The Marine Corps in July released a booklet with a reassuring message for as many as 1 million people who may have been exposed to polluted drinking water at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
"To date, the scientific community has not established an association between exposure to the contaminated water and health conditions reported by former residents of Camp Lejeune," former Corps commandant James Conway says in the booklet. More research, the booklet says, is unlikely to prove a link.
But now the federal agency researching one of the nation's worst public drinking water contaminations is demanding that the Marine Corps withdraw the booklet because its language is "misleading."
"It suggests there is no problem," said Thomas Sinks, a director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), in a Jan. 14 letter to the Marine Corps. "It understates the potential hazards from the contaminated drinking water and may discourage individuals from participating in planned research studies."
Sinks wrote, "The presence of known human carcinogens in drinking water support a much more cautious and informative message being conveyed." For one thing, Sinks said, at least one link has been established: A federal study a few years ago noted low birth weight for boys whose mothers were exposed to a chemical in the water.
Among several efforts in the next few years, ATSDR is to complete a study of former Camp Lejeune residents to see whether they have died at a higher rate than other populations.
The booklet was delivered to every member of Congress, according to critics of the Corps. It also went to 4,125 people who signed up for a Corps registry of those who were exposed to the tainted water for 30 years ending in 1987. The booklet tops a list of resources on a Corps website.
The Corps has not responded to the letter, an ATSDR spokeswoman said. ATSDR and the Corps declined to comment Friday. More than 165,000 people who formerly lived at the base have signed up to that Marine Corps registry. And 14,335 of those live in Florida, the second-highest total in the nation behind North Carolina.
Drinking water on the base was contaminated with a brew of chemicals, including solvents and a by-product of gasoline.
Sinks said in his letter that ATSDR and the Corps had previously signed a "memorandum of understanding" to set up guidelines about communications on Camp Lejeune water issues.
The Corps insisted the agreement contain a provision obligating both ATSDR and the Corps to share with each other information about tainted water before its release to ensure accuracy. But Sinks said Marine Corps officials have "stalled" final approval of this provision.
Sinks said ATSDR was not informed about the release of the booklet. Mike Partain, a breast cancer survivor who was born at Lejeune and serves on a panel advising ATSDR, first pointed out to the agency that the booklet's language was misleading. That led to Sinks' letter.
Corps critics note that the booklet contains numerous false and misleading statements. For instance, critics point out, the Corps claims that it reacted quickly to close polluted water wells. But the booklet does not note that the Marine Corps waited four years to close wells after tests first started showing signs of contamination in tap water.
One claim in the booklet especially angers critics.
"The exposures experienced at Camp Lejeune through the drinking water are generally considered lower level environmental type exposures relative to higher level occupational type exposures," it says.
What it doesn't say is that the levels of some contaminants in Lejeune water were among the highest ever seen in a large, public drinking water system.
Jerry Ensminger is a former Marine Corps drill instructor who thinks that his 9-year-old daughter's death from leukemia is linked to the water. Ensminger, one of the most active advocates for Lejeune residents, said the booklet is one of many examples of the Corps twisting the facts.
"It's a shame," he said Friday. "The booklet is written to deceive. It's not written to keep people informed."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.