Fort Benning officials and the private firm that manages the nearly 5,000 on-post residences have begun to push back in the wake of a damaging international media report that put a spotlight on lead-based paint issues in the installation’s older homes and the health impact on children.
On Aug. 16, Reuters published its investigation detailing dangerous lead levels and cases of childhood poisoning on several Army installations across the country, including at Fort Benning. The Reuters report focused on Army Col. J. Cale Brown and his family’s struggles with the lead poisoning of one of his children while they lived on post at Fort Benning about eight years ago.
The lead had stunted the brain of one of their sons, John Cale, according to medical records reviewed by Reuters. Now 8, the boy was was diagnosed at age 2 with a developmental disorder caused by lead, according to Reuters.
Reuters also obtained medical data from the Army showing that at least 31 small children tested high for lead at a Fort Benning hospital over a recent six-year period. All tested above the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold for elevated lead levels — 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood.
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Col. Clint Cox is the Fort Benning garrison commander who has had the lead-based paint issue fall on his desk in the aftermath of the Reuters report. He takes exception with the way the number of lead-based paint incidents was reported by the news agency. His contention during an interview this week is it’s not the whole story.
“What they used was 31 children poisoned on Fort Benning,” Cox said. “That was what was in the article. I immediately said, ‘Holy Smokes, I did not know that.’ So, I got in touch with the hospital commander and we sat down and I said, ‘OK, show me where this hazard is. I want to know where these children were poisoned precisely.’ We worked together to do the forensics between the housing folks and the hospital folks to identify exactly where these folks lived.”
Cox said that information was important.
“The article would have led me to believe that all of these children were poisoned in one of these historic homes or these pre-1978 homes,” Cox said. “... The reality is that wasn’t it. We only had four of those 31 kids live in the historical homes. One of them was a medical ingestion of actual fishing weights. That leaves three. Twelve of them lived in newer homes and 19 lived off post.”
The housing on Fort Benning is privatized, meaning that it is owned and managed by a third-party entity. The Villages at Benning, which is owned by Marlton, N.J.-based Michaels Management Services, oversees about 5,0000 homes on posts. Of that number, slightly less than half, 2,274 houses, were built before 1978 and have lead-based paint in them, a Michaels executive said.
Many of those are the historic homes on Main Post in neighborhoods like Austin Loop and surrounding the Follow Me Golf Course. Most of those homes are occupied by officers and senior non-commissioned officers.
Last Friday, The Villages at Benning and the Army held a town hall meeting for residents on post. Of the 195 people who attended the meeting, there were about 150 residents. The Ledger-Enquirer was allowed to attend the meeting, but had to agree to terms that military officials conducting the meeting could not be identified by name and rank.
There was clear concern from the Fort Benning senior Army officials who conducted the meeting.
“We do not have a crisis, but we do have a situation,” one senior Army official told the audience. “And we will mitigate this situation as long as it takes. It’s going to be a long journey, at least a couple of months.”
Since the Reuters article published in August, the following actions have been taken by the property managers.
▪ There is a one-hour response time on all lead-based paint calls.
▪ Environmental Protection Agency and Georgia Environmental Protection Division certified technicians respond to the paint calls.
▪ The entire Villages at Benning staff is being certified or has been certified to deal with lead-based paint.
▪ Additional private contractors available to handle serious lead-based paint issues has been expanded from about 20 to 60.
▪ All of the affected housing will be inspected by the property managers and the Army.
▪ A priority system for those inspections has been put in place. Houses in which pregnant women and those with children 6 or under reside are the first ones to be inspected. Houses in which children older than 6 live are next. The other homes will be the last ones inspected.
“Since this article came out, we had a lot of folks go in and start looking around their property and calling in the work orders,“ Cox said. “That has been a positive. The housing partners have come in and hired a bunch of additional people who are certified to identify and remediate any potential exposed paint.”
Michaels Management Services President Ronald J. Hansen said it is a problem that impacts both the property manager and the Army.
“I don’t think there is any way around saying lead is harmful and there is lead-based paint in the houses.,” Hansen said. “It is not just the house itself. If you look at those 31 cases of elevated lead levels, they are off base, on base, in old housing and in new housing.”
Hansen said the residents’ concerns will be addressed.
“The residents are concerned because they have kids, they are living in the house and they are reading in the newspaper that your kid can be developmentally challenged because of it,” Hansen said. “They’re concerned it could happen to them. It is a concern. That’s why we give them the pamphlets so they can mitigate it. You want to say, ‘Hundreds of thousands of families have lived in these homes and nobody has had the significant lead issue.’ You can’t say that. One of them could be that one case that happens. Everybody is told the same thing, ‘There is lead; you have to take care of it; if there is a problem, call us.’”
Cox admits there have been communication issues and those have been brought to light in the wake of the Reuters report.
“It is something that I have been laser focused on since I got here,” the colonel said. “My predecessor had been working with The Villages of Benning to improve that. In the last year, they have hired a whole bunch of additional personnel on their team to do communications and get after customer service, and folks to work on work orders.”
A year ago, when Cox, a career infantryman, became garrison commander, The Villages had a backlog of work orders.
“They have been working on customer service and that communication thing,” Cox said. “They are way better than they were, but as you heard (in the town hall) they have a lot of room for improvement. That is what I work on with them routinely.”
The Reuters report has drawn the attention of the upper echelon of the Army and the U.S. Congress. There has been bipartisan support in the Senate, led by Georgia Republican Senators Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, to address the problem.
It has been an educational process for Fort Benning’s leadership team. The fact that most of the high levels of lead were found in children who live off post led Fort Benning officials to ask a new round of questions, Cox said.
“It begged the question, ‘If not the lead-based paint .... then what could it be and where is it?’” Cox said.
The post then put together a risk assessment, which has been published in a brochure that is given to residents.
One of the main risks was the 86 firing ranges on post where nearly 40 million rounds are shot annually. Almost all of the ammunition has lead in it. Soldiers who use these ranges or work on them can get lead particles on their uniforms and that can be transferred to children when those soldiers return home.
Another potential source of lead is foreign pottery, which some military families who have traveled overseas have.
“We wanted folks to be able to do their own lifestyle assessment, then have a communication with their health professionals” Cox said.
The situation also has led to additional pressure on the property managers to deal with the problems. Lead-based paint is most commonly found in areas that are frequently disturbed, such as windows, garage doors and railing. In other areas, the lead-based paint is covered by layers of paint put on after 1978, when the federal government halted the use of the product. It becomes dangerous when its ingested, which most commonly happens with children.
In the last six years, there have been 280,000 work orders for on-post housing at Fort Benning, Hansen said.
“There were 520 of them that involved paint,” Hansen said. “To give you an idea if this is an issue, well, not a lot of people have called about paint.”
Those calls have increased since the Reuters report and a letter that was sent to residents by the property manager, Hansen said. In the last month, The Villages at Benning has received 100 calls about paint issues.
Every one of the homes in question will be inspected by both the Army and property manager, Hansen said.
“We have had a remediation and reduction of lead-based paint in our historic homes for a long time,” Cox said. “There has been a strategy that has been worked for years and years — things like replacing windows in historicals ... new garage doors. Those kinds of things.”
But Cox is realistic, until all of the historic housing is replaced, there will not be total elimination of lead-based paint and the threat, he said.
“We will never get to zero,” he said.