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Critics say Marine Corps contract on Camp Lejeune is conflict of interest

The National Research Council released a controversial report in June that said science could not link polluted water at Camp Lejeune to illnesses suffered by thousands of residents who lived on the Marine Corps base.

The NRC, an arm of the nonprofit National Academies of Science that often advises government agencies, said no further study would prove such a link.

The Corps, under fire from veterans and families who say the water sickened them, sent news of the report to the 145,000 people on a health registry of former residents of the North Carolina base.

But there was something the Marine Corps didn't reveal.

It had quietly negotiated a $600,000 contract with the NRC in the months before the report's release, an agreement finalized on May 1. It called for the NRC to provide ongoing consultation on water contamination at Camp Lejeune.

Federal scientists and critics of the Marine Corps say the contract, obtained by the St. Petersburg Times on Friday, is a blatant conflict of interest, and some critics say it calls into question the accuracy of an NRC report that already has been criticized by some scientists.

"They've beaten us to death with the NRC report and pulled the wool over everybody's eyes," said Mike Partain, a Tallahassee resident who was born at Camp Lejeune in 1968 and was later diagnosed with a rare breast cancer he thinks is linked to bad water.

"The NRC report smelled rotten," he said, "and now we have a deal that smells even worse."

News of the contract is causing anger at the usually staid Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the federal office spearheading health research at the base.

The agency says drinking water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated for 30 years ending in 1987 by industrial solvents that are suspected carcinogens.

The Marine Corps didn't tell the agency about the contract, either, documents show.

"The direct funding of peer review by the agency responsible for contaminating the Camp Lejeune drinking water creates a perceived conflict of interest unacceptable to the community of veterans and their families exposed" to the water, wrote Thomas Sinks, a deputy director of the agency, in a recent letter to the Corps and Navy.

A spokesman for the Corps, Capt. Brian Block, said the contract was part of its continuing relationship with the NRC and will aid the Corps' efforts to better understand the potential health effects of polluted water.

The Corps declined to discuss charges that the contract is a conflict and denies that it misled anyone about its existence.

"This contract does not impact the Marine Corps willingness or ability to support the ATSDR's ongoing efforts," Block said in an e-mail.

He said the deal only "proposed that (the NRC) provide us advice," Block said.

Jennifer Walsh, a spokeswoman for the NRC, declined to comment about criticisms of the report or charges about a conflict of interest.

The Marine Corps initially declined to confirm the existence of the contract when the Times asked about it earlier in the week. Block, the Corps spokesman, said in an e-mail, "We will not discuss future contracts until they are finalized."

In fact, the contract was finalized on May 1.

The Marine Corps also provided, at the Times request, a financial breakdown of the $14 million the Corps has publicly maintained it spent on Camp Lejeune research. The list did not contain the $600,000 NRC contract. When asked about it, the Corps did not respond.

Sinks, the toxic substances agency deputy director, said in his letter to the Marine Corps and Navy that he was "particularly troubled" that the NRC is seeking volunteers from the scientific community to serve on a panel the NRC will form to work on Camp Lejeune water issues.

"The potential panel members have not been advised of the perceived financial conflict of interest or that ATSDR does not support this approach," wrote Sinks, who was unavailable for an interview.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

Critics say Marine Corps contract on Camp Lejeune is conflict of interest 11/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 9:25pm]
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