Toxic Legacy : Cleanup at Edwards Lags 5 Years After Placement on Priority List


For better than five decades, this vast desert military reserve has been a proving ground for some of America’s fastest and most exotic aircraft, from the XP-59, the nation’s first jet, to the radar-dodging B-2 bomber.

For much of that time, the base also has been a dumping ground for vast amounts of toxic chemicals, from aviation fuel and solvents to experimental rocket propellants.

Leaky pipelines left an underground water table contaminated with 300,000 gallons of jet fuel. Rocket-engine tests left mounds of earth dusted with beryllium, a chemical element that causes a sometimes-fatal lung disease. Aircraft wash-downs left soil tainted with trichloroethylene, a metal-cleaning agent that has sickened base workers.

In 1990, Edwards, over the objections of its own officials, was placed on the national priorities list of the most seriously contaminated sites in the nation. Air Force officials later identified 419 separate areas on the base where soil or water was spoiled by toxic waste.


But five years after the base was placed on the list, only 10 of those sites have been fully cleaned up.

Fewer than 10,000 gallons of jet fuel have been siphoned from the aquifer. The beryllium-tainted dirt piles remain, as do nearly 190,000 pounds of an obsolete rocket fuel so volatile it bursts into flame when exposed to air. And base officials have yet to issue an expected report estimating the health risks posed by waste chemicals.

Nonetheless, Air Force officials--and state and federal regulators monitoring the cleanup--say they are satisfied with its progress.

The tainted underground water, base officials say, is not used for drinking, and there is little chance that contaminants will seep into another aquifer, 16 miles away, which does supply drinking water to the 301,000-acre base on the edge of the Mojave Desert, about 95 miles northeast of Downtown Los Angeles.


Some of the most dangerous waste sites--including trenches filled with 1,700 chemical-laden drums that one base official called Edwards’ version of Love Canal--have been cleaned up. Engineers have dug up more than 260 underground storage tanks, some leaking oil and other chemicals. And many remaining problem sites are in remote parts of the base where humans are unlikely to be injured, officials say.

John A. O’Kane Jr., who oversees the cleanup for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, said he does not feel that Edwards “is any more contaminated than any local airport.”

With its long runways and superb year-round flying weather, the huge base--which is 10 times the size of San Francisco and employs more than 13,000 people--has been a top aircraft-testing center since 1942.

The Bell X-1, the first manned aircraft to break the sound barrier, was tested at Edwards. So was the rocket-propelled X-15, which soared to the fringes of space in the early 1960s. More recently, the A-10 Warthog, which attacked Iraqi tanks in the Persian Gulf War, has been tested there, as have the F-16 fighter and C-5A cargo plane.

But the base’s busy test schedule required millions of gallons of fuel and other chemicals, some of which ended up on the ground or in the water.

Air Force officials estimate the cleanup will cost $512 million and will not be completed until at least 2004. But since 1984, when cleanup work began at the base, less than $58 million has been spent.

There are several reasons for the sluggish pace. For one, in recent years Congress has consistently appropriated far less cleanup money than the base has requested. This fiscal year, Edwards asked for $84.5 million but received only $17 million.

Moreover, cleanups at Edwards and other bases were long governed by planning requirements so detailed and time-consuming that one Edwards official described them as “excruciating.”


Factors unique to Edwards further complicate matters. For example, the base is home to a number of federally protected plant and animal species--including an estimated 10,000 desert tortoises--which by law cannot be disturbed by cleanup activities.

Cleanup engineers also must avoid historic sites on the base, such as a portion of Rogers Dry Lake where many early Jet Age aircraft took off. The lake bed is a national historic landmark.

Decontaminating military bases is required by federal law, said Robert W. Wood, who heads Edwards’ cleanup effort. Toxic hot spots also interfere with Edwards’ operation, forcing officials to move or postpone construction projects, he said.

Moreover, waste chemicals pose health hazards to base workers. Three engineers became ill after they dug up a leaking water pipe in an area tainted with trichloroethylene and jet fuel three or four years ago, Wood said.

