El Toro: The Perfect Environmental Crime


 The Navy had the opportunity to inspect all of the wells before sealing them in concrete.

(IRVINE, Calif.) – The death knell for Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California, once the premier Marine Corps air station, was sounded in 1985 when trichloroethylene (TCE) was found in three wells during a routine well inspection by the Orange County Water District (OCWD). Two wells were off the base, the other on the base.

Courtesy: Salem-News

The Navy spent hundreds of millions in remediation of soil and groundwater contamination. Even so, the $650 million from the sale of base had to put them in the black.

No efforts were made to contact veterans of the base who may have been exposed to toxic chemicals.

There is extensive evidence of soil and groundwater contamination with organic solvents like TCE, PCE, vinyl chloride, benzene, petroleum products, including contamination of several base wells.

The Navy’s position is that the wells were abandoned years ago. The Navy cites no pumping records after December 1950, together with the purchase of municipal water from the Metropolitan Water District in 1951 and later from the Irvine Ranch Water District in 1969 as evidence the base wells were abandoned. Questions about the reasons for purchases go unanswered since the government’s contract files are either destroyed or lost.

Salem-News.com photo of the old El Toro Air base by Bonnie King Summer.

I did some back of the envelope calculations for the earlier contract with MWD. The MWD contract provided for the delivery of one cubic foot/second of water for both El Toro and the Santa Ana Air Facility. The United States Geological Survey defines cubic foot per second (cfs) as “the flow rate or discharge equal to one cubic foot of water per second or about 7.5 gallons per second.” Converting the MWD’s one cubic foot per second into gallons equals about 648,000 gallons/day, (7.5 x 60 x 60 x 24) or about 450 gallons per minute, which is about half of the maximum combined flow of the Navy’s wells of 900 gallons per minute for El Toro alone.

As a result of a property annexation, the MWD contract was superseded in July 1969 with a contract from the Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD). The IRWD contract required the district to make available 3,500 gallons per minute to El Toro. By 1969, the IRWD purchase would have allowed the base to abandon all of the wells.

I don’t know about you, but unless there’s something wrong with the water, why buy municipal water when you can get all the free water you need from base wells?

The shallow aquifer under the base had very high levels of total dissolved solids (“salts”). Evidence supports that base well screen intervals may have been in the shallow aquifer. In 1998, the Navy sealed Well #4 and found that 50 feet of the well screen was in the SGU (shallow groundwater unit).

The Navy had the opportunity to inspect all of the wells before sealing them in concrete. Only Well #4 was inspected to locate the wells screen interval.

The contamination of soil and groundwater set the background for the perfect environmental crime. Dump thousands of pounds of trichloroethylene (TCE) and other toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater; watch a toxic plume of chemicals cut a path through the base wells; deny anyone was exposed to chemicals; lose or trash original well construction and water distribution drawings; sell thousands of acres at a public auction sale; and pocket a nice piece of change from the sale of the former base to a land developer. In this case, the victims are mostly invisible Marine veterans, who have no clue of what hit ‘em.


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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.