The Marine Corps failed to evaluate health risks after discovering toxic chemicals in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in the early 1980s and did not provide enough detailed information about the contamination to residents of base housing, according to a report issued on Tuesday by an investigatory panel.
The panel, appointed in February by Gen. Michael W. Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, criticized military water experts for not helping base officials "understand the significance of the contamination," but it ultimately concluded that the Marine Corps "acted responsibly."
The panel's report agreed with the central tenet of the Marine Corps's defense of its actions at Lejeune, saying there were no federal standards at the time and that the base's water quality was comparable to that of municipal water systems of the era.
Hagee, who has declined repeated requests for interviews about the case and did not respond to written questions Tuesday, has described the panel as an independent body appointed to address the growing controversy over water contamination at Camp Lejeune. Former Marines, their families and civilians who lived on the base have blamed the contaminated water for a variety of chronic health problems, including cancers that claimed the lives of several children.
Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), who has been critical of the panel's makeup, dismissed its findings Tuesday and called for a separate, independent panel to investigate the case.
"Marines and their families deserve much better," said Jeffords, who is the ranking minority member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Retired Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, whose 6-year-old daughter died of leukemia after growing up at Camp Lejeune, called the report "a whitewash."
"We gave the Marine Corps a chance to police themselves," Ensminger said. "It's obvious that they do not want to and they are not going to unless they are forced."
The report issued Tuesday is not likely to be the last word about water contamination at Camp Lejeune. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is studying children whose mothers were pregnant at the base between 1968 and 1985.
Ensminger, Jeffords and others have said that the study should be expanded to cover adults.
The metal degreaser trichloroethylene and the dry-cleaning compound tetrachloroethylene were first discovered at Camp Lejeune in 1980 and 1981, but residents were not notified until the wells delivering contaminated water were closed in 1985.
The panel's report said an official with the North Carolina Water Supply Branch, which oversaw some testing at the base, was quoted in a newspaper article at the time, saying that "Camp Lejeune should not worry about getting bad drinking water."
The panel lauded Camp Lejeune officials for "making every effort" to comply with generally accepted water-quality standards, but it noted that water managers did not move quickly after the discovery of chemicals in the water. Poor record keeping, as well as inadequate funding, staffing and training, contributed to the slow response, the report said.
The Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic Division, which provides technical advice to Marine bases, was "not aggressive in providing Camp Lejeune with information and expertise to help the base understand the significance of the contamination," the report said.
"The lack of a quick and aggressive response," it added, "was unfortunate."