Despite state and federal reports outlining concerns about staffing, equipment and reservoir problems at Camp Pendleton, military officials are telling the troops and their families that the water is safe to drink.
On Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that the Marine Corps had entered into a consent decree designed to shore up deficiencies exposed during a weeklong tour of the sprawling base in late June.
The twin state and EPA inspection reports provided to The San Diego Union-Tribune revealed inspectors found animal carcasses in three reservoirs, an advanced water treatment plant that had been periodically shut down and operators who failed to routinely inspect, maintain and document equipment problems, leading to foundational cracks and inadequate seals in the water treatment system.
During a tour of a $53 million treatment plant on Friday, Camp Pendleton officials insisted that there never was a danger to Marines or their families.
"The water's safe. All the big items that were identified have been addressed," base spokesman Carl Redding said.
Rotting rodents and frog found by EPA and state agents were immediately removed and the reservoir water "super-chlorinated" to kill any potential diseases -- germs that would have been eradicated when they went to a treatment plant anyway -- and their chemical sensors monitored that, officials said.
"They were all at a level that would kill anything there," said John Simpson, the director of the base's Water Resources Department.
The Union-Tribune's tour of the treatment works highlighted the complexity of the Camp Pendleton water system. It's actually two systems, divided between north and south districts.
Groundwater is drawn through wells to 34 reservoirs, treated and then distributed to 18 areas that Marine commanders run like small towns. The water sluices there through more than 400 miles of pipes, many of which lead into and then exit treatment plants that strip out iron, manganese and other minerals before disinfecting it with chlorine bleach and other chemicals.
At the main southern treatment plant, six operators work 12-hour shifts daily, tracking the water as it moves through the works, listening for alarms that monitor chlorine and other substances in the system, changing filters in rows of tubes and logging into notebooks a wide range of data, from readings on a computer screen to reports of leaks.
There should be 11 operators working there, but Camp Pendleton struggles to recruit and retain water system specialists. Of the 98 positions listed on paper for the division handling both the north and south sectors, 33 remain vacant.
In the EPA report, a Camp Pendleton supervisor stated that the base typically hires "older men" who are retired and dislike working weekends or others who "would not make it at any other water system" because the base couldn't match the wages and retirement packages offered by nearby local and state agencies.
Simpson, a retired Navy officer, said a wage study was done that could trigger higher pay for workers, and he's leavened the ranks with contractors, who can be brought on faster than civilian Department of Defense employees.
He said that many employees were highly trained specialists who worked at Camp Pendleton out of a sense of patriotism.
Red tape can tangle the hiring process for nine months, or longer, officials said, but a new program that hires Marines and sailors leaving active duty promises better staffing in the future.
The size of the water system's workforce is important because vacancies limit what they can do. The twin inspection reports cataloged numerous problems at the plants and reservoirs, including sensors and alarms that don't work, overgrown brush that's tangling equipment, leaking pumps and valves, unsealed electrical wire, uncleaned tanks, exposed pipes, bird and insect infestations, missing or damaged seals, dilapidated vents and water leaks.
The EPA files noted that the Marines bought the workers a new truck to use to perform routine valve maintenance:
"The truck is brand new and has not been used yet" and there was no evidence of a formal valve maintenance program, the report stated.
"It creates challenges to fix all this stuff," Simpson said. "And it becomes a loop, right? We don't have enough of our own folks because it's a challenge to hire."
The base is putting together a "tiger team" to address all the problems in the reports, but that takes operators away from their core duties and delays repairs at other parts of Camp Pendleton.
Political divisions on Capitol Hill over the past decade have prevented lawmakers from passing military budgets, forcing the Marines to rely on continuing resolutions throughout the year to fund operations.
That hurts Simpson's ability to ink contracts with contractors to patch many of the problems mentioned in the reports and fund capital projects that could modernize the water system.
Many water treatment plants nationwide use what are called "supervisory control and data acquisition" or SCADA systems. The systems monitor and record data as water is being taken from the wells, through booster stations and reservoirs to the treatment plants and then out to customers.
Their networked computer systems often trim the number of workers necessary at water plants because their networks of sensors, valves and pumps can be tracked and controlled from remote locations, with most events automatically and electronically logged.
The Marines are piggybacking on a Navy project to land a $3 million system that will unify the northern and southern water operations on Camp Pendleton.
Ross Davis, the Water Resources Division's assistant director, said the new system will help exponentially, but it probably will be another year before it's installed.
"What SCADA does is it allows me to repurpose people into doing regular maintenance, which I can't do now because I don't have enough people," said Davis. "And it provides a higher level of safety throughout your whole operation because you can see everything that's going on and make adjustments without driving around at midnight in a rainstorm on a back road."
--This article is written by Carl Prine from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.