Putting budget concerns ahead of troop welfare, a top Obama administration appointee declared to Congress that the Pentagon doesn’t want to spend the money to alert hundreds of thousands of soldiers who served at a once-contaminated Army base that they may have been exposed to toxins.
“The cost of attempting to identify all these individuals, including the cost of media advertising, would be a significant burden on the Army’s budget and at a time when the Army is furloughing personnel due to a shortage of funds,” Elizabeth King, the Pentagon’s top liaison to Congress, wrote in an internal email to a House staffer in 2013.
The email, obtained and authenticated by The Washington Times, was written in response to unsuccessful efforts by Rep. Paul Tonko, New York Democrat, to get legislation passed in the last Congress that would require notification to veterans who were stationed at Fort McClellan, in Anniston, Alabama, before it was closed for widespread contamination 15 years ago.
Pentagon officials declined to address Ms. King’s email, except to say that it was meant to be a quick private communication to a congressional staffer and never intended for public disclosure. They also confirmed that the Defense Department doesn’t know how many soldiers served at Fort McClellan during the years it was being contaminated by chemical weapons or a nearby chemical plant.
Mr. Tonko said it is time for the Defense Department and lawmakers to do what is right by informing veterans of their possible exposure and offering them health solutions, regardless of the costs.
“Politicians in Washington cannot claim they support the troops while allowing problems like this to exist unchallenged,” Mr. Tonko told The Times in an interview in which he promised to reintroduce his legislation again this year.
Fort McClellan was the storied home to the Army Chemical School, the only military facility in the U.S. where live chemical weapons training occurred as part of the Army’s chemical warfare unit. Among the chemicals tested were sulfur mustard as well as nerve agents.
The Environmental Protection Agency shuttered the base in 1999 and declared it a high-priority Superfund cleanup site because its operations “generated solid and liquid wastes that contaminated soil and ground water,” according to EPA documents from the time. A flyover of former base grounds also identified a hot spot where radiological materials had been buried in what became a city park.
For years after the base’s closure, scores of veterans who served there raised concerns about cancers and other illnesses they encountered afterward, their plight highlighted on websites and TV newscasts.
But the Pentagon has not undertaken an effort to track down and alert veterans to their possible exposure. The U.S. government did not join a legal settlement a decade ago with chemical giant Monsanto Co., whose operations were accused of polluting Anniston-area soil and water.
Mr. Tonko’s Fort McClellan Health Registry Act would enable veterans who were stationed at the base to get answers about any health problems they may have developed as a result of the toxic chemicals found there.
He has introduced the bill every congressional session since 2009, but the legislation has never been given a vote or even moved through committee. The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars strongly support the bill.
Complicating the issue for the Pentagon, Fort McClellan’s host city of Anniston suffered from polychlorinated biphenyls contamination from a Monsanto operation there. PCBs were widely produced as a dielectric and ingredient in coolant fluids until they were linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems and banned in 1979.
In 2003, Anniston residents sued the company for contaminating their soil and drinking water and obtained more than $700 million in a settlement. However, the government steered clear of the lawsuit, foreclosing the Veterans Affairs Department from the settlement proceeds.
The Pentagon’s resistance to Mr. Tonko’s efforts included concerns that it applied to “any service member who might have been exposed to a toxic contaminate, not just polychlorinated biphenyls,” according to Ms. King’s 2013 email to Congress.
“Considering that virtually every service member will have been exposed to something (including cigarette smoke) during their stationing at the former Fort McClellan, it is unclear what benefit such an open-ended survey would provide,” Ms. King wrote, placing the blame for any contamination on PCBs and not the Army’s chemical weapons.
“Lastly, the proposed amendment would generate a significant financial and resource burden upon the Army,” Ms. King said.
Mr. Tonko said he does not plan to alter the bill to narrow the contaminants to only PCBs before resubmitting it to Congress this year.
“We plan to introduce our McClellan bill containing the same language as last Congress, but I have always been open to amendments, and I’m happy to have any discussion that moves this process forward for our veterans and their families,” he said.
Former soldiers at McClellan say they are still learning details about how contaminated the base was from chemical weapons and Monsanto’s operations and that notification is essential to aiding those who are still unaware.
Kelly Burdette, who was stationed at Fort McClellan in 1979 for basic training, suffers from multiple sclerosis and ankylosing spondylitis. She has been dealing with the muscular and skeletal diseases since she left the service in 1981.
“I was there, and now I have a lot of medical issues — things that no one else in my family has,” Ms. Burdette told The Times. She attributes her diseases and suffering to having worked at the contaminated base.
Ms. Burdette has to walk with a cane and has undergone surgery in her right eye.
“They’ve got my medication under control to where it is slowing the progression, but of course there is no cure for either one of them,” she said. “All we did wrong was serve our country. We weren’t Republicans, we weren’t Democrats; we were soldiers fighting for our freedom.”
The government is well aware of the hazards at Fort McClellan.
The Army and EPA placed part of the base on the National Priorities List in 1989, a list of the most serious hazardous waste sites that need long-term action. A year later, the entire base was listed under the Superfund, also known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which gives the federal government the right to set plans, guidelines and procedures on cleanup measures, superseding the state’s rights.
After the site was shuttered, the EPA, along with the Army and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, continued to clean up and monitor the soil for contamination.
As part of the closure and evaluation of the site, the Army performed a flyover of the base and found that a former fort property given to the city as a park had buried radiological materials — visible to the naked eye from 10,000 feet overhead.
Elevated readings were found, and a ground investigation at the park identified a “presence of soil contaminated with cesium and cobalt,” according to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Solutia, part of a divestiture of Monsanto, was formed in 1997. Solutia CEO John Hunter told CBS News in 2003 that the company is trying to do the right thing.
“We’re committed to cleaning up the PCBs,” Mr. Hunter said in the interview, explaining that the company has spent more than $50 million in the cleanup. Since speaking to CBS, Solutia went bankrupt and was acquired by Eastman Chemical Co. and incorporated as a subsidiary.
“Solutia, as a result of agreements made upon its emergence from Bankruptcy, is handling the cleanup work required in Anniston due to the PCB manufacturing at the former Anniston plant,” Maranda Demuth a spokeswoman at Eastman, wrote in an emailed statement to The Times.
Although Solutia’s cleanup is continuing, the federal government has concluded that Fort McClellan itself is clear of any further contamination.
The federal public health agency, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, concluded in a 2008 report that the “site currently poses no apparent public health hazard.”
Still, veterans who were stationed at the site during the height of its contamination deserve to know why they may be having adverse reactions to chemicals to which they were once exposed, advocates say.
Jesse Smith, a veteran and former U.S. House candidate in Alabama, told The Times that while running for Congress he was given information about Fort McClellan by a group of veterans.
He has organized The Trail of Toxicity March on Washington next week. The march is intended to bring awareness to the fact that these veterans were exposed to toxins but never told.
The march will begin at the VA and end at the White House. Mr. Smith said evidence of the contamination and its effects is overwhelming, and veterans need to be their own advocates.
“We can’t expect the people who are in Washington to advocate on our behalf,” he said.