stabilized and are receding. They noted water surface samples in nearby Leon Creek are showing improvement, although more than a dozen locations along the creek still exceed state standards for contaminants like semi-volatile organic compounds, pesticides, heavy metals, and polychlorinated biphenyls. Some of that improvement, they conceded, may have been due to drought conditions in 2011, with less runoff flowing into the creek.

Subra says she still has concerns over how long-term exposure to the chemicals might have harmed local residents. And apart from contamination from solvents, there are other concerns. A redacted 1972 Air Force report outlines how, as with many other military instillations around the country, the military in the 1950s and 1960s dumped radioactive waste on the former Kelly grounds. In a brief section on Kelly, the Air Force wrote that records indicated some 23 concrete pipe disposal wells sit beneath fairways 6 and 7 of the Kelly West Golf Course. While the contents of most were unknown, partial records for one disposal well shows radium and cobalt were buried onsite. In its report on the matter decades later, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry notes that the Kelly waste is low-level and “does not pose a health hazard to off-base residents now, in the past, or in the future.”

While the ATSDR, tasked with conducting some of the area's critical first studies in the 1990s,  acknowledged increased levels of liver and kidney cancer, as well as leukemia, among the area's residents, none of those studies connected the illnesses to the toxic dumping. A report of out Congress would later take the ATSDR to task for shoddy analysis, citing the agency's work at Kelly and the Camp Lejeune marine base in North Carolina as primary examples of how the ATSDR “often obscures or overlooks potential health hazards, uses inadequate analysis, and fails to zero in on toxic culprits.” The report charged that the ATSDR failed to measure critical potential pathways to exposure for the chemicals, and that source exposure studies began only after the Air Force was well into the cleanup.

And many criticize that Kelly was never declared a federal Superfund site, which would have allowed  citizens to pick outside experts to conduct studies through EPA Technical Assistance Grants. Southwest Workers Union in the late 1990s filed a civil-rights complaint, saying the matter amounted to discrimination of Mexican-American communities living in and around the base.

Retired Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger lost his 9-year-old daughter to leukemia, and now blames her death on contaminated water at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune. Long engaged in the fight for justice at Camp Lejeune, Ensminger this week recalled visiting Kelly's Toxic Triangle while working with documentary filmmaker Rachel Libert on the film Semper Fi: Always Faithful, which, released last year, chronicles Ensminger's fight to prove the military culpable of exposing families near the base to deadly toxins.

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