Marine Spouse Battles Navy Over Atsugi's Contamination

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By Robert O’Dowd, Staff Writer

Shelly Parulis, wife of a retired Marine Master Sergeant, is engaged in a running battle with the Navy over dioxin and other toxins at NAF Atsugi, Japan.  

(Atsugi, Japan) – 50334_1116181757b_01No one assigned to Naval Air Facility (NAF) Atsugi, the home of Carrier Air Wing 5, would have suspected that duty in Japan could exposed them to toxic chemicals, including deadly dioxin, the carcinogen infamously associated with Agent Orange.

In fact, prior to the closure of Atsugi’s privately owned Envirotech (formerly Shinkampo) incinerators in 2001, that is exactly what happened to military, dependents, and civilian workers stationed at NAF Atsugi during the period 1985 to 2001. 

NAF Atsugi is located on Honshu, the main island of Japan.  The base, about 20 miles from Tokyo, was originally built in 1938 by the Japanese Imperial Navy as Emperor Hirohito’s Naval Air Base to address the threat posed by foreseen American bombing raids of the Japanese mainland.      

Shelly Parulis, a spouse of a retired Marine Master Sergeant who was stationed at Atsugi from 1995 to 1998, and her family suffered the results of toxic exposure and leads the effort to obtain compensation and health benefits for Atsugi veterans, dependents ad civilian workers. 

The Navy has funded a number of engineering and technical reviews on NAF Atsugi.  Four air quality studies conducted from 1989 to 1997 found chemicals in the incinerator complex’s smoke and ash known or suspected by the EPA “to cause cancer and/or upper respiratory injury and disease.”  (See: http://srp.usmc.googlepages.com/USDOJPetitionSummaryofPreviousAmbien.pdf)

Despite the risks of serious disease, the Navy continued to assign personnel and their families to NAF Atsugi while the privately owned incinerator complex spewed its smoke and ash over the base from 1985 until 2001.

The immune systems of children are especially vulnerable to toxins.  There’s no evidence that limiting assignments to military only was under consideration by the Navy once the data on increased risk of cancer and upper respiratory injury and disease was known. 

After making contact with hundreds of other Atsugi veterans and dependents, Parulis learned that many of them were seriously ill with diseases linked to toxic exposure. 

There is currently no Navy initiative to fund compensation and/or health benefits for any Atsugi veterans and dependents. Funding for this would have to be appropriated by Congress.   

In 2001, the United States Justice Department sued Envirotech, the private owner of the incinerators, in a Yokohoma court, but before any judgment was made, the Japanese bought out the company and the closed the facility by year end.  

At the end of the day, the polluter walked away with $40 million while the Japanese government “saved face” by closing the complex. 

In the meantime, the Navy continues to study the environmental health effects of exposure.  The findings of the Navy Marine Corps Public Health Center epidemiological study are expected to be released shortly.

The objective of the epidemiological study is to determine if the incidence of diseases associated with exposure to emissions from the Atsugi incinerators was significantly different for residents of NAF Atsugi from 1985 to 2001 when compared to a similar population at Naval Base Yokosuka over the same time period.  

Justice Department Lawsuit 

The U.S. Department of Justice initiated a lawsuit against the private owner and operator of the of the Atsugi’s incinerators in March 2000.

A Justice Department press release of March 27, 2000, stated that a civil lawsuit had been filed in Yokohama, Japan, against the owner and operator of a waste disposal incinerator adjacent to the Atsugi U.S. Naval Air Facility outside Tokyo.

“The suit alleges that toxic emissions from the incinerator complex, owned by Enviro-Tech (formerly Shinkampo), threaten the health and safety of the more than 8,000 American and Japanese civilian and military personnel living and working at the base. It further alleges that the incinerator spews high levels of dioxin, a suspected carcinogen, as well as numerous other toxic substances.”

“The suit charges that Enviro-Tech’s operation interferes with the U.S. government’s rights of property use and possession. It seeks immediate suspension of the company’s incinerator operations in order to stop the toxic pollution.”

“The U.S. complaint cites considerable scientific and technical evidence of the existence of high levels of dioxin and other toxic substances found at the Atsugi base. A joint monitoring study, conducted last year under Japanese and U.S. government auspices, revealed dioxin levels as high as 90 times the current Japanese ambient air standard and pointed to Enviro-Tech’s operation as the source. Such dioxin levels are reported to be the highest ambient air dioxin levels ever recorded in Japan.”

