Committee Questions Handling of Contaminated Water at Camp Lejeune

by U.S. Medicine

October 13, 2010

WASHINGTON, DC—A House subcommittee was critical of the military’s treatment of Marines and dependents who were exposed to contaminated drinking water while living at Camp Lejeune.

In 1980, warnings of the base’s drinking water began to surface and by the mid 1980s the wells located there were shut down. Since then, concern has arisen for the health of Marines and their dependents who, over a 30-year period, were believed to have potentially been exposed to toxic chemicals before the base shut down the wells. Questions have also arisen as to why the contaminated wells were not shut down sooner.

At a hearing held last month, Rep Brad Miller, D-NC, chairman of the Investigation and Oversight Subcommitte of the House Committe on Science and Technology, accused the Navy of “failing to act quickly or forcefully enough in the 1980s” to shut down wells it knew were contaminated.

Furthermore, while he said that he was pleased that VA has begun to extend benefits for cancers that it views as “more than likely than not” caused by drinking the water, he was critical that the Navy continues to wait for more scientific information before doing so. “Toxic chemicals and human health tends to be about probabilities, not certainties. Science will never give the Navy certainty and so long as they wait, no veteran and no family members will ever receive their due from the Navy,” Miller asserted.

Veterans Testify

Testifying before the subcommittee, James L Watters, a retired Navy Medical Service Corps commander who served at Camp Lejeune from 1977 to 1979, said that in November of 2007 he was diagnosed with advanced renal cell carcinoma. In 2008, he received a letter from the Marine Corps General advising him that he had been exposed to trichloroethylene (TCE) and other hazardous chemicals while serving at Camp Lejeune. He believes his renal cell carcinoma is linked to the TCE exposure.

He said he was eventually, after some difficulties, able to get his claim accepted by VA in order to obtain benefits for his family after his death, but that he was upset that the Marine Corps and Navy notified him by letter of this exposure 21 years after they knew. “It is important to note that this letter came 21 years after the USMC and the Department of Navy knew, in 1987, that I and many others had been exposed to volatile organic compounds,” he stated.

Two men who had been diagnosed with breast cancer said that they believe their cancer is linked to exposure at Camp Lejeune. Michael Partain said he was born on Camp Lejeune where he believes that his mother had been exposed to hazardous materials in the tap water during her pregnancy. He is one of 64 men who share the unique commonality of male breast cancer and exposure to contaminated tap water at Camp Lejeune.

Peter Devereaux was a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune in the 1980’s and he also testified of being diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. “I decided to move forward with genetic testing for the breast cancer gene, which I tested negative for both. It was then that I really understood my cancer came from my chemical exposure due to the chemicals in the drinking water,” he asserted.

Government Officials Testify

Testifying before the committee, Maj Gen Eugene Payne, Jr, who was formerly responsible for Marine Corps facilities including environmental protection, said that the Navy has funded $22 million in research to better understand how the contamination may have impacted Marines living there. A call center and internet-based notification registry were also established to collect contact information from anyone who believes they were affected by the contamination, and which will be used to provide current information on the issue to them. So far, Payne said that over 163,000 individuals have joined the registry.

The FY 2008 National Defense Authorization Act also mandated the Navy to attempt to directly notify former residents of Camp Lejeune of their potential exposure to the chemicals. The act also required the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to develop a health survey to be included with the notification letter.

Still, Payne acknowledged that he would have given anything to “roll back the clock” when asked by the subcommittee about whether there was anything in the last 30 years that he would change in the Marine Corps’ response to the water contamination. While he was not in this position, he acknowledged that some aspects of the handling of the matter were “astounding, ” adding “I have only worked on this for about three years, and one can only shake their head and wonder at some of things that did or did not occur.”

Christopher Portier, PhD, director for ATSDR, said that the agency is embarking on studies to better understand the impact of the contaminated water, such as a mortality study of former Marines and civilian employees who were at Camp Lejeune. In addition, a health survey will obtain information about cancers and other diseases thought to be related to exposures to the chemicals found in the drinking water.

ATSDR also removed a Public Health Assessment (PHA) completed in 1997 from its website last year that addressed environmental contamination at Camp Lejeune in light of new information it found suggesting the possibility of increased risks to those who were exposed. He said that the agency “plans to reassess the drinking water pathway and revise the PHA when water modeling analyses are completed.”

Thomas Pamperin, associate deputy undersecretary for policy and program management for VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, testified that VA is processing disability claims based on service at Camp Lejeune and possible exposure to chemical contaminants on a case-by-case basis because the science is currently inconclusive of the long-term health effects of the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. “Establishing presumptive diseases at this point would be premature.”

Devereaux and Watters, however, said that they wish that VA would “speed up” the disability claims process. “It was very difficult to go through this process and I hope that they speed up this process. There are a lot of people in my situation, who unfortunately, do not have a lot of time to live,” said Devereaux.

Furthermore, Devereaux and Watters said that they were concerned that dependents who may have health problems linked to the water cannot file a claim with the VA for their exposure since they are dependents and not veterans. “It would be unfair to not address their concerns and do something about their health issues,” said Watters.

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