New York state rep pushes to help veterans possibly exposed to toxic material at McClellan

·7 min read

Jun. 1—For a decade, U.S. Rep. Paul D. Tonko has sought help for veterans who believe training at Fort McClellan exposed them to a toxic assortment of chemicals and poisoned their bodies. His efforts have been met with near-unanimous Capitol Hill silence.

Until now.

Last month, Tonko, D-N.Y., testified before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs about HB2825, the Fort McClellan Health Registry Act that he again is trying to push through Congress. His testimony marked the first time his legislative efforts regarding Anniston's former Army main post have gained substantive congressional traction.

"Our task here is simple: let's get the basic information we need to affirm this link and help these veterans get the care they deserve," Tonko told the committee.

If passed, HB2825 would inform personnel who served at Fort McClellan that they may have been exposed to toxic chemicals. It also would create a medical study that would investigate the veterans' health conditions and claims that their illnesses are related to serving in Anniston.

Named Camp McClellan when it opened in 1917 to train soldiers and artillerymen for World War I, Fort McClellan instructed thousands of military personnel in "CBR" exercises — chemical, biological and radiological — as part of the Army's Cold War-era expansions. Much of the training centered on detecting toxic agents and decontaminating items that had been exposed to chemical agents and radioactive compounds.

The Army opened the Chemical Corps School in 1952 at Fort McClellan, and over time it enlarged that portion of the post's mission. A decade later the CCS was renamed the U.S. Army Chemical Center and School, and in 1973 the Army transferred all of Fort McClellan's CBR missions to Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland.

In 1979, the chemical school returned to Fort McClellan, where it stayed until a Base Realignment and Closure Commission closed Anniston's main post in 1999. The chemical school, now renamed the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School, relocated to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

For years, a growing number of veterans who served at Fort McClellan have congregated on Facebook pages and Youtube channels to document their illnesses and wonder if toxic exposure in Anniston is the cause. Likewise, a cottage industry has bloomed as out-of-state law firms have sought to assist Fort McClellan veterans with their potential exposure claims.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs steadfastly maintains that Fort McClellan toxic exposure isn't to blame for the veterans' health issues. "There are currently no adverse health conditions associated with service at Fort McClellan," according to a VA web page devoted to what it describes as "potential exposure at Fort McClellan."

Among those possible exposures, the VA writes, are two radioactive compounds (cesium-137 and cobalt-60) and chemical-warfare agents (mustard gas and nerve agents) that instructors used in decontamination training and testing. The VA website also lists possible PCB contamination from the environmental and industrial pollution cases in western Anniston.

"Although exposures to high levels of these compounds have been shown to cause a variety of adverse health effects in humans and laboratory animals, there is no evidence of exposures of this magnitude having occurred at Fort McClellan," the VA writes.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, represents the 3rd District, which includes Anniston's former Army post. Shea Snider Miller, Rogers' press secretary, did not return emails seeking comment on Tonko's legislation.

The 71-year-old Tonko, a longtime New York legislator who represents that state's capital region in Congress, says a constituent made him aware of the possible link between Fort McClellan and veterans' illnesses soon after he was elected in 2008. Last month he told the House committee that further investigation led to hearing from "hundreds of America's service veterans from all over the country who had served at Fort McClellan and later experienced often-devastating health issues consistent with PCB and other forms of toxic exposure," which is why he considers this "a national problem" and not one limited to Calhoun County.

The veterans who've spoken to Tonko and his staff say they suffer from forms of cancer, fibromyalgia, diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and reproductive, neurological and autoimmune issues, he said.

On Capitol Hill, Tonko's legislation is part of larger congressional efforts this spring to force the VA to care for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals. Bills filed by U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., target veterans whose illnesses are linked to hazardous-waste "burn pits" during deployment.

Comedian Jon Stewart, who spoke last week on behalf of Takano and Tester's bills, told The Washington Post that the veterans "who volunteered to fight in these wars are now fighting their own government," and that the VA has built a system "that delays people and denies people."

In 1999, Fort McClellan's main post closure essentially handed Calhoun County thousands of environmentally dirty areas: unexploded ordnance had to be removed; ground water and landfills had to be tested for contaminants; older buildings had to be remediated for asbestos. Also needing remediation were the various CBR training sites.

An assortment of agencies and authorities — the McClellan Development Authority, the Department of Defense, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the Environmental Protection Agency — consider most of the former post safe for public use. The unexploded ordnance has been removed, except for that within the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge along Bains Gap Road. The MDA has demolished hundreds of unused buildings. The Alabama Department of Transportation even recently opened Iron Mountain Road extension, which was built near several "legacy" landfills of construction and household debris that an MDA official said are being monitored and pose no danger to motorists.

The former post, rebranded as "McClellan," is home to several thousand employees at light industries, schools and universities and features residential neighborhoods, assisted-living facilities and Anniston's largest recreational facilities. A developer has recently inquired about buying 30 acres on which to build dozens of high-end homes.

None of that made Tonko's prepared remarks before the House committee. Instead, he stated that "Fort McClellan and the neighboring city of Anniston, Alabama, have been designated as one of the most polluted sites in the nation," and repeated the VA's claim that Fort McClellan veterans may have been exposed to elevated levels of PCBs.

Undebatable is environmental pollution's catastrophic effect in western Anniston, site of the city's once-numerous chemical companies, iron works and manufacturing plants. Chief among those were Swann Chemical Co. and Monsanto Chemical Corp., which polluted western neighborhoods with PCBs for more than four decades. The companies settled with thousands of class-action plaintiffs in 2003 for more than $600 million, and large-scale remediation efforts have removed tons of western Anniston soil contaminated by PCBs, lead and other toxins.

Since then, studies have proven the extraordinary levels of PCBs found in western Anniston residents and soil. A study funded by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the Anniston Community Health Survey, found that PCB levels in western Anniston "were about three times higher" for Black residents and two times higher for white residents age 40 and older. For now, any medical link between western Anniston pollution and Fort McClellan toxic exposure may be difficult to prove, in part because of the physical distance between the industrial sites and the former post.

Either way, Tonko is seeking what he has for a decade — an investigation into Fort McClellan veterans' health issues and, if a link is substantiated, help from the VA.

"These veterans served, and sacrificed, for us and they have paid a terrible price for it," he told the House committee. "We owe it to them to do better."

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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