Army ‘Dragged Its Feet’ On Toxic Vapor Testing Near Fort Gillem

One of the signs placed near several streams close to Fort Gillem
One of the signs placed near several streams close to Fort Gillem
Credit Michelle Wirth / WABE

Earlier this year, the Army discovered toxic vapor in several homes near Fort Gillem. The former Army base is in Clayton County. It used to serve as a maintenance facility, and hazardous chemicals were routinely buried on its grounds. Now there’s a debate about whether the Army is to blame for the unhealthy air.

Chad Partin plays in his living room with his wife and young son. He lives in a newer two-story home about a mile from Fort Gillem. Partin and his wife thought they’d found the perfect house when they purchased it five years ago. But then, Partin got a flier on his door. The Army wanted to test Partin’s home for chemicals in the air which could be potentially hazardous to human health. That’s when Partin became worried.

“We don’t feel safe here. I have a four-year-old son. I’m concerned everyday of him sleeping here and what kind of things it’s doing to his body. My wife has constant headaches. My dog has a growth on the side of her head. Those may not be anything attributed to this kind of this stuff, but who knows.”

After finding out about the potential contamination nine months ago, Partin’s wife and son started staying with family members in Newnan four days a week.

“I don’t get to see them at all, and that’s stressful.”

Partin’s home was eventually tested and the Army told him his home was safe. But he also got a letter from Georgia environmental officials saying there were hazardous chemicals. Now, Partin is unsure he’ll ever be able to sell his home or get any of the equity he’s put into it.

“Even if my home is safe, the outlying area isn’t, other homes aren’t. The creek behind our house is contaminated, so the whole stigma on the area and the home is already there.”

State environmental officials thought several streams and creeks near Partin’s home posed enough of problem that they convinced the Army to put up signs to warn residents. But the Army says residents shouldn’t be alarmed because the level of contaminants is low. That said, Army officials say residents probably shouldn’t drink the water in those streams.

From the 1940s through the 1970s, it was still legal to bury things like medical supplies, pesticides and chemicals at Fort Gillem. And eventually some of those chemicals seeped into ground and surface water.

In October, the Army held an open house at a local city hall. Contractors showed the results of air quality tests to residents and asked others to sign up for future sampling. Residents could view maps of the testing area and got fliers with explanations about hazardous chemicals.

Some felt they got their questions answered, but others say the information was confusing.

Dana Lemon owns a nearby funeral home, which hasn’t been tested. She says, “It’s just one of those situations where there is just so much technical information, we’re not really sure what the implications are for our building.” 

And this point she says, “We don’t know whether we should be concerned or not.”

Tom Lederle is the Army’s division chief for Base Realignment and Closure.He spoke to me from the Pentagon. Lederle says the Army tested 69 properties this year, and in most of them the Army didn’t find a connection between the chemicals in the ground water and the toxic vapor entering homes. Lederle says the Army is finding higher levels of certain chemicals in those properties than in the groundwater.

“That indicates that maybe there is another source.”

So what does he think those sources are? Lederle says, “Some of these chemicals are associated with household cleaners, other products, solvents, paints and things like that.”

But Lederle says the Army will clean up the contamination if further testing shows it’s responsible.

“The residents I spoke with, I told them if it’s an Army problem we’ll help fix it.”

Lederle says the Army has been cleaning up Fort Gillem and surrounding areas for decades.

He says those efforts include a previous air quality study within some nearby homes. An environmental survey obtained by WABE says the Army knew as early as 1982 that contaminants were seeping into water outside Fort Gillem. And 10 years ago, a report by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said the potential for hazardous chemicals within homes near the Fort may exist.

The agency urged the Army to inform residents and conduct air quality testing inside houses. Lederle says he’s unaware of the report. He took over the Fort Gillem project three years ago.

“Since I inherited it, we’ve been moving just as fast as we can to get this done.”

But some environmental experts think the Army could have acted sooner.

“Why did it take ten years? That’s my question. I thought when I left the project was on track and residents were going to get relief. ”

Ralph Arcangeli was a project manager for a company contracting with the Army Corps of Engineers on the Fort Gillem project between 1999 to 2003.  Arcangeli says he and others performed soil gas testing near homes which found trichloroethylene. That’s a solvent that can cause liver and kidney problems with long-term exposure. And he says that should have triggered air quality testing in homes.

But he says to the best of his knowledge, that didn’t happen until this year.

“The Army has done a lot of work at Fort Gillem, but when it came to evaluating offsite issues, they were very slow in that execution.”

For years, the Army has been working voluntarily with state environmental officials. And Bert Langley with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division says that’s made the cleanup process harder. Langley is the director of compliance for the Division.

“The difficulty with any voluntary process in this arena is that when two groups, us and the Army, disagree, there is not, for want of a better word, a referee as in a court system that can make a decision.” 

Langley says about 70 percent of the properties tested have levels that are unsafe for human health. He says state officials believe the Army is responsible.

“We’re seeing some levels of contamination in basements and below slabs that would lead us to think it came from the actual groundwater contaminant plume as opposed to what people have in their homes.” 

He also thinks the testing the Army is currently doing could have been done sooner.

“If they had committed to doing the work, they could have moved forward five years ago, maybe even further back than that.”Langley says the chemicals that have been discovered in residents’ homes are fine if they’re only exposed to them temporarily.

But he says long-term exposure could be a problem.

“Long-term effects can be kidney issues, liver issues. Not anything likely in cancers, but some of these chemicals have some potential to be cancer causing.”

Langley says earlier this year, the Army agreed it would quickly install air ventilation systems within homes that tested positive for toxic vapor. But Army officials say it was never part of the official work plan for the site.

In September, the EPA issued an order to require the Army to move quicker to take corrective measures for homes with hazardous chemicals. But after meeting with the Army, EPA officials are still determining whether the order needs to be followed. In the meantime, the Army has agreed to install an air ventilation system in a local daycare center.

Some residents aren’t waiting to find out if the Army will do the same for them. The home Susan Martin-Morgan was renting tested positive for toxic vapor this past summer. And this was her shortly after the testing was conducted.

“Concerned about me having my Down syndrome brother-in-law, grandbaby, and my pregnant daughter here again. I’m very concerned about the water and the air that we’re breathing.”

Martin-Morgan also has health issues, which she said could be related to the toxic air.

“Sometimes I feel like I just can’t breathe at night.”

But the Army recently told Martin-Morgan its initial testing doesn’t show the military is to blame for the toxic vapor within her home. Martin-Morgan doesn’t think that’s the case. And because she was worried for health, she packed up all of her belongings and moved out of her home.