By Barbara T. Dreyfuss
In the 1960s, Ernie Rivers taught Navy flight students at
the Pensacola Naval Air Station how to live off the land
if their plane was downed. He was the officer in charge
of the survival unit, overseeing 30 to 35 instructors,
who taught more than 100 men a week how to survive with
only a compass, map, and a hunting knife. Every week groups
of students would camp for three days, using different
sites on Eglin Air Force Base Reservation in Florida.
the winds and clouds were right, Rivers and his men would
watch planes pass overhead, clouds of spray coming from
them. Several times he and his men were sprayed. “I’d
say, ‘At least we don’t have to use bug repellant,’” he
noted, laughing, during an interview. That was a big plus,
they thought, for them as well as Army Rangers who were also
training out in the bayous of the Florida panhandle, where
mosquitoes and other bugs could make life miserable.
and the students thought they were watching the Air Force
spray DDT to kill mosquitoes. What was actually being sprayed,
he said, was Agent Orange. Documents show that gallons of
the defoliants Agent Orange, Agent Purple, and Agent White
were sprayed at Eglin. In fact, according to officials overseeing
the program, the Air Force sprayed a test area on the base
with more dioxin than any similar area in Vietnam. The fact
that Agent Orange was sprayed in Florida for eight years
was not widely known then or even today. Only in the last
several years has the documentation on the spraying been
made publicly available by Alvin Young, an Air Force scientist
for more than 15 years at Eglin. Young oversaw a huge research
project evaluating how massive spraying of Agent Orange at
the Florida air force base affected its soil, water, plants,
fish, and animals.
In Vietnam during the war, a typical mission
disseminated 14.8 kg of Agent Orange per hectare, according
to Young. Most of the Agent Orange in Vietnam was intercepted
by forest canopy, and some of it was destroyed by the sunlight.
But at Eglin, where the spray rate was 876 kg per hectare,
the trees and bushes already had been removed from the spray
area. Young recently wrote that each hectare at Eglin received
at least 1,300 times more dioxin than a hectare sprayed in
Vietnam. The spraying went on from 1962 to 1970. The test
area was three kilometers square.
Eglin was one of several
key military installations involved with Operation Ranch
Hand and posters plastering its buildings made that clear.
Pictures of Smokey the Bear, the unofficial Operation Ranch
Hand mascot, proclaimed, “Only you
can prevent a forest.” Eglin had responsibility for
training the aircrews, fitting aircraft with spray equipment,
and testing the spray systems and spray patterns.
were tested in an area divided into four grids. From June
1962 through June 1970 fixed-wing airplanes, helicopters
or jet aircraft sprayed massive amounts of defoliants on
the area. During that time 75,000 liters of Agent Orange,
61,200 liters of Agent Purple, 15,800 liters of Agent White,
and 16,600 liters of Agent Blue rained onto the base.
were 155,000 kg sprayed of the active ingredients in the
herbicides. The Air Force estimated that the amount of dioxin
sprayed was between 5.6 and eight pounds, an enormous amount
since it is one of the more toxic chemicals, even in minute
amounts. Because of its toxicity, dioxin is generally measured
in parts per trillion.
In the late 1960s, Air Force officials
became concerned about the ramifications of spraying dioxin
in massive amounts stateside. “After
repetitive applications, personnel involved with the test
program expressed concern about potential ecological and
environmental hazards that might be associated with continuance
of these test programs,” Young wrote later in an Air
Force technical report.
Officials overseeing the test program
knew how toxic Agent Orange was but seemed unconcerned, so
long as it was used in Vietnam. James Clary, who worked at
Eglin and helped design the spray system for herbicides,
wrote in a 1988 letter to then-Sen. Tom Daschle: “When
we [military scientists] initiated the herbicide program
in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due
to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware
that the ‘military’ formulation
had a higher dioxin concentration than the ‘civilian’ version
due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture. However,
because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy,’ none
of us were overly concerned.”
