Investigative panel targeting pollution at military bases

Probe will focus on Camp Lejeune, but could extend to other military-controlled hazardous waste sites.

The House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will hold a hearing in June as part of its investigation of drinking water contamination at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune and more broadly on environmental problems at military bases.

The investigation is still taking shape -- and while it will focus on Camp Lejeune -- it also could probe military-controlled hazardous waste sites, an Energy and Commerce aide said. It might look at whether the Environmental Protection Agency's drinking water standard for trichloroethylene is stringent enough, the aide said.

TCE is an industrial solvent used as a metal parts degreaser and, along with perchlorate, has contaminated water at military sites. EPA officials have wanted to strengthen the TCE regulation but have met with resistance from the Pentagon. The subcommittee hearing has been tentatively set for June 12 and will likely be followed by other hearings, the committee aide said.

After Camp Lejeune was declared a Superfund site in 1989, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry 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.

Witnesses at next month's hearing will likely include representatives from the Defense Department, EPA and Government Accountability Office, which released a report this month chronicling what has been done to clean up the drinking water at Camp Lejeune. The report -- required by the 2005 defense authorization law -- has been criticized by community activists for lacking crucial Defense Department correspondence and other evidence that shows alleged negligence by the military.

The GAO report said the Navy started testing water at Camp Lejeune in the early 1980s and later removed 10 wells from service. It also cited ATSDR officials as saying that the military cooperated with a health study at the camp.

"While ATSDR did not always receive requested funding and experienced delays in receiving information from DOD for its Camp Lejeune-related work, ATSDR officials said this has not significantly delayed their work," the report said. ATSDR has determined that well contamination began as early as 1957 and the agency initiated a public health assessment in 1991.

Former Camp Lejeune residents and employees have filed about 750 claims against the federal government, while three federal inquiries have been conducted by a Marine Corps-chartered panel and EPA.

While critics want the scope of ATSDR's study to be broadened, members of a National Academy of Sciences panel convened for the GAO "generally agreed that many parameters of ATSDR's current study are appropriate, including the study population, the exposure time frame, and the selected health effects," the GAO report said. ATSDR is studying whether individuals that were exposed in utero between 1968 and 1985 were more likely to develop birth defects and childhood cancers.