EL TORO — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that it has placed the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station on its Superfund list of toxic waste sites because of contamination in abandoned storage drums, landfills and ground water caused by four decades of dumping by the military.
Federal officials said the base contains several landfills and firefighter training pits where hazardous wastes such as jet fuel and paint thinners may have been dumped in the past. They said there are also abandoned storage drums with low-level radioactive waste, explosives and other scattered deposits of battery acid and fuels.
Officials have also reported a large plume of contaminated ground water that will be addressed under the Superfund program, officials said.
EPA officials say that the waste sites pose no immediate health risk but that "there's potential for a long-term problem," said Virginia Donohue, a spokeswoman from the agency's regional office in San Francisco.
Master Sgt. Steve Merrill, a public affairs spokesman at the El Toro base, said the Marine Corps station is grateful to be on the Superfund list.
"They have a lot of experience in environmental investigation," he said. "They're going to provide a logical and scientific approach to the cleanup efforts."
Because the military base is a federal facility, the Superfund designation will not release additional funds for the cleanups. EPA guidelines prohibit the use of the fund to pay for the cleanup of federally owned sites.
Instead, the cleanup will be paid for by the U.S. Department of Defense. The Superfund designation, however, will increase the priority of the effort for the Defense Department, officials said.
The El Toro base will benefit from the inclusion because "it elevates you above other priorities," Donohue said. "These problems get cleaned up first."
Officials said they did not know how much the cleanup was going to cost. First, they said, an investigation will be conducted to determine the extent of the work that is needed. Donohue said that she did not know how long the investigation will take but that it could be several years.
The EPA identified 14 separate hazardous waste sites on the Marine base that will be included in the Superfund designation for inspection, cleanup and monitoring by federal environmental officials.
The El Toro base already has started some studies on the sites through the Defense Environmental Restoration Account--the Defense Department's special environmental cleanup fund, Merrill said.
One of the problems to be investigated is the contaminated ground water that has been found below the base and in portions of Irvine. Officials said they have found that the ground water contains trichloroethylene, or TCE, a cancer-causing degreasing agent. TCE was used by the military until the late 1970s to clean jet fighter and helicopter engines.
So far, the contamination has not reached public wells and poses no immediate threat, said James Van Hahn, a spokesman for the Orange County Water District.
The Water District has reported the existence of a large plume of contaminated ground water nearly three miles long and a half-mile wide, stretching from the El Toro base to a point halfway between Jeffrey Road and Culver Drive, in the Woodbridge area of Irvine.
The Marine Corps, in its own study, contends that the area is smaller and scattered, Van Hahn said.
The military also has not accepted full responsibility for all of the ground water contamination that has been found. Local officials said Thursday they are hopeful that the investigation conducted as a result of the Superfund designation will assign responsibility for the cleanup.
The Marine base has already installed a treatment system to remove TCE from the ground water. The water district and the city of Irvine started removing some of the contaminated water last year. Van Hahn said that the process could take over five years and that it has already cost over $1 million.
In its announcement Thursday, the EPA added 71 other sites to its Superfund list, including seven others in California.