N.C. Marine Camp's Water Under Scrutiny

The Associated Press
Monday, June 11, 2007; 7:26 PM

ATLANTA -- Thousands of Marines and their families went to serve their country at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune.

Instead, many wound up fighting it, blaming the government for failing to protect them from an enemy that invaded their lives in a most intimate way: through the water that quenched their thirst, cooked their food and filled their bathtubs every day.

The gruff ex-drill instructor is angry leukemia claimed his daughter, Janey. Parents were guilt-ridden that perhaps their own actions had ruined their daughters' health. An aging major still mourns the wife who shared his torment over their baby's fatal birth defects. A former Navy doctor's career was demolished by his rare cancer.

Each used the water that poured from kitchen faucets and bathroom showers at Camp Lejeune, an environmental tragedy realized a generation ago that is drawing new scrutiny from members of Congress outraged over the government's treatment of sick veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and elsewhere.

U.S. health officials here in Atlanta hope to finish a long-awaited study by year's end to examine whether the water tainted with solvents affected the health of children. It will influence the Pentagon's response to at least 850 pending legal claims by people who lived at the Marine base, officials said. The former residents, who together seek nearly $4 billion, believe their families were afflicted by water containing industrial solvents before the Marines shut off the bad wells in the mid-1980s.

At least 120,000 people lived in family housing that may have been affected over three decades, plus uncounted civilian workers and Marines in barracks, Marine Corps figures indicate. Defense officials recently told U.S. health investigators that between 1975 and 1985 alone, nearly 200,000 Marines were stationed at Camp Lejeune.

About 56,000 Marines, family members and civilians now live or work at Camp Lejeune, the sprawling training and deployment base on the Atlantic seaboard. Its water meets current federal standards.

Health officials and lawmakers complain that the Defense Department has delayed disclosure of important documents during investigations into the health impact of water contaminated by a dry cleaner adjacent to Camp Lejeune and by the base's past industrial activities.

"We wouldn't be investigating this disgraceful situation if (the Department of Defense) had put half as much effort into cleaning up the water as it has into stonewalling those who drank it," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. A subcommittee expects to conduct an oversight hearing Tuesday, the first in a broader review by Democrats investigating the Pentagon's environmental record.

The scrutiny comes as federal regulators consider whether to tighten restrictions on solvents known as TCE, trichloroethylene, and PCE, tetrachloroethylene, common contaminants at military and private industrial sites. The chemicals were highlighted in a 1998 movie starring John Travolta, "A Civil Action," about a lawsuit against corporate polluters in Woburn, Mass.

Marine Corps officials said Camp Lejeune followed environmental rules in effect at the time.

"The health and safety of our Marines and their dependents is of primary concern to the Marine Corps," the service said in a statement. "Base officials provided drinking water consistent with industry practices at the time."

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