Documents expose military's role in dump site near Patrick Air Force Base

Military researchers unearth 70-odd-year-old documents

As people were getting sick and desperate, the military was adamant: They never owned, leased or used an old dump site just south of Patrick Air Force Base.

Now, 28 years later, the Department of Defense has reversed its long-standing position and admits its forces are responsible for whatever military waste might be buried there, News 6 partner Florida Today reported. This about-face is because military researchers recently unearthed some 70-odd-year-old documents seemingly out of nowhere.

The letters and memos were buried among 150 boxes in several national archives. Their discovery has proved to be the key in getting Washington to take responsibility and ultimately, depending on what's unearthed, clean up a long-buried — many fear toxic — military mess just south of Patrick Air Force Base.

The documents led to a major breakthrough on Aug. 24, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers formally made 32 acres south of Patrick — called the Naval Air Station Banana River Off-Base Disposal Area — eligible for the Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) Program. That now opens the door for federal funding to clean up military waste found there.

The decision comes after decades of public fears that buried chemicals and other military waste just beyond Patrick's borders have been contributing to local outbreaks of cancer, ALS and other deadly diseases.

Corps officials say they failed to find these key documents in the early 1990s when public concern led to federal hearings but were able this time around because of an elite research team in St. Louis with expertise the military lacked during the first investigation. 

Some who championed cleaning up off-base waste in the 1990s remain skeptical.

"I just don't know what the heck they think they can do," said Lee Phelps, 65, of Satellite Beach.

Phelps, along with his wife, Jill, pushed hard three decades ago for federal cleanup of the area. Now Jill is deathly ill, Phelps says, from a debilitating neurological disorder, which doctors can't say if buried chemicals caused. But even with the potentially good news, Phelps wonders what can really be done.

"What are you going to do, lift all the houses up, drain the aquifer?" he asks.

Corps staff will begin visiting homes in South Patrick Shores as early as Monday. It's the start of what will likely be a long, arduous processes to figure out what might be buried, where, and whether or how to clean it up. They'll interview homeowners about what they've found in their yards over the years, or suspect, then proceed from there.

The first step in FUDs eligibility is to confirm that the military "owned, leased, or otherwise possessed the land prior to October 17, 1986," Corps officials said.

Confirming eligibility is difficult when no written agreement is found, such as in South Patrick Shore's case, Corps officials said. Confirmation eligibility then relies on finding other non-real estate records typically found within National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facilities. 

"This site is unique compared to other sites we've worked, because it's not located on a former military installation nor is it a former range or a target area," said Frank Araico, project manager for the Corps. "We need to understand the site before we start talking cleanup. We need to understand what might be there."

Araico also managed the almost-complete cleanup of the former Fort Pierce Naval Amphibious Training Base, where soldiers trained for D-Day. 

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has designated an area south of Patrick Air Force Base as part of the Corps' Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) program, putting the area in line for federal environmental cleanups, which would depend on Congress to fund.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has designated an area south of Patrick Air Force Base as part of the Corps' Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) program, putting the area in line for federal environmental cleanups, which would depend on Congress to fund. (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The Corps' long journey here came three decades after the federal agency concluded the military had no responsibility for any waste dumped just south of the base's borders. They could find no document proving as much.

Fast forward to 2018, after Dr. Julie Greenwalt, a Jacksonville oncologist, cancer survivor and Satellite High School grad began noticing what seemed like an unusual number of her fellow SHS grads were getting cancer, many before the ageof 40. She compiled 20 cases, mostly young women, and that quickly grew to more than 40 cases. Eventually, activists gathered hundreds more cancer cases near the base, spanning decades. Greenwalt's and others' efforts resulted in environmental activist Erin Brockovich holding a community meeting in Satellite Beach last year.

After prodding from concerned residents, anda series of articles in FLORIDA TODAY, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection convinced the Corps to reconsider the area just south of Patrick for the FUDS federal cleanup program. The Corps began reevaluating past military activities in the area.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has just included South Patrick Shores in its environmental cleanup program of Formerly Used Defense Sites, making the area eligible for federal money to remove buried military waste.

But what ultimately made the landmark decision happen was newly discovered documents, unearthed by an expert Corps elite research team in St. Louis. The documents they dredged from a vast ocean of files spread amonghundreds of boxes in several national archives were mostly correspondence, letters and memos associated with the property owner seeking compensation from the Navy as it was deactivating the base in the 1940s.

It's unusual for the military to conduct regular operations on land without owning it or, at least, having written agreement with the owner, Corps officials said. But the Navy never bought or formerly leased the Off-Base Disposal Area south of Patrick, relying instead on a verbal agreement with the property owner's representative, allowing the Navy to use the area for disposal in the years surrounding World War II.

As America entered the war, pilots flew anti-submarine patrols from the base, searching the coast for German U-boats. In 1942, the Navy started up a photographic laboratory and a submarine school at the base, which also would be home to a search-and-rescue blimp squadron.

