Military personnel who served at Camp Lejeune deserve better than a "dog ate my homework" excuse from the country they serve. But that's all they got from the Marine Corps, which claims that a lack of documentation for air quality testing does "not necessarily" indicate a lack of a response to contamination at the base in the late 1980s. While the Marines Corps may — or may not — have delivered on its promise to conduct the air tests at the North Carolina military base, the Corps' inability to provide records from that time reflects a stunning negligence. Its stock responses suggest an indifference that is an insult to military and civilian personnel and the health problems many of them still are battling.
As the St. Petersburg Times staff writer William R. Levesque reported last Sunday, the Corps discovered a 15-foot underground layer of pure gasoline in the late 1980s at Camp Lejeune and promised to follow a consultant's advice to begin immediate testing of nearby buildings for air quality. Whether those tests occurred, though, is unknown. The Corps cannot find documentation confirming the testing was completed any time before the late 1990s. By then, five buildings were demolished for strong fuel odors.
But it is clear from records that the Corps was well aware of air quality problems in the decade before the buildings were demolished. Records show several complaints of fuel odors at the base's data processing center and various warehouses and maintenance shops — and records document the leak of 1 million gallons of fuel from corroded tanks and pipes. That fuel continues to be pumped from the ground today.
Several structures were evacuated on several occasions during the late 1980s, according to 62-year-old Mildred Duncan, a retired civilian computer specialist at the base. She calls the military's response a betrayal. Now federal scientists are determining whether up to 1 million Marines and civilian employees were exposed to cancer-causing industrial compounds in drinking water in the 30 years ending in 1987. Of the 170,000 former Camp Lejeune employees or residents who have signed up for updates on the research, Floridians — numbering 14,500 — are second only to North Carolinians in number. Marine critics are also reasonably raising the alarm about the smaller number of military employees who would also have been exposed to the contamination's fumes, which is potentially more toxic.
The Marines Corps' response to those concerns continues to be unsatisfactory and less than transparent. A spokesman told the Times that records of air tests might have been destroyed pursuant to the Marines' document-retention guidelines. "We believe," said Marine spokesman Nat Fahy, "that any testing that may have been done was done in a timely manner."
Given the scope and severity of the contamination, such calculated answers are not reassuring. The Corps owes all who worked and lived at Camp Lejeune an explanation and more action, not to mention an apology and reparations for its response — or lack thereof.