Group seeks health registry for Fort McClellan soldiers

By RYAN PHILLIPS | The Anniston Star, Ala. | Published: June 22, 2014

After Diane Zumatto finished her basic training at Fort McClellan in 1976, she completed her enlisted service and started a family in Thurston County, Wash.

In 1984, Zumatto’s first daughter was born with hip dysplasia, a congenital misalignment of the hip joint.  She has long wondered if it’s connected to her service at the post. Zumatto hopes the federal government will set up a registry to track the health issues of troops who spent time at the base.

“I don’t know if any exposure to anything at Fort McClellan caused it, which is why we need some kind of registry to chart those who have been through,” she said.

Zumatto is part of a far-flung network of former Fort McClellan soldiers who are alarmed by stories of pollution both on and off base in Anniston. The campaign has drawn in lawmakers from across the country, but hasn’t stirred local politicians.

“The first step is to identify service-connected illnesses McClellan vets may have received during their time of service,” said Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. “We have more questions than answers at this point, which makes a registry necessary so that the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs can determine if care is necessary.”  

Tonko is the primary sponsor of H.R. 411, also known as the Fort McClellan Health Registry Act. The bill would require a database be made of all soldiers who came through Fort McClellan from Jan. 1, 1935, to May 20, 1999. Also, all living parties would be notified that they may have been exposed to toxins, including polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

That’s likely a reference to the PCB contamination from the site in western Anniston where Monsanto manufactured PCBs, now known to be a health hazard, for 40 years. Contamination of the soil and groundwater around the plant became the subject of a $700 million settlement and a massive cleanup. That contamination, plus the massive stockpile of chemical weapons the military once maintained at Anniston Army Depot — now all destroyed in an incinerator — gave Anniston a polluted reputation.

Army officials say PCB contamination wasn’t an issue at the fort, 13 miles from Monsanto, where most trainees would have lived.

“The issues in the health registry seem to refer to PCBs and we haven’t found that on Fort McClellan because we just did not use that kind of stuff,” said Thomas Lederle, chief of the Army Base Realignment and Closure Office.

Tonko said he believes the matter needs to be investigated further. He has proposed multiple bills and resolutions to establish a health registry, picking up 62 co-sponsors for his most recent effort. No one in Alabama’s congressional delegation has signed on to the effort.       

“I believe this is a worthy cause and McClellan vets, now scattered throughout the country, deserve to see this become law,” he said. “The legislative process can be a slow one, but that could be sped up by the support of Congressman Mike Rogers, who represents Anniston in the U.S. House of Representatives.”

Rogers opposes the registry, saying it would project a false image to those who already view the area as hazardous.

“Our community has made great strides over the years to promote itself as a great place to live, work and start a business, and I am concerned this questionable legislation would unfairly impact those positive efforts,” Rogers wrote in an emailed statement.

Rogers said the bill “would label McClellan a toxic site without any evidence.”

Cost of contamination

Camp Lejeune, a Marine base in North Carolina, was the subject of similar scrutiny after confirmation of troops’ exposure to trichloroethylene, or TCE, and perchloroethylene, or PCE. The findings did not result in a registry of the 630,000 Marines who had gone through the base in a 30-year timespan. The results did, however, spawn health care measures for troops and their families affected by the pollution. This occurred following President Obama signing the Janey Ensminger Act into law in 2012.

Brian Garrett, a professional staff member for the House Armed Services Committee, estimated the cost of an equivalent registry at Fort McClellan in a 2013 email sent to Tonko. Garrett used Camp Lejeune as a template, estimating that for the North Carolina base, it would take 12 years for a staff of 50 to complete the registry, at a cost of $132 million. Given the timespan, Garrett wrote that the cost for a Fort McClellan registry would be double that of Camp Lejeune

Elizabeth King, assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, wrote in a 2013 email to Tonko’s office that a health registry would be too costly and cover an unmanageable time period — around 64 years.

“It is extremely difficult to accurately determine past individual exposures to toxic contaminants, especially for those contaminants lacking scientific evidence of an exposure,” she wrote in the email.

King also mentioned the difficulties associated with notifying soldiers, publicizing the registry and identifying a direct correlation between the base and soldiers’ chronic illnesses.

