Lejeune water probe: Did Marine Corps hide benzene data?

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 9, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Congressional investigators late Tuesday requested detailed documents from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and a private contractor that was involved in the testing and cleanup of contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., over the past two decades.

More letters to the Environmental Protection Agency and a second private contractor are expected this week.

Among investigators' questions: why a federal agency charged with understanding the health impacts of the contamination didn't realize until recently that benzene — a fuel solvent known to cause cancer in humans — was among the substances found in drinking water at Camp Lejeune.

For years, the Marines apparently didn't provide documents about the benzene to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which has worked for nearly two decades to understand the contamination and its health impacts, said Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., the chairman of the oversight panel on the House Science and Technology Committee.

"We want to know what did (the Navy and the Marine Corps) know about the water, when did they know and what did they do about it," Miller said in an interview.

"Did they know about it during the 30 years when Marines and families were exposed to the water?" Miller asked. "Did they know about it and not do anything to stop it?"

In his letter, Miller told Mabus that he wants access by next Monday to a password-protected online database that contains thousands of records related to the contamination, thought to have occurred from 1957 to 1987.

The database hasn't been made public. It was finally made accessible to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry last year.

The agency tossed out a 1997 study on health effects after it learned that benzene was among the chemicals in the water. Until then, Miller wrote Mabus, the agency didn't have the documents it needed to complete its work.

Navy spokeswoman Lt. j.g. Laura Stegherr said late Tuesday that she was looking into the matter.

McClatchy reported last month that newly revealed documents show that upward of 800,000 gallons of fuel leaked from underground storage tanks near a well that served base barracks, officers' quarters and the hospital, an indication that benzene may have played a much more significant role in the contamination than previously had been known publicly.

Many documents McClatchy reviewed make repeated references to benzene.

At a 1988 meeting of federal, state and Lejeune environmental officials, for example, a contractor talked about the benzene contamination and described the water as "toxic enough for you that you don't want to touch that water."

"Obviously we've got a fuel problem here," he said, according to a transcript of the meeting.

A test in July 1984 showed benzene at a level of 380 parts per billion, well above the federal standard of 5 parts per billion. The well was shuttered in November 1984.

As recently as last month, a Marine spokesman said the main contaminants in the water had been trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), much of it from an off-base dry cleaner.

In January, Mabus told senators that a mortality study to track deaths among Marines who'd lived at the base was unnecessary, citing a previous study that showed no conclusive link between the toxic water and a variety of cancers and other ailments suffered by former base residents.

After news reports about the depths of potential benzene contamination, the Navy, which includes the Marine Corps, announced that it would pay for the $1.53 million study.

Some estimates are that a million people were exposed to contaminated water at the base over a 30-year period through 1987. More than 155,000 people in all 50 states and the District of Columbia have signed up with the Marines' Camp Lejeune water contamination registry.

Also on Tuesday, congressional investigators asked a private contractor, Baker Environmental Inc. of Pennsylvania, for access by March 31 to all its records related to its analysis and cleanup work on the contamination.

Miller said he wanted to know why, in a series of documents known to the committee, the benzene level in a significant July 1984 water test appeared to change over time.

The first document, by another private contractor, lists the benzene amount in the water at 380 parts per billion. The Associated Press reported last month that a 1992 analysis by Baker Environmental incorrectly recalls the same result at 38 parts per billion.

Another report by Baker Environmental in 1994 omits the specific benzene amount altogether, though it points out that the benzene levels exceeded federal standards.

Baker has said in response that it repeated a typo from an earlier report by another company, and that by 1994, Lejeune had moved on to remediation efforts. By then, Baker said in a statement last week, the fact that benzene was in the groundwater had been well established.

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