Members of a citizens panel advising the federal agency researching polluted drinking water at Camp Lejeune are criticizing both the Marine Corps and the agency for delays in the disclosure of documents tied to the environmental disaster.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry told the citizens panel at a meeting last week in Atlanta that in July 2013 the Corps turned over 40,000 documents tied to environmental problems at the North Carolina base.
ATSDR had not fully revealed to panel members that the Corps had turned over the documents, agency officials said at the meeting, because of strained relations between ATSDR and the panel.
The agency's acting director resigned last month after some members of Congress criticized the agency's poor communication with the panel.
Camp Lejeune's drinking water was contaminated for 30 years or more ending in 1987 with a stew of cancer-causing chemicals. Scientists believe up to 1 million people were exposed to the water, including up to 20,000 Floridians who formerly lived on the base.
Panel members questioned why the Marine Corps had not volunteered the material sooner. ATSDR has been investigating Camp Lejeune for more than a decade.
Furthermore, the Corps has told ATSDR that the documents are not to be made public and should not be released to agency officials without a "valid need to know," according to a cover sheet the Corps sent to ATSDR when it released the data to it.
"These documents are not related to national security," said Michael Partain, a panel member who was born on the base and was diagnosed with breast cancer. "The public has a right to know what the Marine Corps has done.''
At least 10,000 documents about Camp Lejeune water pollution have been released publicly since 1989, when the base became a Superfund site.
A Marine Corps spokeswoman said the Corps and the Department of the Navy, which oversees it, have fully cooperated with ATSDR and denied that any documents have ever been withheld. An ATSDR spokeswoman said the Marine Corps has fully cooperated with it.
"The Marine Corps makes every effort to cooperate with ATSDR in order to expeditiously provide relevant information," said Capt. Maureen Krebs. "However, the Marine Corps/Navy remain the owner of these records and must comply with applicable laws governing their release."
The Corps and ATSDR said the documents were released after the agency requested them.
At least some of the new documents may be related to so-called "vapor intrusion" at Lejeune. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel leaked into the ground at a fuel depot operated on the base. Fumes may have leaked into nearby buildings, potentially posing a health hazard.
The Tampa Bay Times reported in a 2011 story about the vapor problem and noted the Marine Corps had promised the public in the late 1980s it would conduct tests of the air to assess the health hazard.
But the Marine Corps could produce no records showing the testing had ever been done. The Corps told the Times documents may not have been retained.
"The absence of records more than 20 years later does not necessarily mean action was not taken," the Corps said in 2011 after it acknowledged it could find no proof testing was done.
Jerry Ensminger, a panel member who is a retired Marine drill instructor, said the panel is asking members of Congress to order the Corps and ATSDR to make the documents available to the public.
Much of that spilled fuel still saturates the ground under Lejeune, and Ensminger said these documents could shed light on the extent of vapor intrusion in Lejeune buildings.
"This has serious implications for people who still work on the base," he said.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]