Jerry Ensminger pulled no punches when he accused the Marine Corps of withholding information about Camp Lejeune water pollution in a St. Petersburg Times story last month.
About a week later, a Corps general got an audience with the director of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, which is investigating pollution at the base.
It wasn't long before Ensminger, a member of a panel advising ATSDR on Lejeune water issues, said he got a startling message from the agency:
Don't criticize the Corps.
Ensminger and other members of the Community Assistance Panel say it was a breach of public trust for a "major polluter" to get a private session with the very agency investigating one of the worst public drinking water contaminations in U.S. history.
The panel, composed largely of former residents of the North Carolina base, provides a voice to civilians who might otherwise be bowled over by large bureaucracies, members say.
Ensminger, a retired Marine drill instructor, had planned at the panel's meeting this Thursday to rebut the Corps' claims that it has withheld nothing from federal scientists.
But that, an ATSDR official told Ensminger in an e-mail, would violate the panel's "respect rule." Ensminger was then scratched from the agenda.
"It's a community assistance panel, not a polluter assistance panel," said Ensminger, who believes toxic Lejeune drinking water caused the leukemia that killed his 9-year-old daughter in 1985.
The ATSDR "acts like it is more beholden to polluters than the communities they were created to study and investigate," he said.
The Corps and ATSDR deny trying to muzzle Ensminger and said there was nothing improper about the get-together.
"The meeting was a courtesy visit" between Lt. Gen. Frank Panter Jr. and ATSDR's acting director, Dr. Henry Falk, and "did not involve a substantive discussion" about the advisory panel or Camp Lejeune pollution, an ATSDR spokeswoman said in a written statement.
Scientists say up to a million people may have been exposed to toxic water at the Marine base over 30 years, ending in 1987. ATSDR is leading research to determine the severity of contamination and whether it caused a slew of cancers for Marines and family members.
It's a life-and-death issue for former base residents, including more than 13,000 Floridians who lived at the base and have signed up for a Marine health registry.
That's the second-highest total in the nation, behind only North Carolina.
In an e-mail to Ensminger, ATSDR deputy director Thomas Sinks said he didn't want the Marine Corps to boycott Community Assistance Panel meetings because of Ensminger's criticisms.
Sinks told Ensminger, "Don't give them the excuse ... (by) creating a CAP session that looks like the gunfight at the OK corral. The CAP isn't intended to be a gunfight. We don't look backward or blame individuals.
"You are looking for conspiracy behind every door. This isn't a conspiracy. We are not in league" with the Marine Corps.
Mike Partain, a member of the panel, said the CAP is an independent body and Sinks should not be speaking as if it were his own fiefdom.
"Just because we ask difficult questions doesn't mean we should be ignored," Partain said.
Capt. Brian Block, a Marine spokesman, said Panter wanted a meeting with ATSDR's chief so he could introduce himself.
Panter is the Corps' new deputy commandant for installations and logistics.
In an apparent reference to billions of dollars in claims faced by the Corps, Block said, "The Marine Corps does not find value in individuals using the CAP as a forum to conduct inquiries into matters related to any potential claims for significant monetary and other compensation."
Ensminger said the presentation he planned to make at the CAP meeting had nothing to do with claims the Corps faces. And in any case, he said, "The CAP was created for the community, not the Marine Corps."
ATSDR said Ensminger will have the chance to speak at the meeting during a time slot allocated for general discussion. But he questions whether he will be allowed to speak in that time slot, or if his time will be curtailed.
"What kind of faith will the Camp Lejeune community have that they're getting a fair shake from ATSDR when they're meeting in secret with a major polluter?" Ensminger asked.
The stakes are enormous. ATSDR is working on a water model that will determine the extent and severity of contamination going back to the 1940s.
The agency also is studying human health effects and plans a mortality study to see if residents of the base have died at a rate higher than other populations.
Terri Huntley, an Iowa resident who also serves on the CAP, said she worries that ATSDR is buckling to pressure from the Marines.
"The meeting was just unethical," Huntley said. "Everybody needs to be included in these meetings to at least hear what the general had to say. What happened was just sneaky."
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432.