Published 7:49 am Monday, June 18, 2007
answers and help
( This editorial originally appeared in The Daily News of Jacksonville.)
They joined the military to keep America safe from harm. Too bad America couldn’t return the favor.
It was hard to keep that thought at bay as a congressional committee opened hearings Tuesday concerning nearly three decades of groundwater contamination at a well in a family housing area aboard Camp Lejeune. Federal health officials with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the Centers for Disease Control, told members of Congress on Tuesday that Marine and Navy families living at Camp Lejeune from the 1950s to 1986 drank water contaminated with toxins as much as 40 times over today’s safety standard. They did so in what must have seemed the safety of their own homes — residences constructed, maintained and supplied by the military.
The information was part of a new scientific study about the contamination at Tarawa Terrace, which officials linked in 1987 to a nearby civilian dry-cleaning business and a combination of past wastewater disposal practices and leaking underground storage tanks.
It’s one of dozens of investigations and reports into the situation in which the residents were exposed to the industrial solvents TCE and PCE. Both substances are listed as carcinogens by the federal government. Residents blame the contamination for their own health problems as well as the high incidences of birth defects and diseases to their children.
While the problem wells have been capped and there is no known threat to current Marines, sailors or their families, it has now been more than two decades since the government first learned about the contamination. During that period, almost no action has been taken to relieve the years of turmoil and misery many military families faced as a result. The health agency estimated 75,000 people lived in the affected base neighborhood during those three decades. Many have voiced their complaints and concerns since the early 1990s to no avail.
One by one, former military members or their families addressed the House Energy and Commerce panel Tuesday and described their own personal health issues or those of family members — many of them children — who died as a result of the contamination. At least 850 former residents of Lejeune have filed administrative claims, seeking a total of nearly $4 billion.
A former Navy doctor, Michael Gros of Spring, Texas, testified that he suffers from non-Hodgkins lymphoma and has accumulated medical bills in excess of $4.5 million. He was a physician at Camp Lejeune in the 1980s.
This matter is now before Congress largely because of public outrage this year stemming from reports concerning the treatment of sick war veterans at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
Lawmakers should be applauded for taking on this matter, even if the hour is far too late for many impacted families.
What happens after the hearings is another story. Historically, little has been accomplished. This time, the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Office promised lawmakers it will ‘‘thoroughly analyze each and every claim utilizing the best scientific research available,’’ according to prepared testimony. It’s waiting for a government scientific study about how the water affected babies in utero.
Nowhere in that statement does it say ‘‘soon’’ or ‘‘quickly.’’ For people like Richlands resident Jerry Ensminger, the promise of the Navy judge advocate general might not be enough. Ensminger, a 24-year Marine veteran, believes he lost his daughter Janey as a result of the contamination.
On Tuesday, he told the congressional panel that, ‘‘It is time for the United States Marine Corps to live up to their motto ‘Semper Fidelis,’ always faithful.’’
Hopefully he won’t have to say that much longer.