The story of how the Marine Corps exposed its service members and their families to dangerous water at Camp Lejeune continues to evolve — for the worse. The Tampa Bay Times' William R. Levesque recently reported that the Corps' regulations required water to be tested for contaminants at the North Carolina base far earlier than the Marines had suggested was required by federal law. The revelation comes only weeks after the contaminated water was found to have affected up to tens of thousands of additional Marines and their families. The Obama administration and Congress should hold the Corps to account for finding and caring for those whose health may be at risk.
The Corps has long defended its failure to address the tainted drinking water at Camp Lejeune by arguing that federal law did not regulate the cancer-causing pollutants until years after the contamination was discovered. But the Corps' own regulations required water testing at Camp Lejeune and other Marine bases starting in 1963, decades before the federal government brought about regulatory limits for such chemicals as trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene and benzene. The Corps told the Times it can find no record that the Marines performed this test at Camp Lejeune, though a spokesman said it was unclear whether the screenings were not conducted or the records were lost.
The best-case scenario is that the Corps has put an additional tens of thousands of veterans and their families in an uncertain position regarding whether they face serious health risks. This looks like another opportunity the Marines missed to catch a public health disaster in the making. Today, more than 185,000 people who drank, cooked and bathed in the polluted water there from 1953 to 1987 have signed up for a health registry. Some 16,000 of them are Floridians, a total second only to North Carolina. About 750,000 Marines and family members may have been exposed to the contaminated water, which some medical experts have linked to birth defects, leukemia and other cancers. The Corps needs to do everything possible to reach out and care for these military families.
Obama's nominee for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, pledged during his Senate confirmation hearing last week to provide Marine families with answers about the contamination, saying "there should never, ever" be a question about whether America would protect the health of the men and women who answer the call to defend the country. The Marine Corps needs to echo that straightforward concern. It can start by establishing whether the tests ever occurred or not.