But when it started to
be sprayed in enormous quantities on an American base, some
Air Force officials became concerned and wanted to study
the impact of the spraying. Their concern doesn’t seem
to have been motivated only by worry about ecological and
public health issues.
In fact, it seems to have been in part
triggered by worry that the government could be liable for
damages caused by the spraying. Internal Air Force memos
show that the government was being sued by farmers who believed
their crops had been decimated by the spraying. The military
was interested in disproving the farmers’ claims, by
studying if Agent Orange traveled in the air when sprayed
and how it affected area plants and animals.
A memo from an Air Force chemical
engineer in June 1968 explained that personnel were investigating
a neutron activation tracer to see if it could determine
whether defoliants traveled when sprayed and, if so, where
they went. “The Air
Force is vitally concerned with potential hazards to local flora, fauna, and
marine life, both on and off the Eglin Reservation that might be created by defoliant
testing,” he wrote. “This concern is primarily the result of pending
legal action against the government by cotton farmers of a surrounding county
claiming damage to their cotton fields due to previous defoliant testing at Eglin.”
study the ramifications of the spraying, the Air Force in
1968 created a research unit at Eglin of more than a dozen
Air University graduates with doctorates in such areas as
chemistry, microbiology, plant science, and zoology. They
worked for at least four years, and six of the scientists,
including Alvin Young who became lead investigator, stayed
at Eglin for the entire 15 years of the study.
In what would
be considered a conflict of interest today, they were assisted
by contractors from Dow Chemical Company, one of the manufacturers
of the herbicides. Dow, which was ultimately sued over Agent
Orange, had a significant stake in whether or not the chemicals
were found to cause serious harm to plants, animals, or people.
A U.S. Air Force Academy research director asked that scientists
be brought from Dow, claiming they were the “best qualified
to recognize and access the ecological effects caused by
The first study of the impact of Agent
Orange at Eglin began in late summer of 1969, when six five-foot
cores of dirt were randomly taken from the test area. They
indicated “significant concentrations of herbicides” and
scientists found toxins leaching up to three feet into the
soil,” Young wrote. In
1974, “relatively high” levels of dioxin, 1,500
parts per trillion, were found in the test area.
survey, conducted from 1973 to 1978, found dioxin in nine
animal species on the reservation, including mice, rats,
three types of birds, and three types of fish. Spiders, crickets,
and grubs also tested positive. In the fifteen years of study
at Eglin, dioxin was found in about one-third of the different
species studied. The levels of the toxin were about the same
as that found at the time in the soil.
In 1984, fourteen years
after Agent Orange was last sprayed at Eglin, Young’s
team concluded that about one percent of the dioxin remained
on the test area. While some of it was destroyed by sunlight,
Young acknowledged that “wind
and water erosion” also led to its disappearance from
the site, but he did not study where it might have traveled
to in the surrounding area.
The spray area was not the only
place at Eglin affected by the herbicides. There were storage,
disposal, and loading sites as well, and the Air Force concluded
in 1992 there were nine locations associated with Agent Orange
at the base, in addition to the spray areas. These included
the Mullet Creek Drum Disposal Site, the Hardstand 7 disposal
area, Receiver Landfill, Upper Memorial Lake, three sites
at Lower Memorial Lake and Field No. 2 Drum Disposal, and
Field No. 2 Helicopter Loading Area.
Mullet Creek Drum Disposal
Site had more than 660 drums in it when the Air Force removed
them in 1988. And 120 cubic yards of debris also were taken
Another disposal site, Upper Memorial Lake Landfill, which
is about half a mile from the Eglin Main Base residential
area next to Upper Memorial Lake, and a quarter mile south
of the runways, had an estimated 150 drums used for herbicides
On the west side of the north-south runway was
another disposal site, Hardstand 7, which also was a 40-meter
circular concrete and asphalt aircraft parking and loading
area. It included a 15-foot-deep pit near the center of the
concrete pad where herbicide drums were stored and transferred
to aircraft. In 1980, dioxin-contaminated soil was removed
from Hardstand 7 and temporarily stored at the Receiver Area
Landfill, and then was spread over the spray area. At least
as late as 1992, the Air Force found contamination at the
Upper Memorial Lake Landfill and at the Hardstand 7 site.
additional 260 feet of contaminated soil also was stored,
briefly, at Hardfill 01. And there was an alternate Agent
Orange loading area at Hardstand 8. In addition, helicopters
were loaded with herbicides at Field No. 2.
