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U.S. Navy Finally Agrees to Study Health Effects of 30 Years of Potentially Deadly Water Contamination at a Marine Corps Base

Documents recently reviewed by the press revealed the contamination at Camp Lejeune was far more extensive and deadly than previously assumed.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a story of environmental contamination that’s been brewing for decades. Last week, the Navy finally agreed to pay over $1.5 million to fund a study looking into the health effects of water contamination at Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps base in North Carolina. The study could show a link between toxic water at the base and the illnesses and deaths of Marines and their family members for a thirty-year period from the late ’50s to the late ’80s.

Thousands of Marines and their families who were stationed at Camp Lejeune have long complained of illnesses and deaths linked to exposure to toxic water. Health officials estimate a million people were exposed to contaminated well water at the base before the main well was shut down in 1984. But the Navy had refused to fund such a study for months, despite bipartisan demands from North Carolina politicians.

Documents recently reviewed by the press revealed the contamination was far more extensive and deadly than previously assumed. They point to massive leaks of benzene, a known carcinogen, from a fuel storage farm at Camp Lejeune. They also suggest an environmental contractor dramatically underreported the level of benzene found in tap water in 1984, then omitted it altogether as the Marine base prepared for a federal health review a decade later.

For more on the story, I’m joined in Washington, DC by Barbara Barrett, the Washington correspondent with McClatchy Newspapers who’s closely following this story. And joining us on the line from White Lake, North Carolina is a former Marine, Jerome Ensminger. His daughter Janey was conceived when he was at Camp Lejeune. She died of leukemia in 1985. He’s testified three times before Congress and is the co-founder of the site “The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Barbara Barrett, lay out the story.

BARBARA BARRETT: Well, essentially, as you mentioned, this has been going on for those former Marines and their families who lived on base from 1957 through 1987. There are some estimates that as many as a million people might have been exposed over that time. The contaminants include TCE, PCE, benzene and vinyl chloride. For a long time the Marines blamed this, in part, on a dry cleaner near the base and said that the main contaminants were TCE, trichoroethylene, and PCE, tetrachloroethylene.

But McClatchy reported over a week ago that these new documents show that as many as 800,000 gallons of benzene, which is a component of fuel, might have been spilled at this centrally located fuel farm on base over the course of—you know, we’re not entirely sure. There may be some estimates that it could be even more. We’re trying to learn more, as are folks like Jerry Ensminger. But right now, this changes a lot of the science of what’s going on.

As you mentioned, the Navy agreed last week to finally fund this mortality study. It’s about $1.5 million. It will compare the deaths of Marines based at Camp Lejeune to the deaths of Marines based at Camp Pendleton to see if they can track some sort of more definitive link between the contamination from Lejeune with the rest of—with those Marines who were not exposed at Camp Pendleton.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did this study come from? I mean, what kind of pressure has been applied on the Navy to agree to this study, after how many decades?

BARBARA BARRETT: Well, Camp Lejeune is listed as a Superfund site under the EPA because of the contamination, and they have been working on this cleanup. So that’s been going on. Meanwhile, the Marines have been told to contact former Marines and their families who have lived there over the years. They have done some efforts with that. They’ve worked with the IRS to contact people. They’ve also put advertisements in magazines and newspapers trying to reach out to people.

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