WASHINGTON — A congressional oversight committee has begun looking into new details about the history of water contamination at the Marines' Camp Lejeune.
Investigators from the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee have requested hundreds of documents from the state of North Carolina, where the base is, that include details about underground storage tanks buried across Camp Lejeune in past decades. The tanks contained fuel, trichloroethylene (TCE) and other chemicals.
Some of the storage tanks leaked into the groundwater, including some that were buried about 300 feet from a drinking well. The well was found in 1984 to be contaminated with benzene, a fuel component and a human carcinogen, and it was closed in December of that year.
McClatchy obtained the state of North Carolina documents and reported Thursday that federal scientists have learned of the leaking fuel tanks near the well as they, too, work to understand the health effects of decades of contamination across Lejeune.
The tanks were buried beneath a former refueling station known as Building 1115; they were removed in 1993.
"As (the McClatchy) article makes very clear, that water was stunningly contaminated," Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., the chairman of the oversight panel in the Science and Technology Committee, said in an interview Friday. "It was stunningly toxic, and the fact that Marines and their families drank that water for 30 years is inexcusable."
Miller said his committee planned new hearings on the contamination as it gathered more information about what the Department of the Navy, which oversees the Marine Corps, knew about it.
Meanwhile, scientists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have been combing documents to develop new water-modeling studies for contamination at the base from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.
Capt. Brian Block, a Marine spokesman, stressed that Camp Lejeune's current water system meets all standards for drinking water.
The military publishes annual water-quality reports on the Internet, he said, and sends the reports to base residents, as well.
"The drinking water at Camp Lejeune is safe to drink and is tested more frequently than required by law to protect our Marines and their families," Block said.
Cleanup efforts at Camp Lejeune are ongoing, with contractors using a variety of methods to remove contaminants that remain in the shallow and deep aquifers under the base. Block said the base had won several Department of Defense honors for its cleanup work.
"This new information shows how important it is for the Navy to promptly turn over to government scientists all the information it has on the water contamination at Camp Lejeune," Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs' Committee, said in response to the McClatchy article.
Burr and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., have inserted language into the 2011 defense authorization bill that requires the Department of the Navy to create an inventory and offer expertise on all the documentation that exists on the contamination and its cleanup. The bill is pending before the Senate.
Miller has pushed similar language in the House version of the defense bill and said he thought that the military was acknowledging that the contamination had affected the health of Marine veterans and their families.
"It appears like the Navy is now doing the right thing," Miller said Friday.
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