Cancer Stalks a ‘Toxic Triangle’

Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO -- On nearly every block surrounding the former Kelly Air Force Base, small purple crosses sprout from front lawns, marking the homes where cancer has struck.

The residents call their neighborhood the “toxic triangle,” alleging that the Air Force poisoned it with an industrial solvent, trichloroethylene, or TCE. It was casually dumped at the base for decades and spread for miles through a shallow aquifer under 22,000 nearby houses.

Texas health authorities have found elevated rates of liver cancer among residents, as well as higher-than-normal rates of birth defects. Though state health officials say it is impossible to prove that TCE causes the sickness here, this blue-collar community has little doubt about the connection.

“We are dying day by day,” said Robert Alvarado Sr., who has lived in a small clapboard home for 36 years that sits about 14 feet over the TCE plume. “I have kidney failure, my wife has thyroid cancer, my neighbor just died of breast cancer.”


What’s happening in this neighborhood of modest low-slung homes, crisscrossed by railroad tracks and dominated by aircraft hangars on the horizon, has been playing out for years at other cities that are home to military bases, industrial plants, nuclear weapons laboratories and NASA centers.

Hundreds of communities with major TCE contamination have waited more than a decade for scientists to explain the cancer risks created by exposure to TCE. The clear solvent used to take grease off metal parts is officially branded as a probable carcinogen by half a dozen state, federal and international agencies. It is most often linked to liver and kidney cancer, as well as birth defects and childhood leukemia.

But scientists representing major polluters, particularly the Department of Defense, have successfully delayed action on scientific assessments that TCE is a far graver threat to public health than recognized by federal standards. When the Environmental Protection Agency drafted a TCE assessment in 2001, finding that it was far more toxic than originally believed, the issue was wrested from the EPA’s control.

A panel of elite scientists organized by the National Academy of Sciences will issue a report this summer that is supposed to shape government policy on TCE. The report is all but certain to intensify the battle -- no matter what it says.

If the academy endorses the view that TCE is a big risk, it would lay the groundwork for stricter cleanup standards across the nation and probably lower permissible levels of TCE in the environment. If it rejects the EPA’s earlier research, it will trigger a political rebellion by exposed communities.

“If the national academy comes out with some kind of a weaker standard, it is going to ignite this all over again,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who has fought regulatory delays along with other Democrats and Republicans in Congress. “We are headed for a battle.”

The national academy has been working on its report for more than a year and is now as much as six months behind schedule. One member of the group, Harvard University professor Thomas J. Smith, said the group was dealing with many missing pieces of a difficult puzzle and many bits of data that don’t seem to fit anywhere. “It is a complicated picture,” Smith said.

Even after the national academy issues its report, the matter will go back to the EPA for another risk assessment that could take another two years. Any further regulatory action to reduce public exposure to TCE could take several more years. The EPA first began amassing scientific data in the mid-1990s and began assessing the risks in 1997.

It is a pace that has left TCE exposure victims disheartened and angry.

Anne Elizabeth Townsend died a month ago in Moscow, Idaho, the result of liver disease and TCE exposure, according to her death certificate and a liver biopsy.

She was married to Tom Townsend, a former major in the Marine Corps who was based at highly polluted Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, after returning seriously injured from combat duty in Vietnam in 1965.

The Townsends lived at the Paradise Point housing complex, which was served by a base water-supply system that carried 1,400 parts per billion of TCE, a later investigation by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry would disclose.

The current EPA limit on TCE in drinking water is 5 ppb. The standard might have dropped to 1 ppb had the risk assessment conducted by the EPA in 2001 been adopted, experts say.

In 1967, the Townsends had a son born with cardiovascular birth defects. He lived only three months.

“We had an autopsy done and there wasn’t a system in his body that wasn’t screwed up,” said Townsend, a retired college administrator and a former city councilman. “That autopsy report had 10 pages of findings. It was a mercy that he didn’t last.

“They wiped out two members of my family,” Townsend, 75, added. “I am proud that I served in the Marines, but there are some days I want to forget that I did.”