Although the effects of trichloroethylene generally wear off, it can cause nausea, numbness, heartbeat irregularity, coma or, in rare instances, death. The engineers contracted dermatitis, a skin inflammation, which later cleared up, Wood said.

The base still faces a number of expensive and complicated cleanup tasks, such as getting rid of beryllium in the remote, wind-swept Phillips Laboratory area of the base, where rocket engines are designed and tested.

Engineers once used beryllium in solid-fueled rockets that were test-fired in the open air, producing residues that drifted to earth. The silvery-white metal causes berylliosis, a chronic lung disease that can be fatal. Studies suggest beryllium may also cause lung cancer.

Last October, state officials urged the base to get rid of tainted soil on a “non-time-critical” basis. State officials said that, although the test area was not in use, workers would be endangered if it were reactivated. Edwards officials plan to start burying the contaminated dirt in a few months, Wood said.


In addition, leaky pipelines have plagued the base for years. One defective line poured up to 300,000 gallons of jet fuel into an underground water reservoir near Edwards’ main flight line. The pipe began leaking in 1983 and later was replaced. But in 1993 the new line developed leaks in its containment wall and had to be shut off. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the contractor who installed it. Meantime, fuel must be trucked to the flight line, a costly process.

Edwards officials say the fuel is concentrated in a granite basin that prevents it from migrating to base water wells, miles away.

But the chemicals worry some residents near the base.

Stormy Williams, a retired alfalfa farmer in Rosamond who was a founder of Desert Citizens Against Pollution, said it is difficult to determine exactly where chemicals are in aquifers or if they are spreading. Aquifer contamination is a grave matter in the desert, she said, where water is so scarce.

Edwards is also trying to dispose of 400 steel canisters of pentaborane, an obsolete missile fuel that may be fatal if inhaled or swallowed. The compound, which burns when exposed to air, is so dangerous that it is banned on U.S. trains and aircraft.

Technicians recently blew up two cylinders in the Phillips Lab area after an inspection revealed flawed welds that could have unleashed the chemical in the air. Edwards officials said more tanks are likely to have bad welds, and they plan to destroy the remaining tanks once they get regulatory approval.

“This is probably the most serious threat to public health I’m aware of on the base,” said Richard T. Russell, who monitors the cleanup for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s definitely lethal.”

Although the Air Force published its final cleanup plan in December, it has yet to publicly release a document assessing the health risks of toxic wastes at the base’s center. Edwards officials say they expect to issue the document, which is under review by environmental regulators, in about a month.

A draft of the risk assessment already has been criticized by URS Consultants, a Sacramento firm that reviewed Edwards’ cleanup plans for the EPA.

In a Feb. 17 letter to EPA officials, URS said the draft gave an “unrealistic and unduly conservative” estimate of the health risks of base employees’ ingesting chemicals while showering. URS also criticized the document for not discussing health risks of absorbing chemicals through the skin and ingesting tainted dust.

A spokesman for the base said showers draw from the same wells used for drinking water, and Wood insisted the overall risks from toxic wastes “aren’t very serious at all.”

Indeed, Edwards officials object to listing the base as a national priority.

Wood said Edwards was included because of a large toxic-waste dump south of the main base that regulators believed could leak contaminants into drinking water. But monitoring indicates no chemicals have migrated from the dump, he said.

EPA’s Russell, however, said the gasoline-tainted aquifer was by itself sufficient reason to put Edwards on the priorities list.

Although it may take 50 years, he said, the fuel eventually will spread to underground water that is being used for drinking or will be needed for that purpose in the future.

The slowness of the Edwards cleanup is mirrored at other bases around the nation, according to a report last year by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the watchdog arm of Congress.

Of the 7,448 contaminated sites on 254 “high priority” installations, only 205 sites have been completely cleaned up, the office said. The Pentagon has spent more than $8 billion on military cleanups since the 1970s, the report said.

In response to critics, the Pentagon in December proposed ways to speed up the cleanup of the national-priority list sites.

While the military in the past weighted all toxic sites equally, regardless of the human or environmental dangers they posed, it will now rank them as high, medium and low-risk. Cleanup funds will then be concentrated on high-risk sites.