View Full Version : 23 military bases have tainted water

06-19-07, 12:56 PM
23 military bases have tainted water
Lejeune, Barstow on contamination list
By Kimberly Johnson - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Jun 18, 2007 21:53:40 EDT

Congressional lawmakers who were examining extensive drinking water contamination from the 1960s through the 1980s at Camp Lejeune, N.C., now say that the problem extends to 22 other bases throughout the country, to varying degrees.

In 1980, military officials at Lejeune discovered the presence of trichloroethylene (TCE), a volatile organic compound used by the military and by civilian businesses, such as dry cleaners, said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce’s subcommittee on oversights and investigations. As a result, 10 wells at the base were shut down by 1987 after their TCE contamination was found to be 1,400 parts per billion, well above the government’s maximum level of 5 ppb.

“TCE is the most widespread water contaminant in the nation, and almost every major military base has a Superfund site with TCE contamination,” Stupak said.

At least 850 former residents of the base have filed administrative claims, seeking nearly $4 billion, for exposure to the industrial solvents.

The Navy Judge Advocate General’s office promised lawmakers it will “thoroughly analyze each and every claim utilizing the best scientific research available,” The Associated Press reported.

Citing a list of 23 military bases with contaminated groundwater compiled by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Stupak pressed the agency in a June 6 letter to give lawmakers more information on just how much exposure military personnel have received over the years.

The agency has compiled detailed reports on the history of the base contaminations and offers recommendations, such as strategies for monitoring pollutants and the need for public awareness campaigns to inform affected residents. The agency, however, acts as an adviser and has no regulatory power.

Groundwater contamination at or near military bases is widespread, and far surpasses the ATSDR list of 23, said one environmental watchdog group.

“Camp Lejeune is a microcosm of what’s happening all over this nation,” said Doris Bradshaw, board chair for the environmental watchdog group Military Toxics Project, based in Lewiston, Maine. “I feel for that community because there are hundreds of communities dealing with this same issue.”

At-risk bases are older, and use groundwater as a water supply, Bradshaw said.

“If it has groundwater, nine out of 10 times, it will have contamination,” especially if built before World War II, she explained. “There were no guidelines for how to dispose of certain types of items. They would just dig a hole and throw them in.”

Toxic culprits include munitions, solvents and what Bradshaw called a “toxic soup, or dumping “everything from A to Z” into the ground.

“People are sick around these sites,” she said. “It doesn’t just stop on the site. You can’t contain water. It’s impossible to contain.”

“These sites need to be dug up all over America,” Bradshaw said.

ATSDR’s list of 23 bases includes Air Force and Army installations, as well as Lejeune and Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, Calif., which reported TCE groundwater contamination at 25 parts per billion. In its report on Barstow, ATSDR said the base posed “no apparent public health hazard” because levels were relatively low and monitored regularly.

“Camp Lejeune is the poster boy for contaminated drinking water on a military base, but it certainly is not the only one,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Commerce and Energy Committee. “Based on the data we have uncovered, some of these facilities likely had exposures in excess of what we know occurred at Camp Lejeune,” he said.

“Our hope is that we can expand beyond Lejeune,” said a Barton spokesman. “The others deserve attention, too.”

A Defense Department spokesman could not immediately comment on the problems affecting the 23 bases.
Problems at Lejeune

At the hearing, lawmakers and witnesses said thousands of Marine families who lived at Lejeune over three decades drank and bathed in water contaminated with toxins as much as 40 times over today’s safety standard.

Corps officials insist that base water is safe to drink, and has been since the mid-1980s, when the contaminated wells were shut down. “Drinking water is checked for [volatile organic compounds] quarterly — more frequently than required by law — to ensure water is not impacted,” the Corps said in a June 13 statement.

“U.S. laws and regulations have evolved significantly over the last 50 years,” Kelly Dreyer, environmental restoration program manager for Marine Corps headquarters, wrote in a June 14 e-mail response to questions. “With these laws and regulations, along with specific knowledge, the Marine Corps has initiated numerous programs to minimize the use of hazardous substances, promote responsible use of chemicals and to promptly address contamination should it occur,” she said.

When asked, however, Dreyer could not say exactly what the largest contamination threat is on Marine bases. “We are currently researching to determine the most prevalent chemical/constituent that is currently being cleaned up under the Marine Corps Installation Restoration Program,” she said.

The initial contamination — and subsequent inaction and cover-up by defense officials — is responsible for widespread cancer-causing chemical poisoning, former Lejeune staff obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Michael Gros told the panel. Gros, who lived at Lejeune in the 1980s, was one of several witnesses giving personal accounts of the pollution’s impact. The water contamination led to his lymphoma, which he estimated has cost more than $4.5 million to treat, Gros said.

Former Lejeune resident Jerome Ensminger, who lost his nine-year-old daughter to leukemia in 1985, blasted the Corps’ failure to notify base residents of the threat. Most of those exposed at Lejeune are unaware of it, he said. “They have not been notified and the [Corps] has to date refused to institute any type of legitimate plan or policy.” The Corps has downplayed the issue, he said, citing internal Corps e-mails showing that Marine officials changed wording related to the issue, insisting on calling the chemicals “volatile organic compounds.”

“They’ve been playing a game. It’s a game of minimization,” Ensminger said.

Maj. Gen. Robert Dickerson, commander of Marine Corps Installations-East, defended the Corps’ efforts to notify those potentially exposed to the contaminated drinking water, saying the service launched a media awareness campaign and created a Web site on the issue.

“We made every attempt to get the information out,” Dickerson told lawmakers. Efforts have been complicated by a lack of contact information for those living at the base at the time, he said.

“This unfortunate situation happened over 20 years ago, and while there are still large gaps of knowledge on potential health implications due to exposure to TCE or [perchloroethylene] today, these gaps were even greater back in the 1980s,” Dickerson said.

Lejeune contamination is widespread, with more than 46 sites tapped for cleanup, said Franklin Hill, a Superfund director for the Environmental Protection Agency. About $100 million has been spent on base cleanup so far, he said, adding that the remedies will all be launched by 2014.

Dreyer said she was not immediately able to comment on Corps efforts to clean up the Barstow contamination.

List of bases affected