WASHINGTON — Angered by what they consider the military's reticence to reveal all it knows about decades of water contamination on a North Carolina Marine base, lawmakers want to force the Marine Corps and the Navy to produce an inventory of all the documentation scientists need to understand the contamination.
Senators and members of the House of Representatives have inserted language into the 2011 defense authorization bill that would require Defense Secretary Robert Gates to certify that the military has done so.
More than a million people are thought to have been exposed to the contaminated water from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. Some 156,000 people from all 50 states have registered with the Marines to get information on the contamination, which many say has caused a variety of cancers and other ailments.
The House version of the bill gives the Defense Department 180 days to act; the Senate version offers 90 days.
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For the past year, federal scientists have complained that the Marine Corps and its parent agency, the Department of the Navy, haven't been fully open about the reams of documentation the military holds on the tainted water.
"The military stalled for three decades," said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "To carry out their study, (scientists) have got to have all relevant documents, and the Navy has been less than helpful at providing those."
The dispute among Congress, the military and scientists at an obscure federal agency in Atlanta opens a window into how a behind-the-scenes battle among bureaucrats can have lasting effects on thousands of people nationwide.
Accurate science on the poisons' effects could prove crucial in lawsuits against the U.S. government by Marines' family members, and to veterans who are trying to receive health benefits related to their service at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
"We are at a crucial point. We must get this right now," said Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., the head of the House Science and Technology Committee's oversight panel, who worked to shape the House defense bill.
A year ago, a new discovery about benzene — a key component of gasoline — forced the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to toss out a 10-year-old study about the water's impact on health.
The agency, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is responsible for studying the health effects of major contamination sites around the country.
This winter, McClatchy reported on documents that show that up to 800,000 gallons of fuel spilled into aquifers that fed barracks, officers' quarters and the base's hospital, far more than previously had been estimated.
"Every study would have changed dramatically if they'd known what the concentrations were, because the concentration of benzene would've been higher," said Burr, who also sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In March, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry wrote the military questioning whether the Pentagon had turned over everything it promised, pointing out another new discovery, 700,000 records of analytical data.
The Navy responded that it doesn't have the expertise to know exactly what papers the scientists want. Military officers also said they'd been completely open with the scientists.
"ATSDR has always had, and will continue to have, full access to all information we control related to water contamination at Camp Lejeune," the Marines said in a news statement last month.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., argued that the scientists shouldn't have to go hunting for what they need.
"These provisions will help conclude the Camp Lejeune water contamination studies and, most importantly, bring closure to our former Lejeune families, who have been waiting too long for answers," said Hagan, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a co-sponsor of the Senate language.
The documentation involved in the contamination is voluminous.
McClatchy has reviewed thousands of pages of documents on the matter. They include years' worth of water tests, handwritten scrawls about phone conversations, internal memos, meeting minutes and detailed reports from outside engineering firms about the likely flow and scientific properties of various chemicals.
Ongoing scientific studies could help determine a link between chemicals in the water and the various cancers and other ailments that many Marines and their family members suffer.
For years, federal scientists thought that the main contaminants in the water were trichloroethylene, known as TCE; and tetrachloroethylene, known as PCE. The Environmental Protection Agency lists both as probable carcinogens, and both have been linked to kidney and liver problems and birth defects.
About a year ago, however, scientists stumbled across an online library of thousands of documents that included reports, memos and water tests. They learned that benzene, a known carcinogen, was found in some of the water in 1984 at 380 parts per billion, more than 70 times the current federal standard.
At the time, benzene was considered dangerous but was unregulated. It's been linked to low birth weight, leukemia and blood problems, and the EPA now recommends a benzene content in drinking water of zero.
Last year's discovery was so significant that scientists withdrew a 10-year-old study on the water.
Retired Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger of White Lake, N.C., who's spent years trying to understand the contamination, lost his daughter to leukemia in 1985 after living at Camp Lejeune.
He praised the congressional work on the amendments, saying the legislation is needed to force action by the military and the scientists.
"I, along with many other victims of this tragic issue, are having a difficult time believing the sincerity of their statements," Ensminger said of the Marines. He said the military hadn't fulfilled a memorandum of understanding between the Navy and federal scientists that was signed in 1991.
Scientists have begun new studies, including an epidemiological study and a water modeling project that tries to track how contaminants would have dissipated through the aquifer and been drawn into the base's well system.
"It is unfortunate we must require something as simple as this by statute," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who co-sponsored the House amendment. "But 23 years after the contaminated wells were shut down, we have had enough delay from the Department of the Navy."
The Senate defense authorization bill, which has yet to be debated in the full Senate, also would forbid the Navy from spending money to refute financial claims about the water contamination until the scientific studies are completed.
The House amendment, which passed late Thursday, doesn't include that language.
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