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Camp Lejeune vets suffer from drinking water contamination

The last years of Marine Corps veteran Ian Colin MacPherson's life were spent fending off one puzzling ailment after another.

Rashes. Headaches. Vertigo. Nausea. And finally, the abnormally aggressive prostate cancer that killed the Riverview man at age 46 in 2004.

MacPherson always figured he must have been poisoned. But by whom?

His widow, Jody MacPherson, believes she found the culprit last year: MacPherson's beloved Marine Corps.

"They killed him," she said.

Camp Lejeune, a sprawling Marine base on the North Carolina seaboard, is the site of what some scientists call the worst public drinking-water contamination in the nation's history. Its water wells were tainted with cancer-causing industrial compounds for 30 years, ending in 1987.

An estimated 500,000 to 1 million people — including Marines and family living on base housing — drank, bathed and cooked using that fouled water.

Congress has dubbed ill Marines "poisoned patriots," and in 2008 lawmakers ordered the Marine Corps to notify those who might have been exposed.

So far, almost 10,000 affected Floridians have registered with the Marine Coprs to take part in a health study, the highest total for any state except North Carolina. About 1,500 claims have been filed against the government seeking $33.8-billion in damages.

"This is worse than any Love Canal," said Jody MacPherson, 47, referring to the New York neighborhood that became notorious in the 1970s as a toxic waste site. "This is worse than Hurricane Katrina. And nobody knows anything about it."

Her husband was born on the base in 1957 and then served there as a Marine for a decade ending in 1985. Nobody ever told him he had been exposed to carcinogens, his wife said. She discovered news of the water contamination on the Internet three years after his death.

"He died never knowing what poisoned him," MacPherson said.

Among the chemicals detected in high concentrations at Camp Lejeune are a metal degreaser, trichloroethylene (TCE) and a degreaser and dry-cleaning agent called tetrachloroethylene (PCE).

PCE appears to have been dumped by a private dry cleaner near one of the water wells, while the TCE was dumped by the Marine Corps, according to documents and investigators.

"It is certainly a huge contamination," said Dr. Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist at Boston University who studied the Woburn, Mass., water contamination made famous by the book and movie, A Civil Action.

Federal limits on the chemicals are 5-parts-per-billion. The highest level of Camp Lejeune water for TCE was about 1,400-parts-per-billion. PCE was found at levels over 200-parts-per-billion.

This is the largest mass exposure from one water supply in the nation's history, Clapp said.

No definitive and comprehensive epidemiology study has been conducted on Camp Lejeune veterans and their families to see if their rates of illness are significant, though two studies are expected to be completed in coming years.

One will look at the potential effects on those exposed to contaminants in utero, a particular concern because the compounds have been linked to childhood leukemia and birth defects.

Critics fault the Marine Corps with a decades-old campaign to either hide the contamination or minimize dangers and then doing too little to alert people.

Just last month, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry took the rare step of withdrawing a 1997 health assessment that said Marines and their families faced little or no increased risk of cancer from the water.

The agency did so because the report contained scientific inaccuracies and omissions.

For example, it did not note that high levels of the carcinogen benzene were found in Camp Lejeune water in 1984.

The Marine Corps discovered the water contamination in 1980, yet waited four years to close contaminated wells and then minimized the danger to Camp Lejeune residents, critics say. Two wells were later reopened for almost two years during a water shortage.

In 1985, Lejeune's commander told residents "minute" levels of contaminants had been found, failing to disclose that a lab had informed the Marine Corps that water was "highly contaminated."

Lt. Brian Block, a Marine spokesman, denied that the Marine Corps misled anyone. He insisted the wells were closed immediately when contamination was confirmed.

"Since the contamination was first documented, we've taken steps to share all our information," Block said. "Our first priority is to take care of our Marines, active and retired."

He noted that the contaminants were not regulated at the time they were discovered, a point the Marine Corps has emphasized through the years.

That's not entirely true. Regulations promulgated as early as 1963 by the Navy, which also applied to the Marine Corps base, barred any harmful contaminants in drinking water.

Jerry Ensminger, 56, a 24-year Marine Corps veteran and former drill instructor who lives in North Carolina, said his 9-year-old daughter, Janey, was conceived at Camp Lejeune and died in 1985 of leukemia he believes was linked to the water.

"I always instilled in my new Marines our motto, Semper fidelis, always faithful," said Ensminger. "We took care of our own. But nobody could be more disillusioned with the conduct of the Marine Corps than I am."

Charles Corbett, 55, a St. Petersburg man who is a former program analyst at Florida Power, served at Camp Lejeune from 1974 to 1976. He said he has since been diagnosed with a neuro­logical disorder that causes vision problems, fatigue and headaches.

He said he can't get help for medical care from the government because his illnesses have been deemed non-service connected.

"We're all dying," Corbett said of Camp Lejeune veterans. "And the government is turning its back on us."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5306.

Were you at Camp Lejeune?

Anyone who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune in 1987 or before can register with the Marine Corps for a planned health study. To register or to get more information, visit https://clnr.hqi.usmc.mil/clwater/ or call toll-free at (877) 261-9782.

Also, a private Web site, http://www.tftptf.com/, which is unaffiliated with the Marines, offers a wide variety of information.

Camp Lejeune vets suffer from drinking water contamination 05/29/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 2, 2009 1:50pm]
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