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thedrifter
04-11-06, 01:01 PM
April 17, 2006
Marines fume over wastewater odor
Some cry foul, others say suck it up

By John Hoellwarth
Times staff writer

Leathernecks at Twentynine Palms, Calif., say the hardest part of their physical fitness test isn’t the pull-ups, crunches or even the three-mile run. It’s doing all of them amid the stench of a 1950s-era wastewater treatment plant Marines call “Lake Bandini.”

Some Marines there talk about having their back soaked in the morning’s “Bandini dew” while doing crunches in the grass.

Others claim they can “practically taste” Lake Bandini’s odor when running the three-mile course. A base spokesman said Lake Bandini can sometimes waft the sewage stench a quarter mile way.


And now the odor of Lake Bandini has caught the attention of state officials, as well as a key U.S. congressman who has promised to do something about it.

Corps officials acknowledge the stench, but say it that is imperceptible at times, and that there is no deadline mandating when the facility must comply with the state order that “objectionable odors originating at this facility shall not be perceivable beyond the limits of the wastewater treatment and disposal area.”

In fact, said combat center spokesman Capt. Chad Walton, Twentynine Palms officials have received no reports of Marines claiming that the smell affects their PFT. But he acknowledged that the course for the three-mile run portion of the test comes to within 300 yards of Lake Bandini.

Gunnery Sgt. Steven Williams, an explosive ordnance disposal Marine stationed at the combat center, wrote to Marine Corps Times describing a persistent, year-round stench that he said he can smell at work and while driving on base. He said it gets even worse in the summer months.

“Some days the smell is worse than others, and some months the smell drifts farther than others, but it smells all of the time,” Williams said.

In response to Marine Corps Times queries, the California water authorities governing the facility asked the base to explain reports that the water treatment plant there was operating in violation of the odor order.

The “lake” is “actually a bunch of distinct ponds with berms in between,” said John Rokke, a water resource control engineer for the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Rokke said his inquiry revealed an incident “two or three weeks ago” in which the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center experienced an off-season warm spell that caused the water at the bottom of the facility to rise to the top, bringing with it decomposing and decaying materials, and the foul smell of hydrogen sulfide, to the surface.

Walton explained Williams’ claim that Lake Bandini’s stench gets worse in the summer by saying that “during the warmer months of the year, the settling ponds dry up, leaving decaying organic matter exposed to the air on the shore of the ponds. The smell of this organic matter can be offensive.”

Knowing why doesn’t help

One way or another, Rokke said, “for a couple days it was really bad there.”

Rokke said the explanation he received “was understandable, though that’s not to say acceptable.”

In an e-mail response to questions, Walton said that “state representatives accepted our explanation and stated they have no further inquiries.”

Walton also referenced instances over the last year in which Lake Bandini “failed a handful of tests for bacteria,” due to the mechanical failure of the facility’s chlorination pump.

The failures occurred on nonconsecutive days, Walton said, and the pump manufacturer has since made repairs that have cut the high bacteria levels.

Though Williams wondered if the smell represents a health concern for the Marines, family members and civilian employees at the combat center, Walton said the air around Lake Bandini has been tested for the presence of hydrogen sulfide by an industrial hygienist and found to be “well below the levels that are detrimental to human health.”

At the very least, the smell from Bandini is a quality of life issue for base personnel, and Williams said he’s concerned it “is being overlooked.”

The barracks closest to the facility is “200 to 300 yards” away, and the Marines who live there belong to various 1st Marine Division units, such as 7th Marines, 1st Tank Battalion and 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Walton said.

According to Cpl. Ronald Choquette, an admin Marine assigned to the combat center’s Headquarters Battalion, Lake Bandini’s stench is not limited to the closest barracks.

“I’ve been at this base for two and a half years, and I’ve noticed Lake Bandini to be a great hindrance on our quality of life, especially in the summer months,” Choquette wrote in a recent letter to Marine Corps Times. “My barracks are at a far enough distance from Bandini where one wouldn’t think that [the smell] would be a problem, but it definitely is. Something with the base sewage system must be done — and hopefully sooner, rather than later.”

“I live, with my family, aboard the combat center,” said Col. Michael Weber, combat center installations and logistics director. “We know as well as any that under certain conditions there is an unpleasant odor perceptible in the vicinity of the water treatment facility. Quality of life for our Marines, sailors and civilians is very important, and we are taking measures to reduce the odor in the short term and making long-term improvements to the facility for the future.”

Walton said these measures include reviewing architectural designs for upgrades to the facility. He said the combat center has already spent $1.2 million on these reviews, and that they are 45 percent complete.

The fiscal year 2007 defense budget proposal includes $2.971 million for Lake Bandini facility improvements that could still get the ax in favor of Ospreys and ammunition.

A $5.8 million plan for upgrades to the combat center’s solid waste facility is on the list of Marine Corps programs that will go unfunded in fiscal 2007, even though “the current facilities are 1950s-era and lack modern environmental/heath protection considerations,” according to the unfunded programs list compiled by the Marine Corps.

Jim Specht, spokesman for Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., who represents Twentynine Palms and chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said Lewis “is extremely aware of the issue at the Marine base.”

Specht said Lewis is the one who secured the money that the combat center is spending on design reviews.

Specht also said Lewis knows the fiscal 2007 defense budget proposal includes more money for Lake Bandini upgrades, and that “he’ll make sure it stays in,” because “he’s extremely proud of the troops and will do whatever he can to support them.”

The California water board order regulating Lake Bandini states that “any noncompliance with this board order constitutes a violation of the Porter-Cologne Water Control Act and is grounds for enforcement action.”

But Rokke said the odor rule “is not something we bend over backward to enforce.”

It’s still unclear what types of penalties, if any, Marine officials could suffer if the problem continues.

Rokke said the board’s charter places an emphasis on water quality, not odors, and that the water board’s more recent orders — the one governing the combat center is from 2002 — include a “nuisance provision” instead of an odor rule.

Under a nuisance provision, odors resulting from Lake Bandini’s “treatment or disposal of waste” would be forbidden from “interfering with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property” for a “neighborhood or considerable number of people.”

“The whole odor thing we’ve gone around and around for years in our office about,” Rokke said.

“It’s tough, because wastewater treatment facilities have some degree of odors at all times. Someone can always smell it, but sometimes odors are an indication that a plant isn’t running properly.”

Ellie