The Marine Corps was alerted to the TCE contamination in 1980, but did not disclose the pollution or make any changes to its water system until 1985. It was a five-year period in which thousands of Marines were exposed.

At the request of Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), the Government Accountability Office is investigating whether the Marine Corps covered up the TCE problems at the base.

“Nearly 20 years have elapsed since the last contaminated well was closed at Camp Lejeune, and we are still unable to address the related concerns of former residents,” Dole wrote in 2004.

“We have an obligation to provide them with definitive answers to their questions regarding the circumstances and extent of the contamination as well as the likely adverse health effects.”

Among Dole’s concerns is the slow pace of a study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A still-incomplete study of 12,598 children born at the base from 1968 to 1985 found 103 cases of cancer and birth defects, including 22 cases of leukemia, double the national average. No studies have been conducted of the adult men or women who drank the base water.

Jerry Ensminger, a former Marine drill sergeant, lived at the base in the 1970s and his wife gave birth to a daughter in 1976. Their daughter, Janey, died of leukemia at age 9.

He has been fighting to force the Marine Corps to notify tens of thousands of Marines, their families and civilian employees exposed to TCE. He formed a group, “The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten,” -- along with a website ( -- to reach out to Marine families.

“The Marine Corps has done everything in its power to not notify the people who were exposed,” Ensminger, 53, said. “There is something wrong with our government.”

TCE is the most widespread water contaminant in the nation, present at 1,400 Defense Department pollution sites, according to Air Force documents.

The Defense Department contends that scientific evidence that TCE causes cancer is weak and that the EPA needs to conduct more studies before tightening its standards or ordering tougher cleanups.

Certainly, not all TCE contamination was caused by government agencies. It is estimated that at least hundreds, perhaps thousands, of current and former industrial sites across the nation have TCE pollution.

When the National Academy of Sciences held a public hearing at UC Irvine last year, Amanda Evans showed up carrying an urn with her father’s ashes. Gary Evans died of liver cancer in 2002, after working as a vice president at a View-Master factory in Beaverton, Ore., owned by Mattel Inc. The company acquired the manufacturing plant in its 1997 merger with Tyco Toys and closed the factory in 2001.

The plant used TCE extensively to degrease metal parts for the stereoscopic viewers produced there, though TCE use had ceased long before Mattel acquired the plant. The TCE was released into the soil, where it contaminated an aquifer that supplied the plant’s drinking water. A later government investigation found the aquifer had TCE levels of 1,670 ppb.

As many as 25,000 workers were exposed to TCE at the plant since the mid-1960s, according to a 2004 report by the Oregon Department of Human Services. Based on a list of about half of those workers, the study found nearly triple the expected rate of kidney cancer and double the expected rate of pancreatic cancer.

Evans, who works in the entertainment industry, founded Victims of TCE Exposure and hopes to produce a documentary on TCE. When she showed up in Irvine with her father’s ashes and what she calls the “Wall of 300 Victims at View-Master,” national academy officials refused to allow her to set it up.

“I told them I don’t have a PowerPoint presentation, I have this wall,” Evans said. Campus police were called but declined to take any action.

Evans said she was suing Mattel, but the matter must first go through a workers compensation claim. Donald Stewart, a former U.S. senator from Alabama representing Evans, acknowledged that such toxics litigation was complex and not always successful. “But you have good people on juries who recognize that these substances do cause harm,” Stewart said.

Civil suits involving TCE have typically wilted because it is difficult to prove that illnesses result directly from exposure.

In “A Civil Action,” author Jonathan Harr recounted the prodigious efforts of an attorney from a small Boston law firm who tried -- but largely failed -- to prove two major U.S. corporations had caused health havoc in a New England town after releasing TCE into the water supply. The story was later made into a movie starring John Travolta as attorney Jan Schlichtmann.

In San Antonio, the former Kelly Air Force Base ranks among the nation’s largest TCE sites, with contamination that migrated several miles past the base boundary.

