Point of View

Congress and Camp Lejeune's water

January 10, 2012 

The contamination of Camp Lejeune's water supply, which involves several hundred thousand Marines, sailors, their families and civilian employees who were posted to the installation from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, is a sad chapter in the Marine Corps' otherwise superlative history.

In 1963, the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery issued standards for potable water, which stated that drinking water would be free of any foreign substances, including those known to cause harm and those for which the physiological effects were not known. Despite persistent rumors throughout the 1960s that the installation's drinking water had a strange smell and a conspicuous coloration on its surface, Camp Lejeune officials ignored this water safety directive.

The same directive was revised in 1972 to exclude the use of water sources that tested positive for chlorinated hydrocarbons, compounds found in cleaning solvents, above minute levels. Installation officials, as they had over the past decade, made no effort to ensure the purity and safety of their drinking water.

Only in 1980 did Camp Lejeune officials contract for laboratory analysis of the post drinking water to determine if total trihalomethanes (TTHMs), a byproduct of chlorinating water, were present at harmful levels. The Army's Environmental Hygiene Agency found that other contaminants were present in such high levels that they rendered tests for TTHMs inaccurate. In a series of lab reports, the Army lab's chief of services informed installation officials in increasingly blunt terms that solvents were present in high levels. A private-sector lab reported the same findings. Despite evidence that the installation's tap water was contaminated, the command group ordered no further tests.

What eventually forced the gradual disclosure by installation officials that Camp Lejeune's water was contaminated was passage of the Safe Water Drinking Act, which transferred responsibility for administering all laws pertaining to potable water to the State of North Carolina in 1980. However, according to testimony given by state officials, only in 1984 were they told of the water contamination.

By 1985, Environmental Protection Agency officials realized the scope of the problem, and recommended that Camp Lejeune be added to its National Priorities List - that it be named a Superfund site. Four years later, Camp Lejeune was declared a Superfund site. Eventually, 13 of the installation's wells were found to be contaminated, some of them at levels far above maximum allowable levels.

There was a determination last fall by the EPA that trichloroethylene (TCE), a common chemical degreasing agent, is a human carcinogen, linked to kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, liver cancer. Along with vinyl chloride and benzene, that brings to three the number of known carcinogens found in high concentrations in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune over this 30-year period.

Much of the human suffering caused by this problem could have been avoided if, years ago, some educated soul had picked up the phone and requested a water analysis, if only to err on the side of caution.

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I fought to expose the facts about the Camp Lejeune water contamination and to expedite notification to all potential victims. My legislation requiring the Pentagon to provide such direct notification through a registry was signed into law. The Corps, however, has not utilized the registry to directly inform military families about the EPA's determination.

The provision of medical care for the people made ill by the contaminants in the installation's drinking water must now be addressed through the legislative process. The cost of that care may eventually be high in terms of dollars. We must, nevertheless, meet our nation's ethical and moral responsibilities.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., are to be commended for their sponsorship of legislation that would provide medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs for individuals who suffer from one or more of these cancers or other health effects and who are known to have served or lived at Camp Lejeune during the years in question. Passage of their legislation and its enactment into law are the necessary next steps.

While passage of Burr's bill looks promising, there is opposition in the House of Representatives to Miller's bill on fiscal grounds. To argue that the United States should not provide medical care to its veterans and their families, whether those injuries were sustained in combat, during training or due to exposure to dangerous chemicals on post, is unconscionable and indefensible.

Elizabeth Dole served as a Republican U.S. senator from North Carolina from 2003 to 2009.

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