Sunday, February 01, 2004


Tainted Water in the Land of Semper Fi
Marines Want to Know Why Base Did Not Close Wells When Toxins Were Found

By Manuel Roig-Franzia and Catharine Skipp
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 28, 2004; Page A03


A military engineer assigned in 1980 to test the drinking water at this
sprawling Marine Corps base punctuated his findings with a handwritten
exclamation point.

William C. Neal wrote in capital letters on one of his surveillance reports
in early 1981.

A private firm followed up with tests the next year. One of its samples
showed an astonishing result: 1,400 parts per billion -- 280 times the level
now considered safe for drinking water -- of trichloroethylene, a likely
cancer-causing chemical used for degreasing machinery that can impair the
development of fetuses, weaken the immune system, and damage kidneys and
livers. Other samples showed as little as 1 part per billion to as many as
104 parts per billion -- more than 20 times the level now considered safe --
of tetrachloroethylene, a toxic dry-cleaning chemical that can seep into
body fat and slowly release cancer-causing compounds.

The number of people who may have drunk the tainted water, bathed in it, had
water fights with it is staggering: The Marine Corps estimates 50,000
Marines and their families lived in base housing areas that may have been
fed by the wells before they were closed in 1985. Victim advocacy groups
place the figure even higher, at 200,000, which would make Camp Lejeune one
of the largest contaminated-water cases in U.S. history.

Already, more than 270 tort claims have been filed with the Navy's judge
advocate general's office by former residents, who are required by law to
file claims with the military before proceeding with any possible action in
civilian courts.

One of those claims was filed by a Marine air traffic controller named Jeff
Byron. Within months of the 1982 tests, Byron moved his family into base
housing at Lejeune, grateful to leave behind a rickety mobile home in favor
of a modest townhouse with a postage-stamp back yard. Byron and his wife,
Mary, were not told about the water-sampling results, and nearly two decades
would pass before they would find out about them. Now he wakes up thinking
about all the frozen lemonade and apple juice he mixed with tap water for
Andrea, who was born three months before he moved on base, and for Rachel,
who was born two years after.

Both of his girls have been beset with a lifetime of ailments: Rachel, who
is developmentally disabled, was born with a cleft palate and needed leg
braces as a child. She has spina bifida; a gangly, arachnoid cyst on her
spine that cannot be removed; and brittle, rotting teeth. Andrea had a rare
bone marrow syndrome known as aplastic anemia and has been told by her
doctors that the disease could recur if she becomes pregnant.

"I find myself asking, 'What if I hadn't joined the Marine Corps?' " said
Byron, who left the military for the private sector in 1985.

No one knows for sure whether the water at Lejeune made Byron's children ill
or whether it sickened thousands of other former residents -- both Marines
and civilians living on base -- hundreds of whom have organized into a
lobbying group known as Water Survivors. The group's members blame the
contamination for a variety of ills, from chronic headaches to virulent
cancers, from infertility to the incurable leukemia that claimed their
children's lives.

The battle over the water contamination at Lejeune has strained age-old
loyalties, matching Marine veterans against the power structure of an
organization that prides itself in the motto Semper Fidelis, or "always
faithful." The Marine Corps has not denied that contamination took place at

In a written response to questions from The Washington Post, the Corps said
the wells were not shut down for five years because there were no federal
drinking-water regulations then for the chemicals found in Lejeune's water:
trichloroethylene, or TCE, the metal degreaser that federal researchers say
was kept in leaky underground storage tanks, and tetrachloroethylene, or
PCE, which researchers believe leaked into the wells from a dry cleaner that
still operates across the street from Lejeune's main gate. The Environmental
Protection Agency had recommended levels -- not enforceable standards -- at
the time, and the Corps said the average contamination readings for TCE were
below those levels and that the PCE readings were "only slightly above"
those levels.

In recent months, the contamination case has drawn the attention of the
EPA's criminal enforcement division, which has dispatched investigators to
gather information about the history of contamination at the base. There
also is pressure on Capitol Hill. Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), the
ranking minority member of the Senate Environment and Public Works
Committee, says hearings are warranted.

"I have very serious questions about why the Marine Corps, who knew the
drinking-water wells were highly contaminated in 1980, didn't close them
until 1985," Jeffords, a Navy veteran, said in an interview. "Sunshine is
always the best disinfectant. . . . We have a strong obligation to provide
all the information we already have to the Marines and their families."

For many former residents, the contamination saga did not begin until 1999,
when they received questionnaires from the Agency for Toxic Substances and
Disease Registry, or ATSDR, which studies polluted Superfund sites, such as

The ATSDR, which focused its research on women who were pregnant while
living on base from 1968 to 1985, issued a progress report in July that
identified 103 cases of birth defects or childhood cancers among nearly
12,600 births included in the survey. Jeffords and his research staff say
the rate is three to five times the normal rate.

