Shirley Howell has lived in the shadow of McClellan Air Force Base since 1956, when her husband, Bill, started working there for $1.79 an hour and she began raising a family.
Today, Howell, now 81, can tick off the health tragedies her family has faced since they moved into the North Highlands neighborhood:
She lost an infant who doctors told her died of sudden infant death syndrome in 1964; her husband was diagnosed with leukemia and died in 2012; her oldest son, Norris, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1986 and died three years ago; her son Gregory, 52, developed multiple sclerosis and is now confined to a wheelchair; her daughter, Robin, was diagnosed with MS after that and cannot care for herself; and her great-grandson, Dalton, died at 19 months after being born with deformities and heart problems.
Howell doesn’t know for certain what has caused all of her family’s health issues, but like many other residents of North Highlands and Rio Linda, she has strong suspicions.
“You read it all the time, about how McClellan has tried to cover it up and everything, about all the toxins out there,” she said. “And so that led me to believe for years that’s what it was.”
The Air Force has consistently denied that toxins have escaped the base boundaries and contaminated drinking water supplies, but a series of new lawsuits by two area water districts seeking $1.4 billion in damages has renewed concerns among some who spent years drinking water from area pipes and wells.
Some residents now refuse to drink or cook with water piped into their homes. They can recite a litany of ailments, deaths of pets and stories about neighbors developing cancers they believe may have come from decades of pollution by the base, which operated from 1936 through 2001 and has since been turned into a business park.
“They’re saying they’ve cleaned it up or it wasn’t their fault,” said Anna Marie Tomlinson, a Rio Linda resident since 1990 who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 and since has embarked on a mission to catalog all cancers among area residents. “But they have a Superfund site, and when you have a Superfund, yes, you’ve caused damage.”
The Air Force says it won’t discuss pending litigation. The two water districts that are suing – Rio Linda-Elverta and Sacramento Suburban – say their water is safe to drink because they have removed contaminated wells from service and are constantly treating water for potential problems.
The two districts have filed a series of federal lawsuits blaming the Air Force for elevated levels of the cancer-causing toxin chromium 6 in their water supplies. Both are seeking payment for what they say will be a massive need for new wells and equipment to ensure their water is safe.
A study in 2015 by the Rio Linda-Elverta district found chromium levels in six of 11 wells exceeded the state’s standard of 10 parts per billion, and also found that the amounts were higher in wells closer to the base boundaries. Sacramento Suburban staffers also informed their board members in 2015 that chromium levels exceeded or were close to exceeding the state standard.
That standard was tossed out by a court ruling earlier this month, but Victor Sher, the attorney for the districts, said that ruling will not affect the lawsuits, which target the Air Force and 10 conglomerates that allegedly provided chrome-plating chemicals and other materials to McClellan that the suits blame for contaminating the water supply.
Despite assurances from the districts that they are providing only safe drinking water to their nearly 200,000 customers, the lawsuits and news of chromium being detected in the groundwater have renewed fears that some have expressed for decades, as investigations found McClellan used countless toxins in its operations and stored some in unlined pits or barrels and tanks that are suspected of later leaking.
The base was declared a Superfund site in 1987 after 326 areas were identified for cleanup.
“I know I did not put the chromium 6 or any other contaminant in my water,” said Tomlinson, who won’t drink or cook with the water and said she uses bottled water for her dog, Dewey, too. She contends that bad water killed three of her previous dogs and a cat.
“I don’t think the Rio Linda water district has put the chromium 6 in the water. But I believe McClellan did, because they had chrome plating shops out there,” she said.
Some say such notions are misguided.
“This has been going on for decades and decades, the constant hype from these people, the anecdotal stories,” said Frank Miller, who was the base bio-environmental engineer in the early 1980s. “All the anecdotal stories are useless. I want to see the evidence, and there is no evidence.”
Miller says there is no doubt that contaminants spilled into the soil within the base boundaries, and says he helped expose those problems and Air Force efforts to keep them quiet. But he maintains it is physically impossible for the toxins to have traveled east to Suburban Water’s service area and west toward Rio Linda.
“One thing about this is uncontestable, the groundwater flows across McClellan to the southwest,” Miller said. “That’s irrefutable. It’s not going to where they say it is, this chromium. It’s like trying to refute gravity.”
Miller and others have also noted over the years that chromium is a naturally occurring substance that flows down out of the Sierra Nevada.
“What they’re saying is impossible, but what is possible is that they’re going after the deep pockets of the hard-working American taxpayer” with lawsuits, Miller said.
Tomlinson says she has heard such retorts for years in community meetings with Air Force and environmental officials and political leaders.
“The most outrageous thing they’re saying is chromium 6 is naturally occurring,” she said. “And, also that we use silverware that’s chrome plated, so that’s how we could be getting chromium 6. I think that’s ridiculous. They must think we’re stupid, and we’re not.”
Some recall working near McClellan at its heyday, when Air Force officials would conduct tours showing their efforts to clean up any problems.
“McClellan made a big point of their adopt-a-school program,” said Rita Wirtz, who was principal of Bell Avenue Elementary School outside the base’s back gate from 1985 until 1992. “They made a very big deal about the cleanup. They showed us where the toxic barrels were kept and how secure they were.”
Wirtz, now 67, said she eventually began developing odd symptoms, falling frequently, and eventually was tested and discovered she had numerous toxins in her body – lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and others.
“How in the hell did I get all these heavy metals in my body?” Wirtz asked. “There’s only one way: McClellan.”