Congress seeks more records on Camp Lejeune tainted water

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 19, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Congressional investigators sent more letters this week as they continue their probe into past water contamination at the Marines' Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The oversight panel on the House Science and Technology Committee seeks documents going back decades from private contractors, the Environmental Protection Agency and officials at a federal science agency.

The letters request information about fuel spills at a centrally located underground tank farm, correspondence about the contamination and a list of documents that the Marines gave scientists who were trying to understand the impact of the toxic water.

Also this week, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus responded to an earlier request for documents from Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., the chairman of the oversight subcommittee.

Miller said earlier this month that it appeared that the Navy, which includes the Marine Corps, hadn't produced documents that federal scientists needed to conduct accurate health studies about the contamination.

Mabus disagreed, writing that the documents about a key contaminant — benzene — have been available at a county library in North Carolina since 1992, and that the scientists have had "full access."

Early studies on the effects of the water contamination took into account trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), two volatile organic solvents used by dry cleaners, and other industrial cleaning solvents. The EPA lists them as potentially cancer-causing chemicals.

Less known, however, until this winter, was the widespread contamination from benzene, a known carcinogen that's a component of fuel.

McClatchy reported in February that as much as 800,000 gallons of fuel spilled from the underground storage tanks. A nearby well drawing from that groundwater fed water to officers' quarters, barracks and the base hospital.

"I'm trying to find out who knew about the extreme levels of benzene contamination and when they knew it and why they did not tell the million or so people who drank that water that they were exposed to benzene," said Miller, who wrote the letters this week requesting more information.

A test in July 1984 found benzene levels at the fuel farm at 380 parts per billion. The federal enforceable standard is 5 parts per billion, though the EPA recommends a level of zero.

That well was shut down in November 1984.

A major health assessment by federal scientists published in 1997 was meant to consider the health effects from Lejeune's contaminated water, but the study failed to take that well into account or the high amounts of benzene found in at least one test of the well.

Miller wrote in one letter that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, apparently didn't have all the documents about the benzene from the Marine Corps and the Navy before it published its 1997 study.

"I cannot imagine that this was inadvertent, that this was the result of inadvertence, that there were not officials at the Navy who didn't look at the levels of benzene contamination that came back from tests of water supply wells and did not understand just what that meant," Miller said.

The Marines have said they provided the documents to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

That health study was retracted a year ago, and the scientists have begun working on more extensive studies with the new information.

It's estimated that up to a million people were exposed to the toxic water at Camp Lejeune from 1957 through 1987. More than 155,000 people from all 50 states and the District of Columbia have registered with the Marines to receive information about the contamination.

Miller points out in his letters that there have been unusual reports of male breast cancer, leukemia, other cancers, birth defects and stillbirths among Marines and their family members who lived at Camp Lejeune.

The letters also seek federal documents from the EPA on its decision in the 1980s to include Camp Lejeune on its National Priorities List, known as the Superfund list, for cleanup for a variety of contamination problems.

The EPA decided not to include the fuel farm well, known as Site 22, in the Superfund list, however, placing it instead under a separate federal cleanup program with different regulations.

In his response to Miller this week, Mabus agreed to give subcommittee investigators complete access to an online Web portal that contains all Navy and Marine Corps documentation on the contamination.

He also said that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry had been aware of the benzene contamination "since at least the early 1990s" and had had access to Camp Lejeune's library of documents "for years."

He pointed out that the documents detailing benzene contamination have been available at the public library in Onslow County, N.C., where Camp Lejeune is, since 1992, and online at a private contractor's Web site since 1999.

Miller has asked that private contractor to provide its reports on the contamination. Some of those documents erroneously listed the benzene contamination as 38 parts per billion instead of 380 parts per billion in the July 1984 test. The contractor and the Navy have said that the documents repeated a typo from an earlier report, and that no misrepresentation was intended.

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