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Questions linger over Kelly AFB contamination even after property changes hands

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Toxic Triangle resident Robert Alvarado with a map of the contaminated groundwater plume.


Like many in his neighborhood, cancer surrounds Alvarado. His wife Lupe was diagnosed with thyroid cancer years ago, and soon afterward his daughter developed the same condition, though neither he nor his wife had a prior family history of the disease. At least six neighbors on his block have succumbed to cancer over the past two years. “Right down the street, my neighbor passed away this Saturday. His wife passed away about two years ago,” he said. “Both were because of cancer.” An aneurysm robbed Alvarado of most of his sight years back, and doctors later discovered his kidneys were badly damaged from unknown chemicals.

Numerous reports over the years show there is, indeed, something wrong inside the Toxic Triangle. But each stop short of identifying a cause for the elevated cancer rates, as well as higher-than-normal birth abnormalities, such as Down syndrome and infant lung defects. Officially, a clear pathway to chemical exposure hasn’t been proven, something Alvarado and others in the neighborhood brush off with sighs and eye-rolls. They lived with the wells, along with flooding runoff from Kelly during heavy rains, years before the contamination was even acknowledged. And Alvarado recalls buying two truckloads full of dirt from Kelly at a bargain price to shore up his yard from flooding, something he now regrets, insisting the soil was likely contaminated.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, originally tasked with assessing health problems around Kelly, conducted some of the area’s critical first studies in the 1990s, when authorities had just started to realize the extent of contamination in and around Kelly. Those studies noted increased levels of liver and kidney cancer, as well as leukemia, but failed to connect it to the groundwater plumes emanating from Kelly or possible soil contamination in and around the site.

A Congressional panel would later release a damning report against the ATSDR, accusing the agency of performing a shoddy analysis and citing the agency’s work at Kelly as a prime example of how the ATSDR “often obscures or overlooks potential health hazards, uses inadequate analysis, and fails to zero in on toxic culprits.” One of the chief complaints of report author University of Maryland toxicologist Katherine Squibb, who reviewed the ATSDR’s work after being hired by the Kelly Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), is that the agency failed to measure important possible exposure pathways, and that the agency’s studies hadn’t determined whether chemicals migrated off of the Kelly grounds. In addition, she said, studies looking for sources of exposure to the community only occurred after the Air Force had already ramped up its cleanup efforts.


Greg Gangnuss, a spokesman with the Air Force’s property group, says the Air Force has identified 36 cleanup sites on the base, 25 of which are now finished. The Air Force recently awarded the Tennessee-based Shaw E&I Group, which previously helped plug groundwater wells around the Toxic Triangle, a $37.5 million, nine and a half year contract to identify and remove any chemicals remaining on base.

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