Monday, November 12, 2007

SAN ANTO: Decade after Kelly AFB exposé, health questions still being asked

Decade after Kelly AFB exposé, health questions still being asked

Web Posted: 11/10/2007 10:46 PM CST

Roddy Stinson
San Antonio Express-News

Does the plume of groundwater contaminated by decades of chemical spillage at the former Kelly AFB pose a threat to the health of thousands of men, women and children who work, play and go to school 20-30 feet above it?

More specifically, one concerned environmentalist is asking, are vapors from the toxic groundwater migrating through the soil and into homes, businesses, churches and schools above the plume?

Lenny Siegel — director of the California-based Center for Public Environmental Oversight and a nationally recognized expert on the environmental damage left unremedied by the Air Force after base closures — believes that such "vapor intrusion" is possible. And he has urged U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez to formally ask the Environmental Protection Agency "whether under current EPA guidance the experts at EPA headquarters would recommend indoor air testing near Kelly."

Hold that request (and the congressman's response) in abeyance for a couple of minutes, and let me get San Antonio newcomers up to speed on Kelly contamination while noting that November 2007 is the anniversary of an important event in the public exposure of the contamination.

Ten years ago this month, information provided by a prominent San Antonio businessman (who to this day wishes to remain anonymous) led to an Express-News investigation that over a period of months determined:

Toxic chemicals used for decades at Kelly AFB contaminated a plume of groundwater that extended three miles south/southeast of the base — more than a mile and a half from the point of contamination publicly acknowledged by Air Force officials.

Samples of the off-base groundwater taken from Air Force monitoring wells found that the chemicals (actually, degreasers) in question — trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (also known as perchloroethylene, or PCE) and dichloroethylene (DCE) — were in some cases more than 100 times greater than the maximum contaminant level for drinking water allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Air Force officials believed that all private wells into the groundwater had been closed, and since there was no "pathway" from the toxic stew to the surface, no mega-costly effort to clean the groundwater to a drinking level standard was needed.

Mother Nature would eventually take care of the problem, Air Force officials contended, through "natural attenuation."

A decade later, the natural attenuation plan still is in place. And the Air Force believes that it is working well, that the plume, which regularly is monitored, is losing its toxicity and that over a period of decades the TCE, PCE and DCE will completely degrade.

Back to Lenny Siegel, ... who on the basis of personal Kelly-document research believes that natural attenuation may not be working fast enough and, as he said in his letter to Gonzalez, "that the groundwater and soil gas contamination levels of TCE and particularly PCE" are high enough to justify concentrated indoor air testing "to determine whether contamination is rising into people's homes at unsafe levels."

Responding to Siegel's request to take some initiative in resolving the question of vapor intrusion, Gonzalez issued a statement last week that said, in part:

"My office will soon request that the Environmental Protection Agency's 6th Region conduct a comprehensive review of the alleged vapor intrusion reports.

"I will also request that the EPA allow independent agencies to use available technology ... to conduct studies that would address these same reports."

He promised:

"My office will continue to closely monitor this situation."

As will I.

Thanks to:
Robert Silvas