Democrats to examine military base contamination

Critics of the military's environmental record point to drinking water problems at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Defense officials might come under fire as Congress mulls investigating whether the Pentagon has sufficiently responded to reports of environmental contamination at military bases.

House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, said communities where bases are being closed are concerned that the sites cannot be redeveloped because of contamination, and that oversight is needed.

"We're going to be looking at that, no question," he said, adding he is considering a hearing on the matter this month.

House Energy and Commerce Democrats likely will be focusing on drinking water problems. Perchlorate, used in rocket fuel, and trichloroethylene or TCE, an industrial solvent used as a metal parts degreaser, are the two biggest water contaminants at military sites. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and Health and Human Services Department have said TCE is likely to cause cancer in humans, while perchlorate might affect the thyroid gland.

A spokesman for Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., said there will be Oversight Subcommittee hearings, and that Dingell also "plans to examine the issues surrounding water contamination at Camp Lejeune and specifically the Department of Defense's refusal to respond to data requests from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry."

Critics of the military's environmental record point to the TCE drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

After the camp was declared a Superfund site in 1989, the ATSDR found an alarming rate of miscarriages, birth defects and childhood leukemia there. TCE levels in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune were 1,400 parts per billion in 1982, 280 times higher than EPA's standard of five parts per billion.

Jerry Ensminger, who leads a group of ex-Marine Camp Lejeune families, said an upcoming ATSDR water modeling study will show that TCE levels at the camp reached EPA's limit in June 1957. Ensminger, whose daughter was conceived at Camp Lejeune and died of leukemia, wants ATSDR to expand the analysis to include adults and children born before their families moved to Camp Lejeune.

The Marine Corps began testing wells at Camp Lejeune in 1985 and then started closing off some contaminated water supplies. "Before that, they didn't give a damn," Ensminger said in a recent interview.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., disagrees. "When we looked back at Camp Lejeune, the concerns that were raised were, in fact, vetted," Burr said. "Camp Lejeune did not ignore the claims. Did they carry it as far as they could have and perhaps they should have? That's open to question."

Ensminger said he met last month with several congressional aides, including representatives of Burr, Ortiz, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., whose district includes Camp Lejeune.

He has also sent "a bunch" of documents to investigators on Dingell's staff. "I understand that there are some extremely damaging documents that haven't seen the light of day," Ensminger said.

Critics allege that the military is stonewalling completion of an ATSDR epidemiological study at Camp Lejeune and has not funded a National Academy of Sciences study there that was authorized in last year's defense authorization bill.

Craig Sakai, head of the environmental branch at Marine Corps Headquarters, said in an e-mail that the Corps "continues to work close with ATSDR to provide them with the necessary data that we control." But some of the data requested "does not belong to the Marine Corps," he said, and in those instances the Corps has asked other agencies "to work directly with ATSDR to provide them access to the data that they need for their study."

Regarding the funding for the National Academy of Sciences project, the Corps "has provided complete funding for the study" to the Pentagon's NAS liaison, Sakai said, "who is working on a formal agreement with NAS for this study." The liaison is the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., who pushed for the NAS study, said the Corps "assures Sen. Dole that the funding has been identified and set aside to conduct the review." The Corps also told Dole that NAS "is ready to submit a proposal on how it will conduct its review."

Some Pentagon officials have argued that environmental regulations can hamper military training. The department has unsuccessfully tried to exempt munitions from environmental requirements under the Superfund and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act waste laws in recent years.

Congressional critics also charge that the Pentagon has obstructed completion of a tougher EPA drinking water standard for TCE.

EPA issued a draft risk assessment of TCE in 2001 but it was not finalized. The National Research Council concluded in a July 2006 report that evidence of the carcinogenic and other health risks of TCE "has strengthened since 2001." NRC recommended that "federal agencies finalize their risk assessment with currently available data so that risk management decisions can be made expeditiously."

An EPA spokesman did not say when or if that risk assessment will be finalized and said there are no plans to revise the TCE drinking water standard.

Dingell and other Energy and Commerce Democrats introduced a bill in the 109th Congress to hold EPA to a deadline to complete a new perchlorate drinking water standard and they might propose a deadline for a new TCE standard, a House aide said.