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What Lies Beneath: Key findings of AP’s investigation

February 23, 2022 GMT
Crumbling barracks line a field at Fort Ord on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Fort Ord, Calif. Many veterans of Fort Ord who believe their cancers were caused by exposure to chemicals at the base have been denied disability and medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Crumbling barracks line a field at Fort Ord on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Fort Ord, Calif. Many veterans of Fort Ord who believe their cancers were caused by exposure to chemicals at the base have been denied disability and medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Crumbling barracks line a field at Fort Ord on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Fort Ord, Calif. Many veterans of Fort Ord who believe their cancers were caused by exposure to chemicals at the base have been denied disability and medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Crumbling barracks line a field at Fort Ord on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Fort Ord, Calif. Many veterans of Fort Ord who believe their cancers were caused by exposure to chemicals at the base have been denied disability and medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Crumbling barracks line a field at Fort Ord on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Fort Ord, Calif. Many veterans of Fort Ord who believe their cancers were caused by exposure to chemicals at the base have been denied disability and medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The Associated Press reviewed thousands of pages of documents, interviewed nearly two dozen veterans and consulted military, medical and environmental scientists as it investigated the connection between toxic substances at California’s Fort Ord and illnesses among those who lived and worked there.

Key findings of the AP investigation:

— Fort Ord, a decommissioned U.S. Army base in Central California, was polluted with toxic chemicals that leached into the groundwater and eventually the base’s drinking water. Some veterans who served there decades ago want to know if exposure to those chemicals could be the root cause of serious health problems, including rare blood cancers.

— The military says no, based on a 25-year-old public health risk assessment. The CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded in 1996 that there were no likely past, present or future risks from exposures at the base. Since then, research into the dangers of those chemicals has advanced. Trichloroethylene, also known as the miracle degreaser TCE, for example, is now a known human carcinogen, and epidemiological studies indicate a link between TCE and blood cancers like non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma.

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— TCE was among dozens of pollutants that scientists discovered as early as 1985 and today still exists in concentrations above the legal limit for drinking water in the aquifer below Fort Ord, according to local and federal water quality reports. Local water officials say drinking water is now pulled from other areas and treated before being delivered to customers.

— The U.S. Army knew that TCE and other toxic chemicals had been improperly dumped at Fort Ord for decades, an AP review of public documents found. Still, the Army downplayed the health risks, documents show. Contractors brought in to clean up the groundwater were warned not to tell community members, news media or local public agencies what they found in their drinking water, according to a 1985 military memo.

— There is rarely a way to directly connect toxic exposure to a specific individual’s medical condition. Local utilities, the Defense Department and some in the Department of Veterans Affairs insist Fort Ord’s water has always been safe. But the VA’s own hazardous materials exposure website, along with scientists and doctors, agree that, in general, dangers exist for military personnel potentially exposed to contaminants.

— The Defense Department has not systematically tracked the accumulated chemical exposures of service members who move from contaminated base to contaminated base. And the VA has not done comprehensive epidemiological studies to determine whether veterans are getting ill from their service.

— Fort Ord veterans are not the only ones to question whether their service made them ill. This is happening almost everywhere the military has set foot, and the federal government is still learning about the extent of both the pollution and the health effects of its toxic legacy.