Image: Hazardous waste sign
Gerry Broome  /  AP
A sign is posted at an ongoing cleanup pump and treatment center at Camp Lejeune, N.C. This operation treats an underground plume of trichloroethylene, or TCE, that was created by a waste disposal site on base. Contamination of drinking wells years ago at the Marine base still reverberates in health concerns.
updated 6/12/2007 12:22:14 PM ET 2007-06-12T16:22:14

Thousands of Marine families who lived at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina over three decades drank and bathed in water contaminated with toxins as much as 40 times over today’s safety standard.

The government disclosed results from a new study the same day lawmakers listened to emotional testimony from families about cancers and other illnesses they blame on tainted tapwater at the sprawling base.

Jerry Ensminger of White Lake, N.C., lost his 9-year-old daughter, Janey, to leukemia. Ensminger, a Marine for 24 years, said toward the end of his daughter’s life, she endured painful treatments.

“I held her and she screamed in my ear, ’Daddy, don’t let them hurt me,”’ he said. He said he reassured her: “They’re trying to help you.”

Marine Corps officials said that Camp Lejeune provided water consistent with industry practices of the time, and that its Marines’ health and safety are of primary concern.

As many as 1 million people were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, according to a document from a federal health agency disclosed at Tuesday’s congressional hearing. That figure is significantly higher than previous estimates. The document estimated the number of residents exposed to such chemicals while living at each of nine U.S. military sites, including Camp Lejeune.

The House Energy and Commerce panel described the sickened Marines as “poisoned patriots.”

The chairman of the committee, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said he will examine handling of the water investigation in 2005 by the Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal division. An EPA investigator, Tyler Amon, acknowledged Tuesday that officials had considered accusing some civilian Navy employees of obstruction of justice.

Amon, who testified despite objections from the Bush administration, said some employees interviewed during the criminal investigation appeared coached and were not forthcoming with details.

Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, the panel’s ranking Republican, said he was puzzled criminal charges weren’t pursued.

“We have many people who have died,” Whitfield said. “We have many people who have suffered significant health problems.”

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Probable carcinogens
Camp Lejeune’s water was polluted from 1957 until 1987 by TCE, a degreasing solvent, and PCE, a dry-cleaning agent. The government describes them as probable carcinogens. The water was believed contaminated by a dry cleaner adjacent to Camp Lejeune and by industrial activities on the base.

A federal health organization, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said Tuesday that its new modeling and analysis of Camp Lejeune’s Tarawa Terrace drinking water system during the affected years found levels of PCE as high as 200 parts per billion, compared to 5 parts per billion that federal regulators set in 1992 as the maximum allowable level.

Of the 1 million people possibly affected, roughly 75,000 of them lived during those three decades in the Tarawa Terrace neighborhood.

The newly released study is part of the health agency’s ongoing investigation into whether exposure to the solvents caused birth defects and leukemia in babies. It also launched a new Web site, www.atsdr.cdc.gov/sites/lejeune, for people to learn the levels of contamination that came from their faucets at different times.

Former residents seek nearly $4 billion
At least 850 former residents of the base have filed administrative claims, seeking nearly $4 billion, for exposure to the industrial solvents.

The Navy Judge Advocate General’s office promised lawmakers it will “thoroughly analyze each and every claim utilizing the best scientific research available.”

It is waiting for a government scientific study about how the water affected babies in utero, which isn’t expected until early next year. Each case will be adjudicated separately, said Pat Leonard from the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s office.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., complained about the wait.

“It seems like we’re just delaying here,” Stupak said. “Delay. Delay. Delay.”

Maj. Gen. Robert C. Dickerson Jr., the commanding general at Camp Lejeune, said the military today would move aggressively to shut off tainted water even if the contamination did not exceed federal safety standards.

“If this were to occur today and there were no levels that had been determined by the EPA, the water would be shut down until they could find the ingredient that was being introduced in the water,” Dickerson said.

That’s too late for former Navy Dr. Michael Gros, of Spring, Texas. He told lawmakers he was stunned to learn years after his work in the 1980s as an obstetrician and gynecologist at Camp Lejeune that he had a rare non-Hodgkins lymphoma. His medical costs have exceeded $4.5 million, he said.

“I was completely unaware that we had been systematically, unethically and heartlessly poisoned during our three years at Camp Lejeune,” Gros said.

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