ROANOKE, Va. — Advocates pushing for answers about water contamination at Marines Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., have taken their documents on the road.
Mike Partain, a male breast cancer survivor from Florida, and Jerry Ensminger, a retired master sergeant in White Lake, N.C., whose daughter died in 1985 of childhood leukemia, have held three informational gatherings in the Southeast in recent months.
The men want to bring together Marine veterans and their family members who might have been exposed to toxic water at Camp Lejeune from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.
"Our biggest problem is we don't know who each other are," Partain said this past weekend to listeners at a meeting in Roanoke, Va. "We've got to network out."
The next meeting is scheduled for this Saturday in Virginia Beach, Va., from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Another is scheduled for July 31 in Charlotte, though the venue hasn't been set yet.
Inside a chilly meeting room last weekend in Roanoke, Va., Partain, the son of a Marine, posted on a wall huge maps of groundwater contamination plumes at Camp Lejeune.
"This sample?" Partain circled a number with a laser pointer — 1,400 parts per billion of trichloroethylene (TCE) found in a water sample back in 1982. "This came out of a hospital emergency room sink."
"Oh my God," came a male voice from a small audience of Marine veterans and their families.
"I was bathed in it," said another male voice.
Added a woman: "They made formula out of that water."
The Blue Ridge Mountains outside the windows seemed a world away from the coastal sands of Camp Lejeune, N.C., but the Marine veterans in Roanoke easily summoned collective memories of the base. They came with stories of cancers, heart ailments and other diseases, trying to learn more about whether their illnesses could be connected to the toxic water.
"I was there 13 years," said Curt Overington, who grew up at Lejeune as a child. "I lost a brother. One brother was born without organs. One was born with a (cleft palate)."
Francis Rogers of Christiansburg, Va., served at the base from 1957 to 1962, and his youngest son served at Lejeune in the 1980s.
"He has breathing problems," Rogers said of his son. "I have skin problems."
Rogers learned of last week's meeting from a newspaper advertisement and didn't know what to expect. "My eyes were opened up," he said.
The community meetings come as Congress continues to investigate the water contamination, its causes and its health effects. Meanwhile, scientists at the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry are performing studies to better understand the type and extent of the contamination and its impact on the health of former residents.
The Marines have stressed that the water at Lejeune today is safe to drink, and the military says it is working to find answers for its members and their families. The military was required by law to contact Marine veterans through the Internal Revenue Service, and it has run advertisements about the contamination in popular magazines.
Until recently, much of the contamination was blamed on an off-base dry cleaner.
Military documents show that the base's water was contaminated with benzene, trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride and other chemicals - much of it leaked from on-base sources.
Benzene and vinyl chloride are known to cause cancer in humans; TCE is under study for the same designation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Many advocates, including Partain and Ensminger, remain skeptical of the military, which they say has not been forthcoming with details of the contamination.
Ensminger has been lobbying Congress and the media about the contamination for the past 12 years, since he saw a local news story in Elizabethtown, N.C., about toxic water at the base. He connected the water to the leukemia that killed his daughter, Janey.
He said former Lejeune residents should join the Marines' Camp Lejeune historic drinking water registry so they take part in scientific studies on the matter.
Ensminger and Partain, along with several other advocates, also have developed a website called The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten to collate documents and provide a forum for former Lejeune residents to connect with one another.
Partain and Ensminger also recommended that listeners get active politically by calling their senators and members of Congress.
"Numbers are power, okay?" Ensminger told the group. "Whenever you're dealing with politicians, the more members you have signed up on your organization, the more power you have."
The meetings are sponsored by Bell Legal Group of Georgetown, S.C. The law firm has signed up about 200 clients for potential lawsuits about the water contamination. The firm didn't make a pitch at Saturday's meeting, but attorneys attended and put their business cards out on a table.
Future meetings are planned in Syracuse, N.Y., and Pittsburgh, Pa. For information or to sign up for a meeting, call Vanessa Bertka at Bell Legal Group at 843-546-2408.
INFORMATIONAL MEETINGS ON CAMP LEJEUNE:
Bell Legal Group of Georgetown, S.C., is sponsoring several meetings to tell former residents of Marines Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., about historic water contamination there. The meetings are run by advocates Mike Partain of Tallahassee, Fla., and Jerry Ensminger of White Lake, N.C.
The meetings are planned for: July 17, Virginia Beach, Va.; July 31, Charlotte, N.C.; Aug. 7, Syracuse, N.Y.; Aug. 21, Pittsburg, Pa.
To sign up, call Vanessa Bertka at Bell Legal Group, at 843-546-2408.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington