RALEIGH, N.C. – Thousands of newly released documents about water contamination at Camp Lejeune add to the evidence that the military long knew about tainted tap water blamed for deaths and illnesses among Marines and their families, and that officials covered up the information for years, a North Carolina congressman said Friday.
"For the last 30 years, instead of saying there could be health effects and or even we don't know what the health effects are, they've minimized it," said Democratic Rep. Brad Miller.
On Thursday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., released more than 8,500 Department of Defense documents relating to the water contamination that continued at the base for decades. The release came the same week the Senate approved a bill to provide health care for Marines and their relatives who suffered because of the contamination. The bill covers Marines who lived or worked at the base from Jan. 1, 1957, to Dec. 31, 1987.
The House is expected to consider the amended bill by early August, Miller said. The Camp Lejeune provision is part of a larger bill about veterans' issues.
Water supplied to Camp Lejeune's main family housing areas was contaminated by dry cleaning solvents and other sources from the 1950s until 1987. Health officials believe as many as 1 million people may have been exposed to tainted water. Among them was Janey Ensminger, who was 9 when she died of leukemia in 1985. The bill providing health care for the victims is named after her.
Since her death, her father has pushed to uncover information about the contamination. Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine who lives in Elizabethtown, N.C., has started combing through the documents and said he has already found one from 1985 that describes trichloroethylene — or TCE — as toxic. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency didn't classify TCE as a known cause of cancer in humans until last September.
The Marines have said for years they didn't know at the time that TCE was harmful because it wasn't included in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, Ensminger said. "Yet they had it classified as toxic in their own documents and they're still lying about it," he said. "They classified it as a toxin, and yet it was OK for us to drink it?"
He added, "It's just appalling, their behavior up through today. The facts are, they have all these documents, and they knowingly poisoned their own people."
Capt. Greg Wolf, a Marine Corps spokesman, said the Marines don't talk about pending legislation, but will do whatever lawmakers and the president ask them to do. The Marines had no comment on the documents released this week, he said.
It's not immediately clear what may be new in the 8,000 pages of documents. Some are related only tangentially to the toxic water probe. For example, a document from the 1980s outlines steps to sanitize kitchen supplies. It appears to have been included because one of the solvents used as a cleaner can break down into a toxic pollutant in drinking water.
Ensminger called on Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., to hold a hearing of the emerging threats subcommittee, which she chairs as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "What more serious emerging threat to national security is there than leaders of our military poisoning their own people and lying to hide it?" he asked.
A Hagan spokeswoman said the senator supports a hearing before the full committee.
Even within the last three years, Miller said, the Marines and the Department of the Navy have resisted providing documents that could help people who have told him they would have sought medical care at the earliest symptoms had they known they were in danger.
Instead, they waited and many now face a grim prognosis, he said. "There really are consequences to wanting this to go away and not admit this is a problem," he said.
Ensminger said he believes the Marines knew the base residents would move on and assumed that if they got ill, they wouldn't connect their health to the contaminated water. "They weren't counting on one angry parent and the Internet," he said.
Camp Lejeune documents released by Senate Judiciary Committee: — http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/CampLejeuneIndex.htm
Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc