WASHINGTON — A day after the Senate passed a bill designed to help sick Marines and their families who were poisoned by contaminated water at a North Carolina Marine Corps base, federal officials released thousands of old documents that detail what the Marines knew and when.
Calling the episode one of the worst environmental disasters to occur on a domestic military base, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., publicly released more than 8,000 Department of Defense documents relating to the historic drinking water contamination that occurred over several decades at Camp Lejeune.
“By getting hold of these documents, the truth is going to come out,” said Mike Partain, 44, who lived on the base as an infant and later learned he had breast cancer. “For so long, we have relied on what the Marines told us as being true. Now, we’re able to look over their shoulder and read the documents and decide for ourselves what is true and what is false.”
The release of the previously withheld documents builds momentum for a bill that would help up to 750,000 Marine veterans and their families who were exposed to the contaminated water from 1957 to 1987. It’s expected to come before the House within weeks and could be on the president’s desk by the end of the summer.
It’s a bit unclear how much is new in the documents. The massive amount of materials that date back to the 1950s – including letters and water studies – was released with hundreds of other documents that previously had been made available to experts and some media. But for such victims as Partain, the opportunity to sift through the documents for new insights is a chance to find out what really happened, he said.
Five years ago, Partain learned that he had breast cancer. Partain was born at Camp Lejeune, where his father was a Marine officer. Fewer than 2,000 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, but Partain said he’d since found 80 male breast cancer patients from across the country with connections to Camp Lejeune.
North Carolina lawmakers, such as Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who introduced the Senate bill, and Democrats Sen. Kay Hagan and Rep. Brad Miller, have been pushing lawmakers to provide the military families health care after what they say are decades of neglect by the Marines.
Hagan called the release of the documents a “step in the right direction” toward providing greater transparency on the tragic events.
“The Marines and family members affected by this terrible incident deserve answers,” she said.
Miller, who previously introduced a similar bill in the House, said it is past time to help Marine families like Partain’s.
“We’ve known for a long time that water was badly contaminated,” Miller said. “There have been birth defects. There have been rare cancers at levels that cannot be explained by anything else but because of the exposure to that water.”