It is troubling to see the U.S. Senate's hesitant response to evidence that contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., may have poisoned Marines and their families for three decades. Many veterans say that gave rise to higher mortality and cancer rates. Yet the Senate remains frustratingly indifferent.
Some scientists have called it the worst public drinking water contamination in the nation's history. St. Petersburg Times reporter Bill Levesque has documented the problem, which may involve as many as 1 million people. For 30 years, until 1987, benzene and other suspected carcinogens polluted the base's drinking water. Marine Corps documents and state and federal records revealed that the base failed to close the wells for years, despite dire warnings that the drinking water supply was tainted by industrial cleaning solvents. It was so bad that in 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency listed the base as a Superfund cleanup site.
Last month, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee rejected a bill to require the Department of Veterans Affairs to care for ailing veterans and family members. It also would have ordered the VA and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which had been spearheading research into base contamination, to determine the time period during which water was tainted and establish which illnesses are associated with it.
The Senate committee opted instead for a bill that would put the Department of Defense in charge of the health care of the exposed family members. The department has enough burdens without adding this one. And it is their polluted base. The Marine Corps has been on the defensive and at odds with the Toxic Substances and Disease Registry over the extent of the problems.
Legislation has been introduced in the House that is identical to the rejected Senate plan, giving responsibility to the VA and the Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. That is preferable, and the Senate should reconsider it. A scientific, independent review is essential in order for troops and veterans to be assured the problem is being handled objectively.
Addressing the concerns and health needs of this large population will not be cheap. Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., the bill's sponsor, estimates the cost at $1.1 billion over 10 years. But the nation makes a lifetime commitment to those it sends into battle. For the Marines and their families suffering from ailments and diseases that appear to be traced to the tainted water, it is falling well short of fulfilling that promise.