The Justice Department lawsuit was still ongoing when the Japanese government announced their decision to purchase the Atsugi incinerator for about $40 million in April 2001.  The Japanese government then proceeded to dismantle and eventually closed the complex at the end of 2001. 

For the Navy, the Japanese government, and Envirotech, this is a story with a happy ending.  For those injured by the toxics, it’s a whole different matter. 

All the evidence supports that Envirotech and its predecessor operated an incinerator complex not in compliance with sound environmental laws for years, thousands were exposed to toxic chemicals, the United States Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in a Yokohoma court to stop the toxic pollution, the Japanese government purchased the company for $40 million, and then closed the incinerator complex the same year.  Every one is happy except for those unfortunate individuals exposed to the toxins, now seriously ill, out of work, and without health care. 

The questions raised by Shelly Parulis relate not to only to the legal but to the moral obligation on the part of the Navy to provide compensation and health care for Navy veterans, dependents and civilian workers injured by the toxins.

How could toxic fumes and smoke from incinerators smoke stacks impact an entire military base? At NAF Atsugi, the geography and the relative location of the base and the incinerators couldn’t have been worse.    

A February 2001 news story in The Japan Times reported that: “Atsugi base sits on a plateau about 16 meters above the incinerators. The smokestacks rise a scant 23 meters. This means the stacks stand only 7 meters above the base’s ground level. On both days I visited, smoke was blowing toward the base, and a “downwash” effect was causing the smoke to billow across playing fields into base housing and schools.”

Shelly Parulis

In 2007, Shelly Parulis, wife of a retired Marine Master Sergeant, set-up a web site at www.atsugi-incinerator-group.com after learning that her husband was diagnosed with kidney cancer.  Parulis believes that upwards of 70,000 people were exposed to the toxic chemicals at Atsugi.

Parulis points to a quote by Captain Frank Sweigart, Commander, NAF Atsugi, in the base newspaper on October 2, 1997 as an example of the Navy’s PR campaign to dismiss any possibility of exposure to toxic chemicals, Captain Frank Sweigart, Commander, NAF Atsugi, stated in the base newspaper: “Unfortunately we don’t have anything in writing that says Jinkanpo is a serious health risk! All we have is a 94-95 study that shows the waste by products do not meet U.S Environmental Protection Agency standards. It would not be justifiable grounds for transfer”.

“Neither myself, nor family had any indication that we were at risk because we trusted the Navy and we trusted the word of our commanding officer. We never thought our country, in which my husband faithfully served, would cut orders and assign military families, especially our children, to a place that they would be put in harms way and be exposed to deadly chemicals. As a military wife, I can attest that at times I knew my husband may have been put in harms ways for the greater good of our beloved country, however, I would have never imagined or believed that that the Navy would knowingly put innocent children in harms way or the commanding officer of the base in which we resided would put our children at risk and mislead or tell untruths to military personnel and their families. The general consensus on the base was that the Navy would not put families at risks and that the SIC issue was more of a political issue because the local residents’ complaints of the noise issues that surrounded NAF Atsugi, Japan.”

Parulis claim stated that: “As a result of the Navy’s negligence, failure to warn, failure to disclose actual facts regarding levels of contamination, failure to advise of latency health effects and failure to protect military personnel and their dependents, including my family and I from NAF Atsugi toxic chemicals exposure, as documented by the Navy, my family and I have suffered an array of health problems to include kidney cancer, migraines, rectal bleeding, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, Supraventricular Tachycardia, spindle cell tumors, hair loss, skin disorders and other health issues and we are currently under medical evaluation for Thyroid Nodules, and other illnesses confirmed by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), to occur from toxic chemical exposure.”

Federal Military Claims Act

The Military Claims Act (MCA) allows non-active duty personnel to file a compensation claim for injuries outside of the United States and its territories. 

Parulis Federal MCA claim was denied by the government.  On January 12, 2009, the Air Force Legal Operations Agency provided the rational for denial of Parulis’ claim for injuries at Atsugi:

  • The Military Claims Act requires that the government be liable to the same extent as a private individual under similar circumstances and under the general principles of American tort law, the Navy cannot be responsible for the actions of a private Japanese corporation.
  • The statue of limitations for timely filing of the claim was two years from the date of the incident and the claim was not received until almost a decade after the Parulis family left Atsugi.  The lawsuit in 2000 and the purchase and closure of the facility in 2001 should have provided notice of the problems associated with the facility. The claim for injuries was not filed until 2008.
  • The Feres doctrine prevents service members from receiving compensation for personal injuries related to their service and bars derivative family member claims which are based upon the same injury to the member.

