Bill requires care for those exposed to tainted water at Lejeune

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 2, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Twelve years after watching his young daughter slip away, former Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger caught a clue that the Marines might have been at fault for her death.

He's spent more than 12 years since trying to find justice. Ensminger doesn't think he's there yet, but legislation introduced this week in the House of Representatives aims to bring him closer.

From about 1957 to 1987, Marines and their loved ones living at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina drank and bathed in well water that was contaminated with trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride. Some estimates are that as many as 1 million people might have been exposed.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to care for Marines and their family members who might have suffered ailments stemming from their exposure.

Miller's bill is named after Janey Ensminger, who was 9 when she lost her two-year struggle with childhood leukemia in 1985. She was exposed in utero when her father was stationed at Camp Lejeune, Jerry Ensminger said.

At a news conference Tuesday about the bill, Ensminger said he discovered in 1997 that there might be a link between the water and his daughter's disease. He's worked since then to gather information, reach out to other former Marines and persuade lawmakers to find justice for affected families.

Miller's bill would require the VA and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to establish the time period during which water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated with volatile organic compounds. Both agencies also would be required to establish which illnesses are associated with the poisons.

Miller estimates that the measure would cost $1.1 billion over 10 years.

It's identical to a bill that Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., introduced in the Senate and that the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee rejected last week. The majority backed a bill that would put the Department of Defense in charge of the health care of family members of former Marines who were exposed to the water.

Burr and Hagan, who charge that the Defense Department has dragged its feet on the issue, say the VA would do a better job of caring for the families.

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