Article published Jun 13, 2007
Mother wants apology from Marines in death
By Sonja Elmquist
News & Record

GREENSBORO — The Marines can't help Sweet Elizabeth Swinton anymore.

Swinton died in 2004, just before her 30th birthday, after fighting colon cancer for nine years.

And Swinton's mother, Valorie Swinton, doesn't want the Marines' help.

She wants them to apologize for giving her family contaminated water while they lived on base.

"It's about the government admitting they hurt my baby," Swinton said from her Greensboro home.

Federal health investigators said Tuesday that over three decades, Marine families who lived at Camp Lejeune drank water contaminated with toxins as much as 40 times over today's safety standard.

Swinton believes that the water she drank while pregnant at the Marine base caused the cancer that killed her daughter.

Other Marine families shared similar stories in testimony before Congress on Tuesday. They spoke of cancers and other illnesses they blame on drinking tainted tap water at the sprawling training and deployment base.

As many as 1 million people were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune — 75,000 of whom lived in the affected base neighborhood, according to a document from a federal health agency disclosed at Tuesday's congressional hearing.

At least 850 former residents of the base have filed administrative claims, seeking nearly $4 billion, for exposure to the industrial solvents TCE and PCE that contaminated Camp Lejeune's drinking wells before 1987.

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said its new modeling and analysis of Camp Lejeune's Tarawa Terrace drinking water system from 1957 to 1987 found levels of PCE as high as 200 parts per billion. Federal regulators in 1992 set 5 parts per billion as the maximum allowable level.

TCE, or trichloroethylene, is a degreasing solvent, and PCE, or tetrachloroethylene, is a dry cleaning agent. The government describes them as probable carcinogens.

The newly released study is part of the health agency's ongoing investigation into whether exposure to the solvents caused birth defects and leukemia in babies.

The water was believed contaminated by a dry cleaner adjacent to Camp Lejeune and by industrial activities on the base.

Born at Camp Lejeune's naval hospital in 1975, Sweet Swinton's parents lived in base housing at Tarawa Terrace.

The Navy Judge Advocate General's office promised lawmakers it will "thoroughly analyze each and every claim utilizing the best scientific research available." It is waiting for a government scientific study about how the water affected babies in utero.

Marine Corps officials said that Camp Lejeune provided water consistent with industry practices of the time, and that its Marines' health and safety are of primary concern.

Marine officials have said they didn't immediately act when they learned of the contaminants because the federal standards were not yet in place.

Swinton said she has devoted her life to helping others, as a Marine, a police officer and as a flight attendant.

"I've spent my life trying to take care of other people — people I'm not kin to," Swinton said. "I love this country ... I promise you I'm the best patriot in the world.

"The reason I'm upset is they are still saying they didn't do this."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Sonja Elmquist at 373-7090 or