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Press Releases :: September 16, 2010

Veterans and Families Continue to Fight for Facts, Help Years After Toxic Exposure on Base

 

(Washington, DC) – Today, The House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing to examine the legacy of drinking water contamination at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
 
Between the Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune beginning operations in 1941 and the closing of contaminated wells in the mid-eighties, as many as one million individuals have been exposed through their drinking water to toxic chemicals, including solvents such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE) and by-products of fuel such as benzene. Benzene is considered a “known human carcinogen” and there is growing consensus that TCE and PCE are reasonably anticipated to be considered human carcinogens and have been associated with various forms of cancers, including liver, kidney and lung cancer as well as leukemia and breast cancer. Warnings of the base’s contaminated drinking water problems first surfaced in 1980, TCE and PCE were identified as the contaminants in the water supply two years later in 1982, but the U.S. Marine Corps did not shut down the contaminated wells until after they discovered benzene in the water supply in 1984. It took them another 24 years to notify veterans about this contamination and potential health problems.
 
“For the two decades since the wells were shut down, the Marine Corp leadership and the Department of the Navy have denied that they had a water problem, said Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC).  “Because no laws were technically broken and the contaminated wells were, eventually, shut down, the Navy continues to deny that they bear responsibility for taking care of these veterans and their families. Children have died from rare forms of leukemia, but the Navy says they are not responsible. Marines and dependents have developed male breast cancer, but the Navy says, ‘not our problem.’  While the Department of Veterans Affairs has begun to extend benefits for cancers that they view as ‘more likely than not’ caused by drinking the toxic water, the Navy continues to wait.”
 
In December 1988, the Department of the Navy, which also stations servicemen and women at Camp Lejeune, issued a letter to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) requesting that the agency perform a Public Health Assessment at Camp Lejeune.  The final Assessment was published in 1997 and concluded exposures to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the tap water, including TCE, PCE, and DCE, were a past public health hazard.  However, ATSDR did not adequately investigate exposures to benzene, despite having information that should have sparked a much more aggressive investigation of the benzene exposures at the time.  The 1997 Public Health Assessment was withdrawn last year. 
 
“I am glad to see that ATSDR has acknowledged that inadequacy of the 1997 Public Health Assessment and withdrew it last year,” said Miller. “Now ATSDR must carry out its slate of promised studies as quickly as possible. These studies will not provide the certainty regarding exposure and disease that some expect, but they should help identify the range of possible cancers and other conditions that could be produced from exposure to the polluted drinking water at Camp LeJeune.”
 
Currently the Department of Veterans Affairs handles disability claims for veterans based on exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune on a case-by-case basis.  The VA has granted claims to a handful of veterans after determining that their illnesses are ‘more likely than not’ tied to toxic chemical exposures from Camp Lejeune’s drinking water.  Other applicants have had their claims denied and there is no consistent system in place for handling these claims. Additionally, dependents of military personnel are not eligible to apply for benefits through the VA. The Secretary of the VA is currently weighing a decision regarding the establishment of specific presumptive health conditions tied to environmental exposures at Camp Lejeune. 
 
Subcommittee Chairman Miller introduced a bill last year called the Janey Ensminger Act that would direct the VA to provide health care services to both veterans and their family members who have experienced adverse health effects as a result of exposures to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune. The bill is named for Janey Ensminger, a nine-year-old girl who died from childhood Leukemia in 1985 after being exposed to the water at Camp Lejeune while in utero.
 
“I believe the VA has begun to move in the right direction by awarding this small pool of veterans the compensation they need and deserve, said Miller. “I believe it is time that the Department of the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps stop fighting these efforts, and focus their energies on taking care of their own now and in the future. It is time that the leadership of the Navy and Marine Corps lived up to the motto of the Corps.  They could learn from the example of Janey’s father, Jerry Ensminger, who has been faithful always to the memory of his daughter and to all the victims of the toxic drinking water at Camp Lejeune.”
 
For more information, including about our work on ATSDR, please visit the Committee’s website.
 
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