Report on Marines’ water omitted cancer chemical
By Kevin Maurer, Associated Press, 2/19/10
WILMINGTON, N.C. — An environmental contractor dramatically
underreported the level of a cancer-causing chemical found in tap
water at Camp Lejeune, then omitted it altogether as the Marine base
prepared for a federal health review, an Associated Press review has
The Marine Corps had been warned nearly a decade earlier about the
dangerously high levels of benzene, which was traced to massive leaks
from fuel tanks at the base on the North Carolina coast, according to
recently disclosed studies.
For years, Marines who served at Camp Lejeune have blamed their
families' cancers and other ailments on tap water tainted by dry
cleaning solvents, and many accuse the military of covering it up.
The benzene was discovered as part of a broader, ongoing probe into
When water was sampled in July 1984, scientists found benzene in a
well near the base's Hadnot Point Fuel Farm at levels of 380 parts
per billion, according to a water tests done by a contractor. A year
later, in a report summarizing the 1984 sampling, the same contractor
pointed out the benzene concentration "far exceeds" the safety limit
set by federal regulators at 5 parts per billion.
The Marines were still studying the water contamination in 1991 when
another contractor again warned the Navy of the health hazards posed
by such levels of benzene.
By 1992, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease, an arm
of the Department of Health and Human Services, showed up at the base
to begin a health risk assessment. That's when a third contractor,
the Michael Baker Corp., released a draft report on the feasibility
of fixing the overall problem.
In it, the 1984 level on the well of 380 parts per billion had
changed to 38 parts per billion. The company's final report on the
well, issued in 1994, made no mention of the benzene.
Not only hasn't the benzene disappeared from the now-closed wells,
it's gotten much worse over time. One sample from a series of tests
conducted from June 2007 to August 2009 registered 3,490 parts per
billion, according to a report from a fourth contractor.
Kyla Bennett, who spent 10 years as an enforcement officer for the
Environmental Protection Agency before becoming an ecologist and
environmental attorney, reviewed the different reports and said it
was difficult to conclude innocent mistakes were made in the Baker
"It is weird that it went from 380 to 38 and then it disappeared
entirely," she said. "It does support the contention that they did do
News of Baker Corp.'s handling of the benzene levels has ex-Lejeune
residents questioning anew the honesty of a military they accuse of
endangering their lives.
"It is a shame that an institution founded on honor and integrity
would resort to open deceit in order to protect their reputation at
the cost of the health, safety and welfare of its service men, women
and their families," said Mike Partain, a 42-year-old who lives in
Tallahassee, Fla., but was born at Lejeune and diagnosed with breast
cancer in 2007.
Capt. Brian Block, a Marine Corps spokesman, took exception to
characterizing the conflicting information in the reports as anything
"It was probably just a mistake on the part of the contractor, but I
can't tell you for certain why that happened," he said.
David Higie, a spokesman for Baker Corp., declined to discuss the
company's reports or why its employees might have revised the benzene
levels. He referred questions to the military.
Block said Camp Lejeune held a news conference to alert residents of
problems with the water system in 1985 and has spent millions of
dollars in outreach and studies. "The Marine Corps has never tried to
hide any of this information," he said.
The discrepancies in the reports were tucked inside thousands of
documents the Marines released last year to the Agency for Toxic
Substances as part of the Marines' long-running review of water
supplied to Camp Lejeune's main family housing areas. That water was
contaminated by fuel and cleaning solvents from the 1950s through the
1980s, and health officials believe as many as 1 million people may
have been exposed to the toxins before the wells that supplied the
tainted water were closed two decades ago.
The newly discovered records, first reported Sunday by McClatchy News
Service, show that a water well contaminated by leaking fuel was left
functioning for at least five months after a sampling discovered it
was tainted with benzene in 1984.
Benzene, a carcinogen, is a natural part of crude oil and gasoline.
Drinking water containing high levels of it can cause vomiting,
dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, and death and long-term exposure
damages bone marrow, lowers red blood cells and can cause anemia and
leukemia, according to the EPA.
Camp Lejeune environmental engineer Robert Alexander was quoted in
1985 as saying no one "had been directly exposed" to contaminants,
including benzene. In December, Alexander told the AP he didn't
recall anything about the well contaminated with the benzene or the
ensuing studies that failed to account for its toxicity, but said
that the methods at the time were still being perfected, and that he
and the other base officials did the best they could.
The records indicate the military knew a lot of specifics.
For years the Marine Corps knew the fuel farm, built in 1941, was
leaking 1,500 gallons a month and did nothing to stop it, according
to a 1988 memo from a Camp Lejeune lawyer to the base's assistant
facilities manager. "It's an indefensible waste of money and a
continuing potential threat to human health and the environment,"
wrote Staff Judge Advocate A.P. Tokarz.
Minutes of a 1996 meeting with Moon Township, Pa.-based Baker Corp.,
the third contractor, indicate the fuel farm had lost 800,000 gallons
of fuel, of which 500,000 gallons had been recovered. Benzene was "in
the deeper portion of the aquifer" and the "fuel farm is definitely
the source," the minutes quote a Michael Baker employee as saying.
The Coast Guard categorizes any coastal oil spill larger than 100,000
gallons as major.
Former Marines and Camp Lejeune residents continue to fight for a
compensation program and to fund a mortality study that would
determine if Marines and sailors who were exposed to these
contaminants suffer from a higher death rate. The Senate passed
legislation in September backed by Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and
Kay Hagan, D-N.C., preventing the military from dismissing claims
related to water contamination pending completion of the several
studies, including the mortality study.
"These people knowingly exposed us to these high levels of
contaminants and now they don't want to know if their negligence
caused harm to the people they say they care so much about?" said
Jerry Ensminger, a retired master sergeant who lived at the base and
lost his 9-year-old daughter to leukemia. "There is definitely
something wrong with this picture."
Snipped from NYCOSH NEWSLINE - February 19, 2010
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