Eglin Air Force
Base is huge and largely undeveloped, and the test and storage
areas are in a rural area in the southeast section of the
reservation, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. Creeks
flow through the area, ponds are nearby, residential areas
abut some of the sites. The area is about three miles north
of Choctawhatchee Bay and eight miles east of Niceville,
Eglin Main Base employs about 15,000 workers today
and the airfield an additional 6,000. Much of the base is
open to the general public for recreation. Ponds near the
disposal and spray areas drain into creeks that flow into
nearby bayous. Mullet, Trout, and Basin Creek receive runoff
surface water from the test area and disposal sites and drain
into Choctawhatchee Bay.
For many years, the Air Force did
little to contain wind and water erosion of the contaminated
sites. A 1981 memo advised Eglin’s commanding general
that he only had to follow “minimal recommendations” to
prevent erosion, even in the southern half of the spray areas,
which was particularly susceptible to erosion. He was advised
mainly to limit off-road vehicles.
“I feel that when
these minimal recommendations are placed into effect, the
Air Force will have made a significant and prudent move toward
preventing the unwanted future movement of TCCD-contaminated
soil, particularly the movement toward Choctawhatchee Bay,” Major
General John Ord, then commander of the Air Force Systems
Command’s Aerospace Medical Division at Brooks Air
Force Base, wrote.
But in fact, dioxin traveled into ponds
and streams, was carried by the wind, was absorbed by fish,
and found its way into areas used for recreational fishing
and swimming. In 1978, Young’s group studied dioxin
levels at Hardstand 7 and found concentrations as high as
275 parts per billion and contamination up to a third of
that down into the dirt one meter deep. They found it had
migrated as far downstream as Tom’s Pond, concluding
that much of the contamination occurred before a dike was
built. Still, it took until 1985 for the site to be closed
off with a chain-link fence and locked gates, and signs posted
to prevent trespassing and fishing.
And it took four more
years after the Air Force’s 1992 assessment that
there was still contamination at the site for efforts at
embankment stabilization, drum excavation, and drain pit
excavation. In 2001, the Air Force installed three erosion
control structures to reduce erosion around the hardstand
and to minimize storm water run-off into Hardstand Pond.
In addition, an asphalt cap was installed over contaminated
areas of Handstand 7, and the existing storm water pipe was
checked for blockage.
Similarly, at Upper Memorial Lake Landfill,
soil samples taken in 1992 indicated trace levels of dioxin.
The next year Eglin officials collected eight soil samples
at the lake itself and found evidence of dioxin in it, as
well as in fish caught there. But it was not until 1998 that
erosion control and other actions were taken.
from the spray areas and drum disposal site flows into Mullet,
Trout, and Basin Creeks, which flow into Choctawhatchee Bay,
the Air Force tested for dioxins, furans, and other contaminants
in the creeks in the 1990s and found them in the surface
water, sediment, and fish.
By 1998 enough concern had been
raised about the health impact of the Agent Orange spraying
and disposal sites that the Agency for Toxic Substances and
Disease Registry agreed to do a public-health assessment
of Eglin Air Force Base. They concluded, in a report released
in 2003, that although there were contaminated land and water
areas in the Eglin spray areas, the amount of contamination
was very low and the use of the areas by the public was so
low, there was little danger posed to the public.
the study didn’t assess was the health risk to the
Air Force personnel who flew the planes or loaded the drums
onto them, or stored them at the disposal site, or later
removed them. And it didn’t look at whether
any of Ernie Rivers’ flight students or the Army Rangers,
who were living off the land, drinking its rivers, and sleeping
on earth dampened by Agent Orange were put at risk.