Navy agrees to study impact of Camp Lejeune's toxic water

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 19, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The Navy has agreed to pay $1.53 million for a mortality study that could show a linkage between toxic water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and the deaths of Marines and their family members who lived there over a 30-year period.

Some estimates are that during that time, as many as 1 million people were exposed to well water at the base that contained trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride.

The chemicals were dumped into storm drains, leaked from fuel tanks or were buried in pits across the base. They seeped through the groundwater and into wells that fed the base areas of Hadnot Point and Tarawa Terrace.

The main contaminated well was shut down in November 1984.

Documents that McClatchy revealed Sunday indicate that a fuel storage farm at a central part of the base might have had far greater significance to the contamination than previously was known.

Some 800,000 gallons of fuel were thought to have been spilled over the years from the fuel farm, close to the main well serving Hadnot Point — the location of the base's enlisted barracks, some officers' quarters and the hospital.

Benzene is a component of fuel and a known carcinogen.

Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said in a statement this week that the new information changed the science behind the contamination.

"These revelations are disturbing," Burr said. "It's very likely that this information will significantly change the direction and broaden the scope of the government's scientific inquiry into the water contamination at Camp Lejeune."

After the revelations, Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., called for an investigation into the extent of the fuel contamination. Miller is the chairman of the House Science Committee's oversight panel.

The oversight subcommittee plans to begin seeking documents related to the fuel contamination next week, he said.

"The most recent documents suggest that maybe they did know and they actively concealed it," Miller said. "We need to know who knew about the contamination and when."

Thousands of former Marines and family members have complained of illnesses, including a variety of cancers, that they think could be linked to the toxic water.

More than 155,000 people from all 50 states have registered with the Marines to keep informed about the contamination and scientific studies.

Former Marine Jerry Ensminger of White Lake, N.C., whose daughter died of leukemia in 1985, had little praise for the Navy's decision, saying it should have paid for the science when it was first asked to, as required by law.

"I'm convinced they've known about the benzene in the water all along," he said. "They were hoping no one would catch it. Guess what? It was caught."

The Navy had refused for months to fund the mortality study, telling senators as recently as last month that it wasn't necessary.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told Burr that research released last summer showed no definitive link, but senators have criticized that study.

Then on Thursday, Brian Harrison, the director of the Navy's Environmental Restoration Division, sent a three-sentence letter to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is conducting the study.

"This is to inform you and your staff that the Department of the Navy intends to fund the ATSDR in the amount of $1,530,300 for the mortality study that will address the health concerns from past drinking water contamination at U.S. Marine Corps Base in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina," Harrison wrote.

McClatchy obtained the letter Friday after it was first reported by the Associated Press.

Burr had put holds on two Navy appointees whose confirmations are pending in the Senate, saying he wouldn't let another one through until the study is funded.

On Friday, his spokesman said the holds would remain until the money went through.

Marine spokesman Capt. Brian Block said in a statement that the Marines Corps was aware of the Navy's agreement and was committed to funding science with a "reasonable chance of providing accurate information" about a connection between the toxic water and illnesses.

"Our goal has always been to use the best science to get accurate information in a timely manner," Block said.

The mortality study would compare the deaths of Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune to those stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., over the same period in order to track the impact of the toxic water.

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