Former George AFB residents file claim, intend to sue over alleged exposure to toxins
By MARTIN ESTACIO | Daily Press, Victorville, Calif. | Published: July 11, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — Lisa McCrea arrived at Victorville's George Air Force Base in 1987 a healthy and pregnant military wife.
But within the first month, McCrea – who was 19 at the time – said her body "just didn't feel right."
"Something was off," she said.
Four months into her pregnancy, she suffered a miscarriage that she said almost killed her. A base doctor said that her uterus had been "full of tumors."
After she left the base in 1991 – a year before it officially closed – she said she continued to suffer from various symptoms and "just got sicker and sicker and sicker."
Now in her early-50s, McCrea estimates she has at least 40 different medical conditions, including lupus, Parkinson's disease and fibromyalgia.
As president of the Military Accountability and Transparency Alliance, or MAATA, she and about 1,600 others who served or lived on George AFB believe they were unknowingly exposed to toxic chemicals and radiation, and as a result, are plagued with the aftereffects.
The group filed an administrative claim on June 30 against the federal government, which serves as notification of their intent to sue.
The U.S. Air Force did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The fighter jet base was declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1990. The agency has, so far, identified more than 30 contaminants of concern at the site that "pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment," and are present in the soil, solid waste and groundwater.
They include a 600-acre plume of trichloroethylene, or TCE – a solvent used to de-grease metal parts and known to be a human carcinogen – and about two million gallons of disposed jet fuel in an area turned over to state oversight in 2005.
In March 2018, the Department of Defense reported to Congress that at least 401 active and shuttered military installations, including George, were found or suspected to have released chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl substances.
The chemicals are used for a variety of purposes, including in the foam for firefighting at airfields.
At 22 monitoring wells on George AFB, Department of Defense officials found 14 with the chemicals present in the water at levels ranging from 87 to 5,396 parts per trillion – above the EPA's guideline of 70 parts per trillion.
According to limited studies on people, the chemicals have been associated with among other disorders: developmental delays in fetuses and children; changes to the immune system and prostate; and kidney and testicular cancer.
At least 23 out of 219 hazardous sites in total on the base are being actively cleaned up, according to the investigative news outlet ProPublica. So far, $172 million has been spent with an estimated $62.2 million still needed to achieve cleanup of all the sites by 2077.
A group with a link
McCrea, who resides in Ohio, said MAATA started as a "nostalgic group" for people who'd lived or served at the base.
But she said it quickly became clear that many of the former residents were suffering from the same medical conditions – a "lot of reproductive issues," rare cancers, leukemia and multiple lymphoma, among others.
A majority of people suffer from peripheral neuropathy, according to McCrea, a disease that damages nerves and has been linked to exposure to toxins.
"Nobody knew anything. There's just a lot of people that are sick," she said. "And I think the one thing that (military officials) didn't count on was us ever finding each other. But the internet made that possible."
McCrea said a study of the group's conditions also found a miscarriage rate ten times higher than the national average.
She and other mothers who lived on the base were profiled by MilitaryTimes.com in 2018. According to the article, nearly 300 women who had connected via Facebook reported similar health issues such as ovarian cysts, uterine tumors, hysterectomies and birth defects.
An informal poll found that nearly one-third had had a miscarriage. Some were told not to get pregnant at the base, the outlet reported.
A silent protest
MAATA members, meanwhile, said they are planning to place hundreds of baby shoes and a plaque at the former George AFB's hospital parking lot on Sunday in memory "of our children lost due to miscarriages and stillbirths as a direct result from maternal contamination exposure."
Members are asking for donations of newborn or preemie shoes.
The 8 a.m. memorial service will include a "silent protest" of the Air Force's lack of a response to the contamination. MAATA says the military branch "has yet to respond to these very serious issues concerning Veterans and family members of the base."
"Our mission is to assist those that have been affected by military contamination throughout the United States, to know that they are not alone and we ask that they join us, so that our legacy is not forgotten," the group said in a statement.
As for McCrea, she said she continues to get calls from people who currently work in the area of the base, where the Southern California Logistics Airport is now located.
"I get people coming to me all the time asking me, 'Is my cancer related?," she said. "It's just a horrible thing."
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