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Orange County

The red X shows the site of the old burn pit at the now closed Tustin Marine Corps Air Station. 350,000 gallons of jet fuel and other liquids were ignited and then extinguished with toxic foam containing PFAS on the banks of the Peters Canyon Channel, shown in blue.

Orange County, California water districts are considering a massive lawsuit over PFAS contamination of the water supply, although they’re not likely to target the largest polluter - the US military. Instead, they’ll probably go after 3M and DuPont and a handful of other companies that manufacture PFAS products. The municipal water folks, who have been serving PFAS-tainted water to the public for years, are now faced with a $1 billion clean-up bill and they are looking for someone to pay for it.

The municipal water folks, who have been serving PFAS-tainted water to the public for years, are now faced with a $1 billion clean-up bill and they are looking for someone to pay for it.

In any case, suing the Department of Defense for damages is a dead end. The feds will simply file a claim of sovereign immunity, meaning they reserve the right to poison municipal water systems and there’s nothing county residents and the water utilities can do about it. So, it is understandable why California water service providers are going after the manufacturers - rather than the largest polluter. Without a successful lawsuit, people will see their household water bills increase dramatically!

The chemicals are known to contribute to testicular, liver, breast, and kidney cancers, as well as a host of childhood diseases and abnormalities in the developing fetus. PFAS are bio-accumulative and they don’t break down, hence their label: “forever chemicals.”

71 of the 195 wells in Orange County’s primary groundwater basin will likely be forced to close by the end of this year due to new regulations that lower the allowable threshold for PFOS and PFOA, (two types of PFAS) in drinking water.

California now limits drinking water to 40 ppt for PFOS and 10 ppt for PFOA. If water exceeds either threshold, the source must be either shut down or treated. The EPA has established a weak lifetime health advisory (LHA) of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA combined. An LHA refers to a concentration that is not expected to cause adverse health effects over a lifetime of consistent daily exposure at that level. Some states, like Vermont, have established a standard for a combination of PFAS chemicals. The sum of five PFAS - PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, PFHpA and PFNA may not exceed 20 parts per trillion in the Green Mountain State. Meanwhile, public health officials warn people not to consume water containing more than 1 ppt of any type of PFAS per day.

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“PFAS” is an abbreviation for per- and poly fluoroalkyl substances, which are toxic chemicals used in a host of products like Scotchguard and Teflon. PFAS is contained in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) used in firefighting foam by military and civilian firefighters.

The DOD, a heavy user of PFAS in Orange County, has not been mentioned as a possible co-defendant in press reports. More than a dozen local news sources and magazines have reported on Orange County’s PFAS-contaminated water without mentioning the military.

The role of the military in PFAS contamination in Orange County

Last year, California tested 568 municipal wells, mostly in areas distant from military installations. PFAS were found in 308 of the 568 wells tested. (61%) The average well contained 33.85 ppt of various types of PFAS.

51% of the contamination was caused by either PFOS or PFOA, while the remaining 49% were from other varieties of PFAS. See the California water data here.

Orange County’s Tustin Marine Corps Air Station has contaminated one well with 770,000 ppt of PFOS/PFOA. The DOD data from Tustin, a base that closed in 1999, only includes information on two types of PFAS chemicals - PFOS and PFOA. If the roughly 50-50 split between PFOS/PFOA and other PFAS contaminants found in 308 wells tested throughout the state is any indication, Tustin may be responsible for PFAS contamination at levels above 1.5 million ppt, making it one of the most severely contaminated areas anywhere in the world.

People who drink from private wells within several miles of the base, especially south and west, where the groundwater flows, should be especially cautious. Health professionals warn the public not to consume more than 1 ppt of PFAS per day. Much of the PFAS moves off base via the Peters Canyon Channel that traverses the county. Motorists in California are accustomed to seeing these open-concrete water carriers like the Peters Canyon Channel that are sometimes barely a stinking trickle and other times, a raging flash of poisoned brown water.

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Three other military bases have also contributed to the PFAS contamination of the county’s fragile environment, although the DOD has not divulged the true extent of all PFAS contaminants in groundwater, surface water, drinking water, or the soil.

The El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine was also shut down in 1999, leaving a toxic legacy of perpetually contaminated groundwater. Wells were found to contain 3,826 ppt of PFOS/PFOA. Although we don’t know the breakdown between the two substances, this is substantially above California’s limit of 40 ppt for PFOS and 10 ppt for PFOA.

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The Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base was recently found to have PFAS contamination detected at 790.5 parts per trillion (ppt) in tests of drinking water.
Seven dangerous toxins of the PFAS family of over 5,000 chemicals were found in the water: PFBS, PFBA, PFHxS, PFHxA, PFOS, PFOA and PFPeA. The Orange County Register was amazed to discover just how contaminated the Los Alamitos site is. The paper reported in October, 2019:

 “PFAS have been in the news a lot lately, most recently this Los Alamitos-Seal Beach Patch story on how the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos just made a list of 90 military bases nationwide to have significant PFAS contamination (mostly from firefighting foam). Okay, it didn’t just make the list–according to this Military Times story from last month, it nearly came out on top.”

The US Naval Weapons Station - Seal Beach  was also found to have dangerous levels of the toxic chemicals. 135 ppt of PFOS/PFOA were found in the drinking water at Seal Beach, which received its water from contaminated wells from the Eastern Municipal Water District. Eastern has taken the poisoned well off-line.

Navy disclosed that Eastern was working with March Air Reserve Base, the source of the contamination in heavily contaminated Riverside County, to determine clean-up requirements, according to a DOD report on PFAS in 2018.

The scene of the crime at Moffett Drive and Jamboree Road in Tustin.

The scene of the crime at Moffett Drive and Jamboree Road in Tustin.

Although the press has generally stayed away from implicating the military in Orange County’s severe PFAS contamination, the public is not entirely out of the loop. The Orange County Register ran a Public Notice on October 5, 2017 announcing a scheduled Restoration Advisory Board Meeting. The Navy uses these dog and pony identify and muzzle community resistance. (See the notice below)

If the hundreds of communities across the country facing similar levels of contamination caused by the various branches of the military began including the DOD as a defendant, perhaps Congress would get the message and act to reign in the reckless behavior of the military and provide funding to clean up the poisons.

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Pat Eder

Pat Elder is an investigative reporter for Civilian Exposure. Pat’s work also appears at

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