Army Balks At Toxic-Gas Test

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
April 10, 2007
Pg. 1

By Andrew Schneider, P-I Senior Correspondent
Plumes of contaminated underground water could be releasing dangerous vapors into family homes at Fort Lewis. But despite years of urging from the Environmental Protection Agency, the military has not tested the housing for toxic gas, nor has it warned the hundreds of soldiers, spouses and children who have occupied the dwellings that they could be at risk.
For at least five years, military officials have known of the possible seepage of trichloroethylene vapors from groundwater near and under the homes in the fort's Madigan Army Medical Center housing area, according to interviews and government documents obtained by the Seattle P-I.
Trichloroethylene, known as TCE, can cause a number of adverse effects, such as kidney cancer and reproductive, developmental and neurological abnormalities.
The Army has not tested inside the homes to see if the enlisted personnel and lower-ranking officers and their families who occupy the dwellings are being exposed to toxic vapors and, if so, at what levels.
Fort Lewis' Public Works Department told the EPA that the level of trichloroethylene that it and its contractors have found in the test wells closest to the housing "is not high enough to present a problem."
"There is no danger," an Army spokesman said when asked why the testing was not done inside the houses.
There are about 100 single-family and duplex homes in the 47-year-old neighborhood of one-level houses, according to Equity/Fort Lewis Communities, the civilian corporation that manages the post's housing. Most of the occupants work at Madigan Army Hospital.
The contaminated plume under the Madigan housing contains a soup of toxic chemicals, including the TCE, a grease-cutting solvent that spread from a decades-old dump less than a mile from the housing. The EPA believes that chemical is the most likely to release vapors that could move up through the rocks and soil.
The plume is estimated to spread more than a foot a day, said Marcia Knadle, a hydrogeologist with EPA's regional Risk Assessment Unit.
"We're really guessing where the edge of the plume is today, and that adds to our nervousness for the people living in that housing," she said. "That's why the testing is important."
Without testing the air inside the homes, the EPA says, it's impossible to determine how many people could be at risk.
But Joseph Piek, Fort Lewis' chief spokesman, said the Public Works officials are unconvinced.
"Our current discussions with the EPA indicate they do not believe air quality testing in our housing is a priority," he said last week.
But in interviews, five EPA scientists and managers involved with the Fort Lewis TCE investigation disagreed.
"We told the military repeatedly that their evidence is insufficient to conclude that people are not being exposed to TCE and the need for testing within the housing complex has not diminished at all," said Marcia Bailey, an EPA toxicologist with expertise in the movement of toxic vapors.
Piek said that Fort Lewis' environmental experts "have never been formally asked (by EPA) to conduct air quality testing or additional measures above what we've done all along."
However, EPA officials say they have made it eminently clear to Fort Lewis that they believe testing inside the housing is necessary.
The military's own documents show they have been aware of the threat for years.
A June 2003 Army slide show on environment issues said that "measurement of indoor air concentration" of the TCE vapors were planned for the next year.
An October 2003 report acknowledged a potential health risk and said: "Contaminated groundwater has reached Madigan housing resulting in an unknown hazard associated with vapor intrusion into the buildings."
Monthly Fort Lewis status reports on environmental issues regularly say vapor intrusion at Madigan housing should be addressed.
Yet the Army acknowledges it has never tested the air inside or under the Madigan housing.
"We don't know what the risk is because the Army has declined to take the basic step of testing for it. ... It's like a game of 'if you don't want to know, don't look,' " Bailey said.
Piek said that he received no indication from either Public Works or the Equity management company that the soldiers and their families had ever been told of the possible danger.
"Tests indicate that air quality in Army housing is safe, and there is no reason to unduly alarm the residents in the housing area to a concern that we believe does not exist," Piek said when asked for access to some of the housing occupants.
Bailey disagrees.
"People living in that housing have a right to know what's gong on so they can make decisions about the safety of themselves and their children," she said. "The Army owes it to its people to do that testing. They should be able to have a reasonable expectation that they are not breathing contaminated, cancer-causing vapor."
Testing outside the housing, which Fort Lewis' Public Works Department said showed there was no hazard to occupants, was done in 2002 as part of the Army's contractual agreement with the EPA, and in 2004 by Battelle's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Evaluations of those reports by EPA scientists Bailey and Knadle cited deficiencies in methods used to take samples, where and how the samples were taken, and the conclusions that there was no risk from TCE to housing residents.
Bailey used the contamination figures that Battelle had presented "and came up with a dramatically different conclusion that did not conclude the housing was safe," she said.
Knadle raised the concern that Battelle's test sites for its study were too far from the housing and from "somebody sitting in their living room watching TV and breathing what's in the air" to make accurate assumptions of the risk to the occupants.
Piek said Public Works stands by the tests and "by the fact that housing in the area is built on concrete slabs and further protected by vapor barriers."
However, the EPA pointed to numerous cleanups around the country that showed that the slabs were frequently cracked and usually pierced by power, gas and water lines.
"I've brought these issues up in meetings for years and I'm not entirely sure why they're reluctant to do anything more. We're at an impasse with the Army," Knadle said.
Members of the EPA team say the testing is extremely inexpensive when compared with the millions of dollars that the Army is spending to decontaminate other environmental problems on the post that don't immediately endanger people. Individual air filtration systems, which would remove the toxic vapors, cost less than $5,000 a house.
Fort Lewis has been very diligent, the EPA says, in clearing far larger Superfund sites on the post. The post also has won the Secretary of the Army Environmental Award for pollution prevention.
But "from the EPA standpoint, there is nothing we can do to force the Army to take protective action in this case," said Nancy Harney, the EPA's regional program manager for projects that involve other federal facilities.
If Fort Lewis were a civilian housing complex with the same possible release of toxic vapors and a landlord who refused to test to see if tenants were at risk, the EPA could do more. The agency could invoke its emergency provisions, which would permit the agency do the testing itself "to protect the public health," and then take the landlord to court to recoup the money it spent.
In 1988, the White House issued an executive order telling federal agencies that they are subject to EPA Superfund cleanup laws. But that order said the individual agencies -- in this case the Army -- were able to determine how they would comply.
In 1990, Fort Lewis officials signed an agreement with the EPA stating the Army would take action to stem the flow of highly contaminated water from a specific landfill and dumping area that had been used for decades to dispose of toxic waste.
That agreement was written about 10 years before the plume moving toward the Madigan housing area was discovered, Harney said. This latest plume is not covered by the 1990 agreement. "And that exacerbates the problem of getting the Army to do the right thing today," she said.
Harney has been negotiating a similar gas intrusion problem in a small government housing complex at Fairchild Air Force base near Spokane.
While the Fairchild issue involves only two housing units, the Air Force is being as "bullheaded as they are at Fort Lewis," she said.
"It is unconscionable for these facilities not to put the well-being of its personnel and their families ahead of the military's view of the risk factors.
"If they're not going to spend the relatively small amount of money needed to test for vapors and eliminate the hazard, just get those people out of there."