The federal government needs to answer for recklessly allowing U.S. Marines and their families to drink contaminated water over a 30-year period at Camp Lejeune. St. Petersburg Times staff writer William R. Levesque reported last Sunday that between 400,000 and 1 million people may have been exposed to tainted water at the North Carolina base in the years before contaminated wells were shut down in the 1980s. The Marine hierarchy was warned at the time but dragged its feet on closing the wells and in alerting the authorities. Now 12,000 Floridians who once lived at the base have signed on to a Marine health registry, and the Corps owes them an answer about the extent of the contamination and whether it is responsible for sicknesses that include a rare cancer cluster.
The Times' review of Marine Corps documents and state and federal records shows that the base failed to close the wells for years, despite increasingly dire warnings that the drinking water supply was tainted by industrial cleaning solvents. The Marines dumped oil and industrial wastewater in storm drains, records show. One source of contamination was a nearby dry cleaner that for years dumped into drains wastewater laden with tetrachloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen used in dry cleaning. An investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency led to the camp being listed as a Superfund cleanup site in 1989. Former Marines and their families have good cause to wonder whether the contamination contributed to their health problems. At least 146,000 people who once lived at the camp, including the 12,000 in Florida, have signed on to the Marine registry.
A Marine Corps spokesman, Capt. Brian Block, said three independent reviews cleared the Corps of wrongdoing. Block also said the contamination at Camp Lejeune needs to be seen in the proper context. Environmental practices in the latter half of last century, he said, were far more relaxed than they are today.
But the Corps knew it had a problem and failed to promptly act. Corps and Navy engineers were warned by chemists beginning in 1980 about the contamination, but the Corps did not close the wells for another four years. The Marines provided regulators with reports that omitted any mention of contaminants. In one case, the Marines failed to inform regulators — as required by law — that storage tanks were leaking 1,500 gallons of fuel a month.
The Corps says chemicals found in camp water were not regulated in the 1980s and that no link has been found between the exposure and any disease. That defense belies common sense and the military's own standards of precaution. While the EPA did not regulate some solvents, Navy regulations in force at Lejeune barred harmful substances in the water. Indeed, a regulation on the books dating to 1974 outlined how to safely isolate hazardous wastes from the water supply. The Corps never released that regulation or other Navy rules on drinking water to investigators who examined the camp.
Terry Puida, a 43 year-old Land O'Lakes resident who was born at Camp Lejeune in 1966, believes his testicular cancer is related to the contaminated water. Dan Mills, a 62 year-old Orlando resident who served at Lejeune from 1966 to 1968, is convinced the water is to blame for his rare cluster of cancers. His oncologist wrote that they may be linked. Retired Marine Joe Moser, 70, of Riverview, who was stationed at Lejeune from 1957 to 1960, blames the polluted wells for his breast cancer. A Corps spokesman told the Times: "It would be extremely interesting to see how much time these men spent at Camp Lejeune, where exactly they lived and when they lived there."
Yes, it would be interesting — and the Marines should find out. It should not fall to the 1,500 people who have filed billions of dollars in claims against the Marines to document the contamination by themselves. The Corps owes the ex-Marines who served their country and all Americans a full accounting of the environmental practices at Camp Lejeune and a thorough assessment of whether they are linked to any diseases.