Bill aims to track veteran exposure to radioactive materials, nerve agents at toxic Alabama base

"Tiger Land" sign at the U.S. Army training facility at Fort McClellan near Anniston, Alabama.
"Tiger Land" sign at the U.S. Army training facility at Fort McClellan near Anniston, Alabama. Photo credit Alabama Department of Archives and History. Photo by Robert Adams/Birmingham News.

A more than 100-year-old Army installation in Alabama is considered a site of potential exposure to radioactive compounds and chemical weapons such as nerve agents and mustard gas. Now, a Congressman has introduced legislation aimed at tracking those exposures.

Fort McClellan opened 1918 and members of the U.S. Army Chemical Corp School, Army Combat Development Command Chemical/Biological/Radiological Agency, Army Military Police School and Women's Army Corps and others may have been exposed to significant hazards while serving at the post, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Those exposures could have included:
- Radioactive compounds such as cesium-137 and cobalt-60 used in decontamination training;
- Chemical weapons such as mustard gas and nerve agents used in decontamination testing;
- Airborne polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the Monsanto plant in the neighboring town.

But there is currently no VA registry to track those exposures, and VA does not recognize any presumed conditions as a result of service at the post. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., reintroduced the Fort McClellan Health Registry Act this week that would establish a registry to track the exposures and long-term health conditions of those veterans.

“The stories I have heard from our veterans who served at Fort McClellan are heartbreakingly painful,” Tonko said. “These selfless patriots put their lives on the line to protect us, our families and our nation. We should never have turned a blind eye to the devastating price they are paying for that service. The fact that they are still being denied VA care for these conditions is a travesty and a betrayal of their loyalty and sacrifice. My (bill) would be a breakthrough for them, taking that vital first step of establishing clear links between toxic exposure during their service there and the health issues that have plagued them ever since. It’s long past time that we deliver on the promises we made for their service, and let these heroes know they are not, and will not be, forgotten.”

Exposures to high levels of the compounds at the post have been shown to cause "a variety of adverse health effects in humans and animals," according to VA. But "there is no evidence exposures of this magnitude have occurred at Fort McClellan.

"There are currently no adverse health conditions associated with service at Fort McClellan," according to VA officials. VA so far does not presume that any health conditions are associated with service at Fort McClellan and does not provide care or benefits for exposures there, despite widespread reports of veterans suffering from a variety of severe health conditions. There is also no environmental health registry associated with service at the post.

"Veterans who are experiencing health issues that they associate with their service while at Fort McClellan should see their primary care provider or local environmental health provider," according to VA.