The Navy is starting to address its responsibilities to as many as 1 million former Marines and their families. In the past month, the service has agreed to study whether contaminated water at Camp Lejeune led to illnesses or premature deaths among those who lived at the North Carolina base. The studies are long past due, and it should not have taken a Senate hold on two key Navy appointments for the service to come around. Congress needs to make sure the Navy provides a full accounting to these military families.
Between 400,000 and 1 million people may have been exposed to tainted water at Camp Lejeune before the base shut down its contaminated wells in the 1980s. As St. Petersburg Times staff writer William R. Levesque has chronicled over the past year, the Marine hierarchy was warned at the time that the water supply was contaminated by leaking gas tanks, dry cleaning solvents and oil and industrial waste. But the military stalled in addressing the health problems and in alerting authorities. Some Marines who served at the camp blame their families' health problems on water tainted by cancer-causing chemicals.
The Navy's $1.5 million study will help establish whether there are higher than normal mortality rates associated with the years the contaminated wells were in operation. The findings will form a broader baseline that the Navy needs to assess what happened at Lejeune. At least 53 men with ties to the base between 1957 and 1987 have been diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer. It is imperative — especially as these veterans and their families are aging — that the government find out fast the root and extent of any health care problems.
The stakes are particularly high for Florida. More than 12,000 Floridians who lived at the base have signed on to a Marine Corps health registry, more than any state except North Carolina. Florida's U.S. senators, Bill Nelson and George LeMieux, should continue working with their North Carolina colleagues in pressing the issue. The Navy has also agreed to examine the broader health impacts among Lejeune veterans. A report last month by the Associated Press, citing new documents, indicates "massive" fuel leaks at the camp. The Navy needs to clear the air on these serious health concerns, and Congress needs to ensure it does so in a timely manner.