Patience among Camp Lejeune's military families is wearing thin

Camp Lejeune in 2007 Camp Lejeune in 2007 AP file photo
The bonds between former Marines are as strong as steel—and become even stronger when they share the belief that the Pentagon has done them wrong. Such is the case among thousands of Marine families who spent time at Camp Lejeune, N.C., during several decades when the base’s drinking water was tainted with toxic chemicals as a result of careless military operations.

The largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast appears to be the site of the biggest water-contamination case in history, with more than a million people potentially exposed to carcinogens such as TCE and benzene from the 1950s to 1985, when the poisoned wells were shut down.

Evidence is mounting that hundreds, if not thousands, of cancer cases, birth defects, and other serious illnesses may be linked to degreasing fluids that were dumped on the ground and petrochemicals that spilled from fuel tanks at the coastal base over many years. The deadly chemicals often ended up seeping through the sandy soil and into the aquifer that supplied drinking water.

The government’s response to the problems—which many victims of the contamination say has been characterized by stonewalling—is now in its 27th year. And patience among the affected Marines is running very, very thin.

One of the leaders of a large group of former Marines who believe they were harmed by Camp Lejeune’s water started an online petition last month demanding that Congress and the Veterans Affairs Department compensate victims of the contamination. Within weeks,the petition on the website Change.org gained more than 117,000 signers.

“Those of us who drank the water have suffered from cancers, leukemias, miscarriages, and birth defects from the cancer-causing chemicals in the water,” wrote the petition organizer, Jerry Ensminger, a former drill instructor who spent nearly 25 years in the Marine Corps. His daughter Janey was born at the Marine base in 1976 and died of leukemia nine years later.

“Thousands of people who were poisoned at Camp Lejeune are struggling without access to the medical care they need,” Ensminger said. “It’s time for the U.S. government to provide the people who are still suffering the effects of the toxic water at Camp Lejeune with health care. We volunteered to serve and protect our nation.... We never volunteered to be poisoned by our own leaders.”

A steady series of passionate comments have been added to the petition since Ensminger posted it in mid-May.
  •     Christy Basden: “In memory of my father Cleve J Bentle, GYSGT (RET), who served for 22 yrs and passed away at the age of 53 from prostate cancer caused by this contaminated water.”
  •     Roseanne Debruyn: “My ex husband of 17 years is 4th stage colon cancer. served in camp Lejeune in 82 and 83. He is very sick. Feeding tube, chemo every week. He’s 48 years old!!! My 16 year old son is devastated!”
  •     Joyce Bentle: “My grandson was born with [Duchenne muscular dystrophy]. We never had any type of MD in our family. We were told by the doctors that his cause is unknown. Normally the mother of the child is the carrier.... My daughter (his mother) was conceived at Camp Lejeune North Carolina. We think that it had to be the water on base.”
The long saga of Camp Lejeune’s water problems began around World War II, when military bases throughout the country started washing down equipment such as tanks and planes with the powerful solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, recently declared a known human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. The chemical compound, similar to lighter fluid, was usually allowed to drain off onto the ground, and at Camp Lejeune, which opened in 1942, it often percolated down to the groundwater.

A number of documented fuel spills also sent deadly chemicals such as benzene into the aquifer. The poisons probably began reaching harmful levels in some drinking-water wells by the 1960s. When EPA began requiring testing for TCE in the early ’80s, it became clear that the water supplied to some parts of the base was unsafe for consumption.

Ensminger, who has devoted most of his time to investigating the Marine Corps’ handling of the contamination since he discovered in 1997 that it probably caused his daughter’s death, has uncovered evidence that Camp Lejeune officials were aware of the problems as early as 1980 but did not remove the tainted wells from service until 1985.

Four years later, EPA declared Camp Lejeune a Superfund cleanup site, and investigators at the Centers for Disease Control began probing whether health problems could be linked to pollution at the base.

After countless studies, reports, and hearings over the past decade, current Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki recently declared it “premature” to link specific illnesses to Camp Lejeune’s water contamination without more scientific proof. Legislation requiring the government to provide health benefits for victims of the pollution remain bottled up in both the House and the Senate.

“Since when is the burden of proof placed on the victim and not the perpetrator?” Ensminger asked in an e-mail to National Journal Daily. “Now we have members of our Congress who are doing nothing more than playing political ‘gamesmanship’ with the lives of the very veterans they all so publicly claim to support! If ever there was an issue that should be bipartisan, it would be this one ... unfortunately, that is not the case.”

This article appeared in the Monday, June 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Daily.
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