WASHINGTON — Thirteen years ago, a federal scientific agency in Atlanta issued a sweeping report on the potential health effects of 30 years' worth of contaminated water at the big Marine base at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
It concluded that exposed adults were unlikely to get cancer from the water.
However, the report failed to consider more closely the effects of a key poison: benzene, which is a component of fuel and a chemical known to cause cancer.
The omission happened even though scientists had been warned that they were overlooking crucial data, and even though the scientists themselves had reviewed a document that mentioned the benzene contamination.
Now the 1997 report has been withdrawn, millions of tax dollars are being spent for more research, and congressional investigators want to know what went wrong. Marine veterans and their families across the U.S. continue to wonder whether a slate of cancers and other illnesses can be connected to their time at Camp Lejeune.
"There was evidence that there were very high levels of benzene in the drinking water, and they did not include benzene in the assessment," said Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., and the chairman of the oversight subcommittee of the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee.
On Thursday, Miller's subcommittee will question scientists, military leaders and Marine veterans about the water contamination — and who knew what about it, and when.
As many as a million people were exposed to water contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), benzene and other contaminants for three decades before the wells were closed.
Nearly 160,000 people from every state have registered with the Marine Corps to get information about the contamination. Many think their cancers and other illnesses are related to the water.
"This committee has the chance to do the right thing," said Jim Watters of Lubbock, Texas, a former naval officer who worked at the Lejeune naval hospital and now has advanced renal cell carcinoma. "They can step into a moral and leadership vacuum and take care of the people who were hurt."
Watters plans to testify at Thursday's hearing.
Investigators want to know the Department of the Navy's and the Department of Veterans Affairs' positions on whether there should be a presumption that exposure to the poisoned water caused a variety of illnesses that have been linked to TCE, PCE and benzene.
Miller has sponsored legislation that makes such a presumption. It's co-sponsored in the Senate by North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr, a Republican, and Kay Hagan, a Democrat.
The legislation, called the Janey Ensminger Act, is named for the daughter of a Marine veteran, Jerry Ensminger of White Lake, N.C., who's been an advocate for Lejeune families. Janey Ensminger died of childhood leukemia in 1985.
Already, the Veterans Affairs Department has begun making such links on a case-by-case basis.
"This is an exposed population and they deserve compensation," Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Boston University, said in an interview. Clapp, who serves on an advisory panel on the Lejeune contamination, testified to Congress in 1991 about Agent Orange exposure and will testify Thursday.
Marine spokesman Lt. Gregory Wolf said Friday that the military has been working since 1991 to find answers on the contamination's impact.
"This is a deeply personal matter for the Marine Corps," Wolf said in a prepared statement. "Those who believe that drinking water at Camp Lejeune caused their illness are part of our Marine Corps family, and we understand that they want answers."
Much of Miller's subcommittee work in recent years has focused on the federal scientific agency, called the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It's responsible for investigating potential environmental hazards and their effects on public health.
The flaws in the agency's 1997 report on Lejeune contamination were such that for more than a decade, Camp Lejeune veterans didn't know about the benzene exposure, or about what effects the exposure might have on themselves or their families.
The toxicity of benzene is better established than that of TCE or PCE.
In spring of 2009, the agency pulled the public health assessment from the public domain, saying it hadn't been informed in the 1990s of how widespread the benzene contamination was.
However, a bibliography accompanying the report shows that scientists referred to an outside contractor's tests on the wells. Those tests found that there was benzene in the water — which critics say should have tipped the scientists to look deeper.
Also, an official with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources warned scientists in 1994 about overlooking data.
"The concern here is that there is information essential to this health assessment that apparently was not considered," she wrote to ATSDR officials.
ATSDR officials said Monday that the report's details were about all volatile organic compounds, which would have included benzene.
However, the agency acknowledged in a prepared statement that, "based on the information that we know today, the (public health assessment) should have mentioned the contamination (in a particular well) and stated that the extent of exposure to benzene from that well was unknown. The full extent of the exposure is still being determined."
The agency said that scientists working on modeling the contamination and its effects today now assume that residents were exposed for longer periods than thought before the agency completed its 1997 study.
Documents reviewed by McClatchy last winter showed that an estimated 800,000 to 1.1 million gallons of fuel were lost at Camp Lejeune over a 30-year period through the early 1980s.
As recently as this year, monitoring wells showed that even as the military is working on its cleanup, there's still benzene in the groundwater at Camp Lejeune at up to 18,600 parts per billion. The federal standard is 5 parts per billion.
McClatchy reported in June that scientists recently had learned of another, unknown source of the benzene contamination — leaking underground storage tanks that were buried less than a football field away from a drinking water well that was found to be contaminated in the 1980s.
That, too, will be a subject of Thursday's hearing.
The old contaminated wells were closed in the mid-1980s, and the Marines say drinking water at Camp Lejeune now meets all safety standards.
Miller said he also wants to ask the Marine Corps about a booklet it published in July called "Camp Lejeune Historic Drinking Water: Questions and Answers."
The Marines printed a thousand copies and sent one to every member of Congress at a cost of $4,295. The 33-page booklet, also posted online, answers questions about the contamination, but some critics say it doesn't tell the whole story.
Miller called the booklet "more public relations than public health," saying it indicates incorrectly that the military acted promptly on warnings in the early 1980s about volatile organic compounds in the base's water system.
"In fact, it took them two years to close the wells," Miller said.
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