The Marine Corps has vowed to cooperate with the study. In a videotaped
statement accompanying the public release of the ATSDR progress report, Lt.
Gen. Rick Kelly, deputy commandant for installations and logistics, said, "I
want you to know that the welfare of our extended Marine Corps family is
very important to the commandant and me." He closed his remarks with the
words semper fidelis.

The release of the ATSDR report came after three years of often bitter
clashes between members of Water Survivors, who used the Freedom of
Information Act to gather mounds of evidence that they say proves federal
officials have not been forthcoming about the contamination, and the Marine
Corps and federal researchers. In a series of 1998 e-mails recently
disclosed on the Marines' Web site, officials at Lejeune discussed how
public concern about water contamination could be stoked by the release of
the film "A Civil Action," which traced the legal battle over contaminated
drinking-water wells in Woburn, Mass.

"Just a thought," Neal Paul, director of Lejeune's toxic cleanup program,
wrote to an official at Marine headquarters. "With the movie coming out in
Dec., can we delay the questionnaires until April/May time frame?" An ATSDR
spokesman said the timing of the survey was not influenced by the Marines.

The ATSDR estimates that the Lejeune wells may have been contaminated as
many as 30 years before being closed -- going back to the mid-1950s -- a
projection that would greatly expand the number of potential contamination
victims to encompass the massive buildup of troops at Lejeune between the
Korean and Vietnam wars. Marine Corps officials described the projection as
"opinion or conjecture" in its written response to questions.

Extending the contamination dates to the 1950s would draw in veterans, such
as Tom Townsend, a retired Marine major, whose wife, Anne, is ineligible for
the study because she was pregnant with their third child, Christopher, in
1966 -- two years before the start date of the ATSDR study, which was chosen
because it marks the beginning of computerized birth records in North

Christopher always had a "strange cry," Anne Townsend recalled, "not a
healthy, full-wallop cry." Christopher's father, who was on duty in Vieques,
Puerto Rico, got home just in time to see him die of a heart defect when he
was 3 months old.

Tom Townsend trades documents and talks strategy with Jerry Ensminger,
another retired Marine once based at Lejeune, whose eyes still well with
tears when he talks about Janey, the 6-year-old daughter he lost to leukemia
in 1985. Ensminger said he wonders whether doctors would have been able to
change her treatment if they had known about the contamination.

For Townsend and Ensminger, one of the most galling pieces of paper they
have unearthed is a notice sent in 1985 to residents of Tarawa Terrace, a
large housing development at Lejeune where Byron and Ensminger once lived,
by the base's then-commander, Maj. Gen. Louis H. Buehl. The notice announces
the closure of two wells because "minute (trace) amounts of several organic
chemicals have been detected," though it does not specify which chemicals
were found.

Some water-contamination experts believe the lack of enforceable regulatory
standards for the chemicals would be a weak defense if the case ever made it
into the courts.

"Even in those days, that would have constituted pretty close to a
drinking-water crisis," said Richard Maas, director of the environmental
studies department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. "That
information was all out there; it was being used in the late 1970s and early
1980s. . . . If a typical town had done that [sampling], they probably would
have abandoned that as a water source."

Finding out who may have been exposed to the tainted water at Lejeune is
proving to be a monumental task. The ATSDR is poring over aging maps and
pipe diagrams to glean where the water flowed and when. The research is
further complicated by the transitory nature of military life -- many of the
Marines who may have consumed tainted water lived on base for only a few
years and have since moved.

The ATSDR has been assailed by the Water Survivors group and by Jeffords for
limiting the scope of the study to pregnant women.

"We didn't want the whole world to know, or they'd all start calling -- we
couldn't handle that," said Marie L. Socha, an ATSDR researcher who has
worked on the Camp Lejeune project.

The agency has determined that the chemicals would not affect the health of
adults, a contention disputed by Michael Gros, an obstetrician at Lejeune
from 1980 to 1983. Gros, who has T-cell lymphoma and can no longer practice,
has been pushing for the ATSDR to notify all former residents, regardless of

"They've just done the biggest ghoulish experiment on adults, and they don't
want to know the results," Gros said. "What's happening while they're
stalling us is everybody's gone hither and yon, and they're dying."

Leaders of the Water Survivors group, increasingly skeptical about the pace
of federal research, are hoping the possibility of congressional hearings
could speed their efforts to get compensation for the medical bills of
possible victims.

"We want to force these people, under oath, to come in and talk about this
stuff," Gros said. "How do you know your water is contaminated for five
years and do nothing about it? How do you explain that away?"

But, for all the passion, some of Ensminger's old Marine pals want him to
let up.

"They say, 'Semper fidelis -- give 'em a break. Why do you want to hurt the
Corps?' " said Ensminger, a former master sergeant who retired in 1994 after
241/2 years in the Corps.

But an image that rattles around inside Ensminger's stubborn, crew-cut head
will not let him give up. He sees Janey, all big, brown eyes and silly
smiles, watching him as her doctors advised him to stop treatment because
there was no hope. Janey looked up at them, Ensminger recalls, and said:
"You're talking about me. I'm not dead. You're not giving up on me."

One week later, she was gone.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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