According to key documents the Corps team just found: 

  • The base operated a 25-acre "dump and destroy" area, between Ocean Boulevard to the north, Clairbourne Avenue to the South, Pelican Drive to the west and Highway A1A to the east. 
  • Beginning in 1942, a newly assigned Public Works Officer found out the Navy had not negotiated with the owner or real estate agent about the use of the property. So he contacted Gus C. Edwards, the Cocoa real estate agent representing the property owner, to ask for permission. "I see no reason why there can be any objection to this," Edwards reportedly stated on Oct. 15, 1942. 
  • According to the Public Works Officer, "the restoration of the privately owned dump property became a matter of major concern as literally anything and everything had been dumped in the area in violation of the conditional consent of Mr. Edwards which restricted dumping to burnable materials only." They burned and buried rubble, trash and other items to a depth of eight to 10 feet and covering it with six feet of soil, then bulldozed over it. 
  • The Navy transferred the base to the Air Force in the summer of 1948, and on Aug. 1, 1950 it was renamed Patrick Air Force Base.

NARA is an independent federal agency that preserves and documents government and historical records. There are archives locations in 17 states, and 16 federal records centers.  

"The size and scope of NARA makes locating records more challenging than one might expect," Corps officials said in an emailed response to FLORIDA TODAY's questions.

NARA plans to digitize 500 million pages of records by October of 2024. But that would still leave billions of pages not digitized.

"It is a challenge to search historical records of interest to the FUDS program, as they are not in general demand beyond the FUDS program," Corps officials said. "For example, while the D-Day and later World War II records of the 101st Airborne Division ("Screaming Eagles") are of high interest, the real estate records associated with the Camp Toccoa FUDS and Currahee Mountain where some of the 101st Division regiments trained, are not." 

Unfortunately, and tragically, the expert team of archive investigators didn't come onto the scene until around the time the last South Patrick Shores investigation already was wrapping up.Since 1992, the Corps' Research and Technical Services Section of the agency's St. Louis District has specialized in locating historical records for the FUDS program. 

"The Corps did not possess this expertise in 1991," Corps officials.

That was the year Congressman Jim Bacchus convened hearings in Brevard to look at a series of complaints from residents that something in or near the base was making them sick.

During World War II, Patrick Air Force Base was called Naval Air Station Banana River. Residents nearby long have feared military waste buried beyond the base's borders.
During World War II, Patrick Air Force Base was called Naval Air Station Banana River. Residents nearby long have feared military waste buried beyond the base's borders. (Photo: Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Dale Ketcham, a vice president at Space Florida, helped organize the public hearings when he was the local legislative director for Congressman Jim Bacchus. More than 450 residents from South Patrick Shores turned up for a town hall that spilled over from Sea Park Elementary to Satellite High School. Some sobbed in frustration.

"There were a lot or heated emotions," Ketcham said. "They were very animated public hearings."

Health concerns included Hodgkin's Disease, cancer rates and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a degenerative disease of nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. 

"A lot of energy went into that, and it will certainly be unfortunate if it turns out that a piece of paper timely produced back then could have resulted in a better outcome for people, had we known at that time," Ketcham said.

The Corps' Research and Technical Services team primarily conducted their hunt for documents at NARA facilities in metropolitan Washington, DC and Atlanta. 

They poured over paper, photo and microfilmed documents in boxes housed in several record repositories and warehouses, examining more than 150 boxes, multiple rolls of microfilm, and scores of maps. 

The records where the Corps' researchers found some of the most relevant material were within the NARA holdings, specifically Naval property case files, from 1941 to 1958 which contains over 1,500 boxes or 667 linear feet of records. The Navy transferred those records to NARA in 1989 from a separate naval records holding facility, and NARA eventually transferred them to the National Archives at College Park in Maryland.

The Corps team found more material within the 790 box series of records of the Bureau of Naval Aeronautics, unclassified general correspondence between 1948 to 1949. Box number 434 contained correspondence for Naval Air Station Banana River.

NARA retains the original, paper records and they are open to the public to review. The materials used to document the "otherwise possessed by" eligibility are posted on the Corps' website.

"We are now focused on moving forward with the Preliminary Assessment to evaluate if further investigations are warranted. If so, the Corps will request approval for a project," Corps officials said via email. "Subject to project approval and funding, the Corps will initiate a Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study."

Sandra Sullivan, a local environmental activist who recently dug up a rusty practice bomb, a transformer, and other waste in her yard off Dorset Lane, doesn't buy the military's excuses.

"It is my belief that the ineligibility of 1991 was a political decision in consideration of the concerns of liability at the time for the Hodgkin's cases," Sullivan said via email. "They can't excuse away the 1991 decision for not having these records," she said, adding: "It was very evident from the roads and drainage channel from disposal sites on Banana River Naval Air Station, that these lands were 'otherwise possessed.'"

Ketcham is more forgiving of what he sees as good-faith efforts at the time.

"Obviously, if there is documentation that could have and should have been available back then, that's disconcerting," Ketcham said.

"At the end of the day, you can flog (federal agencies) until you're blue in the face. Until you have a piece of paper, that's hearsay," he added. "Let's hope that their efforts result in prevention of illness for many in the future, both here and elsewhere around the country."