Parulis now looks to “Congress to investigate and provide health care, and compensation to those exposed just like they did they did for Agent Orange and 911 victims.  Because this didn’t happen in the United States, but in Japan, I have had a hard time getting a representative to champion this issue.”

While Jinkampo incinerators are now closed, no action has been taken by the Navy to notify those who served on the base and now suffer the health effects of exposure.  Parulis noted that “dependents and Japanese and American civilian workers are now seriously ill, can’t work and many are without health care.” 

According to Parulis, “While we faithfully served our country, military dependents, were exposed to high levels of Dioxin, Heavy Metals, PCBs, VOC and more toxic chemicals that exceeded Maximum Contaminant Levels.  The Navy knew they were putting families at risk by stationing them at NAF Atsugi, Japan.  Military personnel and dependents deserve the truth and medical care.”

As early as 1989 the Navy knew the toxic plume was a danger to residents on the base since York Research Consultants, a Navy contractor, recommended, “when the plumes come over the base keep all personnel indoors and send as many people off base as possible.  Keep all pregnant women off of the base.”

Parulis said she had to fight to get the Navy to approve full health screenings for her husband, their two children and herself.  She wants others who have lived at Atsugi to be aware of the potential link to health problems from exposure to contaminants at Atsugi.

Parulis has received hundreds of emails from former sailors and Marines on the health problems experienced by their families after duty at Atsugi.  These serious illnesses include kidney disease, cancer, neurological problems, and intestinal problems, miscarriages and birth defects.   

Normally, you expect the Navy to take the lead in contacting former residents of Atsugi to make them aware of the health effects of exposure to the contaminants on the base.  However, this has not been the case.  Parulis said she personally contacted approximately 350 former Atsugi residents. Out of the 350, 57 have cancer; several have died, including children.

In an email to me, Parulis included a list of other former NAF Atsugi dependents seriously ill.  These included:

  • At least two children have died of AML Leukemia after spending a tour of duty  NAF Atsugi. 
  • A son was born with birth defects.  His mother was pregnant while at Atsugi.  He now has varicocele of the testes and is sub-fertile.
  • Six former residents have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
  • Three residents were diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. One was a young man, age 31. 
  • Three children have died of brain cancer. 

As it turns out, the relative location of the incinerator complex and the base was an open invitation to toxic exposure.  

A February 2001 news story in The Japan Times reported that: “Atsugi base sits on a plateau about 16 meters above the incinerators. The smokestacks rise a scant 23 meters. This means the stacks stand only 7 meters above the base’s ground level. On both days I visited, smoke was blowing toward the base, and a “downwash” effect was causing the smoke to billow across playing fields into base housing and schools.”

The Justice Department lawsuit was still ongoing when the Japanese government announced their decision to purchase the Atsugi incinerator in April 2001. 

Parulis now looks to “Congress to investigate and provide health care, and compensation to those exposed just like they did they did for Agent Orange and 911 victims.  Because this didn’t happen in the United States, but in Japan, I have had a hard time getting a representative to champion this issue.”

Shelly Parulis can be contacted on email at:  [email protected].

 

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Robert O’Dowd served in the 1st, 3rd and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings during 52 months of active duty in the 1960s. While at MCAS El Toro for two years, O'Dowd worked and slept in a Radium 226 contaminated work space in Hangar 296 in MWSG-37, the most industrialized and contaminated acreage on the base. Robert is a two time cancer survivor and disabled veteran. Robert graduated from Temple University in 1973 with a bachelor’s of business administration, majoring in accounting, and worked with a number of federal agencies, including the EPA Office of Inspector General and the Defense Logistics Agency. After retiring from the Department of Defense, he teamed up with Tim King of Salem-News.com to write about the environmental contamination at two Marine Corps bases (MCAS El Toro and MCB Camp Lejeune), the use of El Toro to ship weapons to the Contras and cocaine into the US on CIA proprietary aircraft, and the murder of Marine Colonel James E. Sabow and others who were a threat to blow the whistle on the illegal narcotrafficking activity. O'Dowd and King co-authored BETRAYAL: Toxic Exposure of U.S. Marines, Murder and Government Cover-Up. The book is available as a soft cover copy and eBook from Amazon.com. See: http://www.amazon.com/Betrayal-Exposure-Marines-Government-Cover-Up/dp/1502340003.