Senator Would Force U.S. Military to Notify Marines Exposed to Toxic Tap Water
WASHINGTON -- U.S. military officials should directly inform hundreds of thousands of Marine families and workers that they drank and washed in toxin-contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Dole said.
Dole, a North Carolina Republican, said Wednesday she wants to force the secretary of the U.S. Navy to locate and notify Marines and civilians who were exposed to the water up until the mid-1980s when the base shut down contaminated wells.
In a new twist, Marine officials raised the prospect Wednesday that the same contaminants may endanger residents in the form of vapors that can be inhaled. The base is testing to see if vapors are seeping through soil into homes and buildings from a groundwater plume.
Officials said the drinking water has been safe for many years. Previous monitoring from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed the underground plume was "no where near any of the buildings or residential areas," according to Maj. Nat Fahy, the base spokesman.
However, the base and EPA recently began testing when health investigators from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reported that their new water model showed the plume had migrated beneath homes and a school as far back as the 1960s. The model only went up to 1994 and contained some inherent uncertainties, according to agency investigators, who are studying health effects from the past contaminated water. Some hazardous clean-up work also has occurred since then.
"We're not saying there's a problem. We're saying there's a potential problem and we're happy the Marines are going in there and sampling," said Frank Bove, a senior epidemiologist at the health agency.
"We want residents to know that this latest information on the groundwater has no effect on their actual water supply which comes from an entirely different source," said Fahy.
Base officials hand-carried letters Wednesday to 900 homes in the base's Tarawa Terrace neighborhood, disclosing the testing. A small portion of those homes may be affected, Fahy said. Ventilation systems could be installed if danger is found, he said.
Dole's notification requirement was in an amendment she offered Wednesday to a broad military money bill before the legislation was pulled from the floor in a showdown over Iraq. The larger bill may be back as soon as September.
Government health officials have estimated that as many as 1 million people may have been exposed during three decades of water contamination going back to 1957, a situation examined in a recent Associated Press investigation. The numbers include Marines in barracks and military families living on the sprawling Atlantic training and deployment base, and civilians who worked there.
"We cannot correct a past mistake by pretending that this contamination did not take place, and we cannot avoid the hard and unpleasant facts associated with this tragic situation," said Dole.
Her measure also aims to help answer questions about health effects by having those exposed give government health investigators information on their illnesses.
Declining to comment specifically on Dole's proposal, spokeswoman Capt. Amy Malugani said the Marines "continue to work closely" with Dole and other lawmakers on the issue.
The Corps is seeking "ways to improve and enhance our communications and notification processes," she said. The base in 1985 told residents about "minute, trace amounts" of contamination, when some levels had reached more than 200 times today's safe drinking water standards.
The groundwater contamination stemmed from industrial activity and hazardous waste on the base and from a neighboring dry cleaner. Trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene, solvents used for degreasing and dry cleaning, and other toxic chemicals were identified in water sampling that eventually led to the well closures.
Studies have linked the chemicals to leukemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, birth defects and several other cancers.
Dole's amendment differs from an earlier measure that allows the military to reach out through the media rather than directly notifying those exposed, and requires notification only after completion of a government health study.
Dole's new measure would require notification to begin shortly after the bill's passage.
"Enough is enough," Dole said. "Our Marines and their families must be notified of what has happened."
Officials at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said they received some 1,500 calls from citizens who didn't know of the contamination until they read about it in an Associated Press investigative story and subsequent coverage of a congressional hearing in June. Many of those who called were former base residents who wondered if their cancers and other illnesses were related to it.
Source: Associated Press