“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,” she wrote.

Tonko said he has been approached by a dozen residents from his own district who say they served at Fort McClellan and now suffer from chronic illnesses.

Democrat Jesse Smith, who will face off against Mike Rogers for District 3 in the November general election, said he has also been approached by local residents, sparking his support for the registry.

“I think it is very important to note that as we move forward, we can’t move forward with politics as usual, neglecting the things that are essential to our existence,” he said. “I think we are going to have a tough time, and we need better representation.”

Eli Henderson, circuit clerk of Calhoun County, worked as a quality assurance specialist at the Chemical Demilitarization Facility in western Anniston for 10 years. During his time, Henderson and those around him were exposed to sarin, a lethal nerve agent, and other kinds of gases in the igloos at the facility. Sarin was spilled directly on Henderson during one incident when a leak doused his rubber suit with the toxin.

“We had nerve agents all over us for years,” he said.

Henderson now suffers from a form of skin cancer on his face that requires an expensive medication to treat. Despite his time at the facility, he is unsure if the exposure resulted in his illness. He is unfamiliar with the proposed registry, but believes if one was constructed, that those who worked in the igloos would be important components in understanding the effects of exposure.

“It could very well be from that one incident or the numerous others,” he said. “Certainly the people I worked with that were exposed would be tops on the list.”

The aftermath

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management said that the cleanup process at Fort McClellan has moved forward, despite accusations of lingering contaminants.

“Much progress has been made in the remediation of Fort McClellan and other sites in Calhoun County to address historic environmental contamination and to ensure the current and future protection of its citizens’ health and the environment,” wrote Jerome Hand, director of public relations for ADEM, in an email interview.

The environmental dangers at the former post have been acknowledged for the last 30 years, he said, but cleanup efforts commenced only with its closing.  

The McClellan Development Authority approached the Army about assuming the redeveloping of the property to ensure the safety of future residents. Robin Scott, executive director of the MDA, said that while he supports veterans who are experiencing health issues, he does not believe that they are a direct result of exposure to military chemical agents dumped around the base. The MDA has only found pollutants related to industrial practices, such as low levels of TCE during the $216 million cleanup, which is currently about two-thirds finished, he said.

“The cleanup that we are doing is really tied to ordnance cleanup, monitoring landfills and water remediation, especially around the sites where industrial type activities occurred,” he said. “We have not been tasked with cleaning any kind of chemical agents that would require us to clean them up.”

Scott said sites that require cleanup at McClellan are related to motor pools and places where vehicle and weapons were repaired.

“None of it has to do with chemical agents and we are not out here cleaning up sarin, mustard or VX, “ he said. “To my knowledge none has been found and in all of the assessments done by the Army they did not highlight any of that activity for us to clean. We are cleaning oil spills, TCE in low levels, gasoline, diesel fuel, cleaning solvents, battery acid, all of the things that have gone on over the 80 something years the base was active.”

Elizabeth Dilts has researched the health issues at the base and advocated for veterans since finishing her basic training at Fort McClellan in 1985. Currently, Dilts lives in Orlando and works as an attorney.

Dilts said she experienced a long list of health problems comparable to those of other veterans with whom she served. She has suffered from conditions that have the potential to cause muscle weakness, nerve damage, ear and jaw pain, and shortness of breath. In addition, she has had numerous breast lumps removed and also had a hysterectomy. Looking back, she said, no warning was given about the possibility of contaminants around her at the base.

“None of [the pollution] is refuted,” she said. “Every bit is from the government’s own studies. They just refuse to tell the veterans because it’s too expensive.”

When Dilts was at Fort McClellan for military police training, she was part of a close-knit group of other female soldiers, many of whom now suffer from similar health issues such as diabetes and cancer.

“Any of these things may be isolated but when you start looking at our group, there were six of us and almost all of us had problems,” she said

Dilts said that although many veterans support a registry, more effort should be made to raise awareness of possible effects from chemical exposure, as opposed to charting the people associated with it.

“Realistically, I think they need to go back to the drawing board and be compelled, not just to have a registry but individually notify these people,” she said. “Just some public service announcements during primetime, like contact your local VA, just anything. That is what needs to be done.” 


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