Newsmonger: First Camp Lejeune, Next Toxic Triangle?, Inside closed Lackland briefing

Michael Barajas


Council last week gave unanimous blessing to Alamo Beer Co.'s plans to build a microbrewery on the east end of the historic Hays Street Bridge, approving a near $800,000 incentive package that lets Alamo Beer set up tables and chairs on the historic bridge deck rent-free. Before council's vote last week, someone climbed high atop the bridge's steel beams to drape a white banner scrawled with the words, "KEEP BUSINESS OFF OUR BRIDGE."

First Camp Lejeune, Next Toxic Triangle?

Activists for years have pointed to similarities between North Carolina's Camp Lejeune and San Antonio's now-shuttered Kelly Air Force Base. Both serve as stark examples of the military's checkered environmental past, where workers dumped or buried chemicals like trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and benzene onsite. Those chemicals contaminated Camp Lejeune's tap water; Kelly eventually saw massive toxic plumes stretch beneath nearby homes, tainting now-capped wells residents used for drinking, washing cars, or watering gardens. And in both cases, official studies notably failed to definitively link illnesses plaguing residents to the contamination.

"If you look at the two, it's the same chemicals, a lot of it is from the same source, from degreasing solvents and things like that," said Wilma Subra, the MacArthur "genius" award-winning chemist and activist who has been working with residents of the area's so-called Toxic Triangle for a decade to document health effects and exposure to contaminants. The response from government and official studies were often the same with both military sites, she said. That is until last week. In what Subra called a "precedent-setting move," Congress approved a bill providing health care to former Camp Lejeune residents and workers exposed to the toxins — health officials estimated that as many as one million people may have been exposed to contaminants there. President Obama was expected to sign the bill early this week.

Former Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger helped lead the hard-fought battle to make officials confront the human toll chemical dumping took on former Camp Lejeune workers and residents. The bill passed last week was named in part after Ensminger's daughter, Janey, who died of a rare form of leukemia, and whose death Ensminger blames on contaminated water. Ensminger himself has been quick to point to Kelly's Toxic Triangle as another example of the military's lasting environmental legacy. Speaking to the Current earlier this year, he recalled visiting Kelly's Toxic Triangle with filmmaker Rachel Libert while shooting the Oscar-shortlisted documentary Semper Fi: Always Faithful, a film that interviews long-standing Toxic Triangle activists like Robert Alvarado. "When you look at those neighborhoods I walked through, those people are for the most part poor, and they've been taken advantage of," he told the Current in April. He called residents of the Toxic Triangle "sacrificial lambs."

Though numerous official reports hinted at health problems inside the Toxic Triangle, like elevated rates of cancer and birth defects, none have pinpointed a cause. Stephen TerMaath, with the BRAC program management division, this year wrote to local Restoration Advisory Board members to address ongoing concerns over the community's health woes, saying the Air Forces' 10-year, $5 million agreement with San Antonio's Metro Health department to study potential health problems in the Kelly area (an agreement that ran its course last year) had failed to link "past or present Kelly AFB activities to the health concerns of the community." The Air Force has indicated it's considering shutting down the community's advisory board, something that could happen as early as October. Activists, meanwhile, remain skeptical.

There are still lingering questions from a 2006-2007 study by a cancer-cluster expert, one that Metro Health effectively buried, noting dozens of cancer cases in the Toxic Triangle that couldn't be explained away by other factors like lifestyle and genetics. And similarities between Camp Lejeune and Kelly AFB don't end with the nature of chemicals dumped onsite.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, originally tasked with assessing health problems around both military sites, took a lashing from a Congressional panel three years ago. In a report the panel cited ATSDR studies into both Kelly and Camp Lejeune as evidence of the agency's shoddy, incomplete work, saying the ATSDR often "obscures or overlooks potential health hazards, uses inadequate analysis, and fails to zero in on toxic culprits." One chief complaint had been that the agency failed to measure critical potential exposure pathways, and that studies looking for sources of toxic exposure to the community only occurred well after Air Force officials had already begun scrubbing Kelly.

"We've been trying to get the government to back us up for a long time," said Alvarado on Monday. "It's the same as Camp Lejeune. We've got the same problems here."

Subra has her own thoughts on why Kelly-area residents' fight for justice has not seen the same results as in Camp Lejeune. "The real truth is that it's a Hispanic community there, an environmental justice community," she said. Compared to a Marine master sergeant and a military community fighting for restitution, she said, "the residents around Kelly are much easier to dismiss."

Inside closed Lackland briefing

Instead of holding an open hearing on the growing sex abuse scandal at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, leadership within the House Armed Services Committee opted instead to hold a closed-door briefing with Air Force officials last Thursday.

Advocacy groups have urged the House committee to hold public hearings into the growing scandal of sexual misconduct at Lackland, saying internal military investigations aren't enough and could fail to root out problems system-wide. "The Air Force and Department of Defense can and should do their own investigations, but that should not impede or delay Congress from doing its own job of oversight on behalf of the American people," said Nancy Parrish, founder of Protect Our Defenders, a group that supports victims of military sexual assault.

"There was no reason for that briefing to be closed," said U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif, who has also called for open hearings and was present at last week's closed briefing. "There wasn't anything divulged, frankly, that would have impacted ongoing court martials."

At the briefing, Speier said, were 11 committee members, all of whom "expressed their dismay about the situation," and Air Force top brass, including Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.

In the briefing, they covered neither specific Lackland cases nor some of the broad-sweeping questions that have yet to be answered, like root causes, solutions, or the scope of sexual abuse within the Air Force, she said.

Claude Chafin, a spokesman with the House Armed Services Committee, said leadership may have worried open hearings would impact ongoing investigations into into Lackland trainers. "When you get into a situation where you're looking at ongoing investigation or ongoing prosecutions, you have to worry about what the military calls 'command influence,'" he said. Republican South Carolina Congressman Joe "You Lie!" Wilson, who head's the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel, made the official request that the briefing be closed, Chafin confirmed.

Parrish says open hearings into the matter are crucial, particularly as the Lackland scandal continues to widen. Late last month Air Education and Training Command announced investigations into three more Lackland trainers, boosting total number of those under investigation or charged at the base to 15. Possible victims now stand at 38. At the closely watched court martial of former Staff Sgt. Luis A. Walker, sentenced 20 years on multiple counts of misconduct including rape, details emerged that it took a month for one trainee's report of assault to reach a squad commander, after someone else had reported another assault by Walker.

Why the delay, and is it sign of a command scrambling to protect its own? Those questions and others weren't answered in last week's closed briefing, Speier said.

"I asked a series of questions that were pretty fundamental. How many investigators do you have on the job? What kind of training do they have? Are you going to interview the 7,000 women who have come through as trainees over the last 8 years or not?" Speier said she read a letter her office received from someone working on-base at Lackland, someone who claimed military rape has been a problem at Lackland for at least 8 years.

"I think the public has a right to know these answers," she said. "I think the victims have a right to know."