So far, the Air Force has spent more than $300 million on the cleanup and expects to spend another $155 million over the next 15 years. Residents want the cleanup completed much sooner, though Air Force officials say the plume is shrinking.

The community that lives over the contaminated water has about double the expected rate of liver cancers, said Melanie Williams, senior cancer epidemiologist at the Texas Department of State Health Services. A twofold rate of excess cancer is “not a huge margin,” Williams said, but she noted that the excessive cancers have continued for 10 years.

“The consistency is a concern,” she said.

Despite the huge petrochemical industry in Texas and all of the environmental health issues that go with it, Kelly is one of the highest-priority toxics sites in the state, Williams said.

In addition to cancer, the department has found excessive rates for three types of birth defects involving the heart, stomach and lungs, according to Peter Langlois, a birth defects epidemiologist at the department. The birth defect rates range from two to three times higher than expected.

But Williams and Langlois said they could not establish any definitive link to the TCE contamination in the community. Kelly was a major repair depot for the Air Force and used TCE to clean oil and grease from metal parts. Giant tanks of TCE were drained directly into the ground, former workers have said.

The TCE contaminated a shallow aquifer about 14 feet below the surface. The aquifer is not used by the city and little proof has surfaced that the TCE-tainted water ever penetrated down to the 1,000-foot-deep water drawn for the municipal drinking supply, said Dr. Fernando A. Guerra, director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

Mark A. Weegar, senior project manager at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said it was impossible for the contaminated water to migrate from the shallow aquifer into the city’s water supply.

But residents say Guerra and Weegar have consistently underestimated their exposure. Dozens of unauthorized shallow wells were sunk into the TCE-contaminated water and used for drinking, bathing and gardening, according to residents and federal officials. The Air Force has capped 75 such wells in the last decade.

“We know that people used the wells in the shallow aquifer for drinking water,” said George Rice, a hydrologist who has studied the neighborhood’s problems. “You have to assume that people used those wells to water their lawns, wash their cars and the children used those hoses the way kids use hoses.”

The Air Force also dumped TCE and other chemicals into open pits on the base for years, which periodically flooded during heavy Texas rainstorms and sent the overflow through surrounding neighborhoods that lacked storm drains, said Yolonda Johnson, a community activist who lives a few blocks from the base boundary. Johnson’s daughter and two of her granddaughters have kidney disease.

No air monitoring tests inside homes have been conducted for TCE, even though the contamination is in a shallow aquifer. Soil tests for vapors indicated there was no cause for concern, Texas authorities concluded.

Outside health experts say the shallow contamination alone should have prompted air monitoring tests long ago.

Adam G. Antwine, the civilian who manages the local cleanup for the Air Force, suggested that some “pathways” might have potentially exposed the community to TCE.

“I don’t know that we want to totally dismiss any potential pathways,” he said.

“This is a low-income minority population and that raises concerns of environmental justice.”

The base shut down in 2001 after 80 years of operation. Because the latency period for many cancers is 10 years or more, higher TCE levels long ago might only now be causing illness.

Former Kelly workers describe conditions inside the base during its heyday as an abysmal toxic nightmare.

Mary Lou Ornelias, a frail 59-year-old woman, worked in the Kelly plating shop for 18 years.

With her bare hands, she would dip cotton cloths into buckets of TCE and then wipe grease from aircraft parts. The air in the plating shop was a steamy, solvent-rich brew that turned the walls yellow and had a stench that made visitors wince, she said. The exposure made her dizzy and caused outbreaks of scaly rashes.

“I would scratch and scratch the sores,” recalled Ornelias, who has no claims or suits against the government.

The sores would not be her last or biggest problem. Ornelias tires easily, looks gaunt and sometimes falls down -- all part of her life with liver cancer.

“In 2002, I started throwing up blood,” she said.

Outside the plant, community activists have pushed for a faster cleanup, but say progress has been slow and the problems have festered.

“Living in this contamination area is a miserable burden,” said Armondo Quintanilla, a former employee at Kelly who has spent most of his life in the neighborhood. “It is shameful. People deserve better.”